Last year, the Authorised Version of the Bible almost had the field to itself and was rightly and fulsomely celebrated on its 400th anniversary. 2012 is somewhat more crowded. Already we have seen an explosion of Dickens, and we are barely a few weeks in; the other centenary which will kick off large, no doubt, is that of Titanic, etched deeply as it is in the public consciousness; despite a certain arm’s length treatment from the Palace (methinks they protesteth too little), we have Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee. All of this and then we collide, whether we like it or not, into London 2012.
One is trying hard not to be too bah humbug about all of this. But if the Dickens Museum itself, incredibly, is closing for its Big Year with admirable – if bonkers – sangfroid, one can be forgiven for looking out for interesting anniversaries elsewhere. Here are some of them.
A man who wrote no less charmingly and poignantly than Dickens about London’s working-class poor. A “proper” journalist, the co-founder of Punch magazine and the author of London Labour and the London Poor: Henry Mayhew, born on 25 November 1812.
Alan Turing Year. Alan Turing was born on 23rd June 1912 in Maida Vale, a true Londoner of Note. He was one of the leading code-breakers at Bletchley Park during WWII and a pioneering computer scientist (the “Turing Test” criteria for genuine artificial intelligence have not yet been met). Treated abominably by the government when his homosexuality was discovered, he was forced to be chemically castrated. Committed suicide in 1954 by eating a poisoned apple. There is an urban legend that this was the inspiration for Apple Computers bitten apple logo, something the corporation denies. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to make a long-overdue first visit to Bletchley Park. Fancy joining me?
1812. The assassination of Spencer Percival on 11 May, the only British prime minister to meet this fate. Percival’s tenure was dominated by the Regency crisis. Despite the Prince of Wales’ political and personal dislike for Percival, the prince nonetheless wisely supported his position. On the fateful evening of 11 May, in the lobby of the Commons, a disaffected merchant shot the PM, who died within minutes. The assassin, John Bellingham, was found guilty of murder and hanged on 18 May, no messing. Percival, despite reaching the pinnacle of political life, left an estate worth barely more than £100. His widow and 12 children were awarded an extraordinarily generous £50,000 plus annuities by Parliament.
The Royal Flying Corps was founded on 13 May 1912. In 1918 it merged into the newly-formed Royal Air Force. 9,378 airmen lost their lives in Word War I. Twelve RFC members were awarded the Victoria Cross.
One of the greatest hoaxes in history occurred in 1912: The Piltdown Man affair. On 12 December, Charles Dawson presented a skull fragment that he claimed to belong to a hitherto undiscovered species of pre-historic man. The find was accepted by the scientific establishment until exposed in 1953, causing an almighty hoo-ha and red faces all around. A terrific story.
And, of course, there is Scott of the Antarctic. Little known, I expect, by anyone under 30, we of a certain age well remember the tragedy of Robert Falcon Scott, drummed into us at school. In 1912, Scott and his team narrowly missed becoming the first to the South Pole on behalf of Blighty, and then on 29 March perished on their journey home, thereby giving us the perfect pub smokers’ lament, courtesy of Captain Oates. And why did they come a plucky second? Because those sneaky Norwegians used dogs! Oh yes, that was the clear implication in classrooms all around the British Empire, including mine.
Other 100th birthdays to look out for:
Kim Philby 1 January, India. Cold War traitor and Soviet hero. Fled to Moscow 1963, never to return.
David Astor, 5 March, London. Legendary editor of the Observer, close friend of George Orwell.
J Enoch Powell 16 June, Birmingham. I shook his paw once in the early 1990s after he had delivered highly learned sermon at Oakapple Day service in Northampton.
Brian “Johnners” Johnston, 24 June, Berkhamstead. Broadcaster. Doyen of Test Match Special, inventor of the “champagne moment” – missed by all.
Ted Drake, 16 August, Southampton. Arsenal and England legend, prolific goal scorer. Also played cricket for Hampshire. Career curtailed by WWII.
Now set the time machine to 1812, and celebrate the birthdays of:
Augustus Pugin, 1 March, Bloomsbury. Gothic revivalist decorator of the Palace of Westminster.
Robert Browning, 7 May, Camberwell. Polymath. Multi-lingual, peripatetic romantic Victorian poet. Husband of Elizabeth Barratt Browning. Also subject of extremely early voice recording, 1889, on an Edison wax cylinder.
So there you have it. Let me know if I’ve missed anything.
Update 22-01-2012. Reader Julian Walker (see comments) reminds us that 12 May is the bicentenary of Edward Lear, born that day in Holloway, London. There are many celebratory events – in London, elsewhere in the UK, and indeed in the USA too. Details are listed on a Blog of Bosh, here. London Historians looks forward to joining in!
Update 24-01-2012. I’ve discovered some more centenaries, reducing in significance, it must be said. 1812: Theatre Royal Drury Lane opened, 10 October; famous Swan and Edgar department store founded in Piccadilly. 1912: 10 week London Dock strike; London Museum opened in Kensington Palace, 8 April.