this week offers shergar; conscription; a royal marriage; murder; execution; working wounded; st valentine’s day

Wednesday 8th February 1983 was the day the racehorse Shergar was stolen from its stables at the Ballymany stud in Newbridge, County Kildare, Ireland. At about 8.30 on that winter evening a Ford Granada pulling a horsebox, a van and another car entered the stable yard where Shergar ‘lived’. Two masked and armed men burst into the home of head groom Jim Fitzgerald, locked his family in a downstairs room, and forced him – at gunpoint – to release Shergar from his security protected stable.
There were six raiders in total and they pushed the horse and Jim into a horsebox and drove off. Jim was released four hours later some 40 miles away from the stud farm. The gang told him that they would telephone a ransom demand by lunchtime the next day.
Jim called the police, was picked up and questioned by detectives for several hours before he was released. The police then put listening devices in his home in preparation for the promised telephone call. It was not until the morning of 10th February that a ransom demand was phoned through. £2 million was demanded but, by the end of that day, the ransom figure had dropped to £40,000, the equivalent of £1,000 for each of the 40 shares in the horse. All 34 of the shareholders refused to pay the money on the basis that they wanted to deter future kidnappings. Over the following days there were numerous hoax calls and false alarms received by the police and media about sightings of the horse.
Shergar was never found; the insurers refused to pay out without evidence of the horse’s death; and his kidnappers have never been officially identified. Sean O’Callaghan, a former IRA member turned informer, later wrote in his book ‘The Informer’ that the horse had been killed by its abductors soon after it was taken because they were unable to handle him.
Nicknamed “Shergar – the wonder-horse” after the 1950s film and television ‘Champion the Wonder Horse’, this ‘wonder horse’ had been named European Horse of the Year in 1981 and had retired from racing that same September. Lloyds of London had carried an insurance premium of £300,000 when he was in competition and valued him at £10 million at stud.

Wednesday 9th February 1916: This day’s Liverpool Echo told its’ readers that the British Military Service (conscription) Act came into force today.
On Page 4 they stated: COMPULSION ACT IN OPERATION: It should be made clear that the last day for voluntary attestation for single men will be March 1st. On the following day – March 2nd – all single unattested men will be conscripted. Meanwhile, a Proclamation under the Military Service Bill, calling up eleven classes of men, will be posted throughout the country today.
It then quotes an edited ‘chapter & verse’ of those eleven changes.
Page 6 of the same newspaper headlined: THE FIRST PROCLAMATION POSTED TODAY:
As indicated on Page 4, a proclamation calling to the colours the first eleven classes from 2 to 12 (comprising single men between and including the ages of 19 and 29) was posted in London today. Details of the proclamation will be found on the page mentioned.
Beneath this message is:
Eccles Town Council has decided to dismiss a municipal servant, who, on conscientious grounds, refuses to offer himself for military service. The Council discussed the matter for an hour and a half, and in the end, by 13 votes to 8, supported the action of the Financial Committee in giving the man notice.
The Military Service Act of 27th January 1916 had brought conscription into effect for the first time in the war. Along with the Defence of the Realm Act, it was possibly the most important piece of legislation in placing, as it did, Britain onto a “total war” footing. It said, in some detail, that:
Every British male subject who – on 15th August 1915 – was ordinarily resident in Great Britain and who had attained the age of 19 but was not yet 41 and – on 2nd November 1915 – was unmarried or a widower without dependent children, unless he met certain exceptions or had met the age of 41 before the appointed date – was deemed to have enlisted for general service with the colours or in the reserve and was forthwith transferred to the reserve. He now came under the controls specified in the Army Act. This was as of Thursday 2nd March 1916.

All the newspapers told the story in column after column after column – but not, perhaps in the way we would do now. The Worcestershire Chronicle of Wednesday, February 12th, 1840 gave the story six full columns – but only on page 2. It begins:
‘As soon as the light broke on the morning of this auspicious day the metropolis presented in every district all the characteristics that mark the opening of a universal and joyous holiday. Crowds were hastening from all parts in the direction of the Royal Palaces; and audible prayers for a “fine day” were uttered with childish fervour by the most aged and the gravest amongst them. Flags waved from lines suspended across the streets, or fluttered against the staffs erected for the occasion on the roofs of the most prominent houses, as well as on every tower and spire.’
That’s all very predictable but it’s the comments about some of the communities in the county that caught my eye:
‘BEWDLEY – At this Borough the shops were partially closed, the bells rang lustily, and cannons were fired throughout the day
BROMSGROVE – the only public commemoration of the joyous event in this town on Monday last was the ringing of the church bells.
KIDDERMINSTER – The Council of this borough met on Friday last to consider what steps ought to be taken to celebrate her Majesty’s nuptials, but the notice given of the intended celebration was so short that there was no time to confer with the Mayor, who was absent from home.
LEDBURY – Here the National School children were regaled with cake and cider.
REDDITCH – The celebration here was confined to the promenading of a band of music through the streets playing ‘Haste to the Wedding’, ‘The Bridal Ring’ and similar airs, our friends at Redditch being unhappily destitute of bells.
STOURBRIDGE – The children belonging to the Presbyterian congregation, 174 in number, assembled at the Schoolroom, and marched in procession to the Falcon Inn, where they were regaled with tea, plum cake, muffins etc. in the large room, and the boys amused themselves on the Bowling green until eight o’clock, when all were served with a glass of wine and a bun each; and after giving three cheers for the Queen, separated. The teachers, thirty in number, and a great part of the congregation, sat down to tea in an adjoining room, and spent the evening in a satisfactory and rational manner.
TENBURY – A party dined at the Swan Hotel, and the bells rang merrily throughout the day.’

Monday 11th February 1828: In the evening of this day William Burke and William Hare committed a murder in Edinburgh. Over the next ten months they would commit at least 15 more! All 16 of the bodies would be sold to Dr Robert Knox who used the corpses as dissection material for his well-attended anatomy lectures. At this time the need for new doctors for the expanding population was putting immense pressure on medical progress. Some said this was caused by people living longer while others said that not enough criminals were being hanged! This latter concern was not frivolous – the bodies of executed prisoners were the only source of cadavers and without them new doctors could not be trained on the inner workings of the body. Burke and Hare saw the opportunity and took it. Care had to be taken with each murder as ‘the market’ wanted good, whole, fresh corpses. The pair made sure they met the needs by smothering the victims. While one sat on the victim’s chest, the other held the victim’s mouth shut with the heel of his hand while blocking their nasal passage with two fingers in their nose.
From this technique came the word “burking”. Originally meaning to smother a victim, or to commit an ‘anatomy murder’, it has since passed into general use as a word for any suppression or cover-up.
Their scheme couldn’t last and by the end of the year they had both been arrested; Hare turned ‘King’s Evidence’ while Burke faced three charges of murder. The trial took place on Christmas Eve 1828 and lasted twenty-four hours. The jury retired to consider its verdict at 8.30am on Christmas Morning and returned fifty minutes later. They found Burke guilty of the third charge. He was hanged in front of a crowd estimated at between 20,000 and 25,000, who watched in torrential rain, at 8.15 am on Thursday 28th January 1829,.
Hare was released in February 1829 and was immediately ‘assisted’ in leaving Edinburgh by the mail coach.

Monday 12th February 1554 was the day that 16 year old Lady Jane Grey was executed in the Tower of London. She had been a manipulated pawn in the hands of her weak but ambitious father the Marquess of Dorset and her power-hungry and devious father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland, who thought she could be – and should be – Queen of England. Through the ancestral line of her mother, Lady Frances Brandon, Jane was a great-granddaughter of King Henry VII.
She had entered the household of Henry VIII’s last queen, Katherine Parr. There she was exposed to a strongly Protestant, academic environment and developed into an intelligent and pious woman. When her father was created Duke of Suffolk in October 1551, Jane began to appear at court where the fiercely Protestant Duke of Northumberland was effectively regent to the young king Edward VI – and the real power behind the throne. In May 1553, Jane had married Northumberland’s son, Lord Guildford Dudley and, with King Edward sick and obviously dying, Northumberland did everything he could to prevent the throne passing to Edward’s half-sister and legitimate heir, the Catholic Mary Tudor. He was actually successful in persuading Edward to declare both Mary and his other half-sister, Elizabeth, illegitimate, and that the royal line of succession should pass to Jane.
King Edward died on 6 July 1553 and four days later Jane was proclaimed Queen of England.
BUT: Mary Tudor had widespread popular support and by mid-July Suffolk had abandoned his daughter and attempted to save himself by proclaiming Mary the queen. He easily persuaded his daughter to relinquish the Crown – a situation she hadn’t wanted anyway.
Mary soon imprisoned Jane, Jane’s husband and her father in the Tower of London. Jane’s father, was pardoned but – in November 1553 – Jane and her husband were tried for high treason. Jane pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death. The carrying out of the sentence was suspended – and Jane may well have been freed – but her father’s support for Sir Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion in February 1554 cancelled all chances of that and sealed her fate. On this day – 12th February 1554 -Jane and her husband were beheaded. Her father followed them two days later.

Sunday 13th February 1859 was the day the ‘Corps of Commissionaires’ was formed by Captain Sir Edward Walter KCB.
Captain Walter was the first to find an effective way to provide jobs for ex-servicemen who were willing and able, despite having wounds of conflict, to work on their return after the Crimean War.
The Birmingham Journal of Saturday 19th February 1859 quoted the London Daily News:
‘NEW EMPLOYMENT FOR PENSIONERS – The Army and Navy Pensioners’ Employment Society has now appointed, in the capacity of messengers or commissionaires, a corps of wounded men from the Crimea and India, who are quite capable of going messages, conveying notes and parcels, or holding horses, &c. Their posts at present are:- 1.House of Commons and Westminster Hall; 2. Between Admiralty and Spring Gardens; 3. North side of Trafalgar Square, near the National Gallery; 4.Pall Mall, between the Army and Navy and Carlton Clubs; 5. The top of St. James’s Street; 6. Between the top of Haymarket and Regent Street near Messrs Ackermann’s.
The tariff of charges is extremely reasonable. There are so few people who can find work for one-armed men that many of the pensioners are in a state of distress, and hence arises the necessity of their appeal, not for money, but for encouragement in the occupation they have chosen.
In 1901 His Majesty King Edward VII consented to be the head their list of Governors – and this tradition still remains, with the reigning Sovereign holding the office of ‘Chief Life Governor’.

14th February is St Valentine’s Day. It is stated by many that it was in the year 269AD that Bishop Valentine, who had been arrested by Emperor Claudius II, fell in love with his gaoler’s daughter. On the day he was led out to his death – the 14th February 278AD – it is said that he left her a note signed ‘Your Valentine’.
BUT: Chambers Biographical Dictionary says: ‘Saint Valentine (d.c.269) – Roman priest and Christian martyr, said to have been executed during the persecution inaugurated under Claudius II, the Goth; but claims have been made for another Saint Valentine – supposedly bishop of Turni, taken 60 miles to Rome for martyrdom. Neither Valentine is associated with writing love-letters, hardly surprisingly; the custom originated in the later Middle Ages, having been linked with the day in the belief that it opened the mating season for birds.’
The Oxford Dictionary of Saints [ODS] is equally sceptical – accepting the ‘Birds’ origin as ‘a belief at least as old as Chaucer’ and that ‘calling oneself a Valentine is at least as old as the Paston letters – the first known – and true – Valentine message said: “To my right wele-beloved Voluntyn” and was received by John Paston of Norfolk from his fiancée Margery Brews on 14th February 1477.
The ODS also comments that ‘no churches in England seem to be dedicated to Valentine’.
Whatever is the truth – February 14th is very much fixed in our life and can be a fun day – or a day of frustration and disappointment.
Moving forward 177 years we find Dorothy Osborne writing this letter to a friend on 19th February 1654: ‘I was up early but with no design of getting another Valentine. Going out to walk in my Night-clothes and Night-gown I met Mr Fish. Going-a-hunting I think hee was, but he stayed to tell me I was his Valentine, and I should not have bin rid on him quickly if he had not thought himself a little too Negligee: his hair was not powdered and his clothes were but ordinary.’
218 years later Punch, on 17th February 1872, tells its readers: ‘The belief is universal .. that if you are single, the first unmarried person you meet outside the house on St Valentine’s Day will exercise an important influence over your future destiny. Fortunately there is a simple way of evading the hand of Fate, open to those who desire a greater freedom in their choice of a partner in wedlock – at least, if they are willing to remain indoors till the expiration of the spell at twelve pm.’


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