A few seconds past midnight on 1 January 1985, Sir Ernest Harrison received a phone call from his son to wish him a Happy New Year. A few hours later, he received another call, this time from comedian Ernie Wise who, for reasons unknown, was dressed in Victorian costume and riding on a nineteenth century mail coach. So far, so dull, but these were actually the first two calls made on mobile phones in the UK, Sir Ernest Harrison being the chair of Vodaphone.
If you’d bought a mobile phone in 1985, it would have set you back £3000 and you’d have been able to talk for 20 minutes before the battery ran down. Though you’d have been unlikely to be calling another mobile since by 1995 only 7% of the UK population had them. Still, you’ve probably got one now: by 2004 there were more mobile phones in the country than people. For more about the mobile phone industry, see our online business resources.
On 11 February 1990, after 27 years imprisonment, mostly on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela was finally released and took his Long Walk to Freedom. The event was captured by the cameras and broadcast around the world. You can read contemporary reports in our newspaper archive and also read biographies of the great man who died in December 2013.
On 26 March 2005 came the television event that some of us had been waiting for since 1989 and, frankly, for most of that time had never believed would happen. Doctor Who returned to our screens after a hiatus of 16 years and was an instant success, spawning two spin-offs (Torchwood and the Sarah-Jane Adventures) as well as making us more familiar with both John Barrowman and Cardiff Bay than we had ever thought possible. Check out one of the many hundreds of books on the most famous time traveller of all, and explore some of the obscure links between the Doctor and our very own detective, Sherlock Holmes…
24 April 2015 sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of Anthony Trollope, prolific novelist and long time post office employee. His novels aren’t read as much as they should be nowadays, which is a shame, and it may be that he is destined to be best remembered as the inventor of the pillar box, first installed in Jersey in 1852. The first ones were set up in England in 1853 – at first there were only five – in Fleet Street, The Strand, Pall Mall, Piccadilly and Rutland Gate. The early ones were green – they didn’t assume their familiar red colour until the 1870s. See The British Postal Museum and Archive for more history.
In May it will undoubtedly be quite hard to avoid the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta.
However, rather closer to home was an event at 16 Alkham Road, Stoke Newington, which has the unenviable distinction of being the first house in London to be attacked from the air. Nobody in the house was hurt but the Zeppelin went further east and seven people were killed during the one raid. In all, nearly 700 Londoners were killed by air raids in the First World War. You can read more about it in Zeppelin Nights by Jerry White or check out some contemporary accounts in our newspaper archives with the Illustrated London News being particularly interesting for photographs of the aftermath of raids.
A happier First World War centenary is celebrated on 16 June with the centenary of the foundation of the Women’s Institute in the UK. The movement (which started in Canada in 1897) first met here in Llanfairpwllgwyngyll and its original aim was to get women involved in growing and preserving food in wartime. By the end of 1919 there were 1405 women’s institutes across the country. They are currently enjoying a resurgance and do rather more than make cakes, though it seems to be compulsory to use the phrase ‘jam and Jerusalem’ in every article about them.
They now campaign on many issues, including Love Your Libraries. You can read up on their history in A Force to be Reckoned With by Jane Robinson and the splendidly named Jambusters: the story of the Women’s Institute in the second world war by Julie Summers.
13 July will mark 60 years since Ruth Ellis became the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Born in poverty in Rhyl, Ruth was determined to escape her background but her first attempt – a romance with a Canadian serviceman – left her an 18-year-old unmarried mother when her lover proved to have a wife and children back home. She did marry in 1950 but the relationship soon ended and Ruth was left to support her two children by the most lucrative work she could find – acting as a hostess in Mayfair nightclubs.
By 1955 she had two lovers – David Blakely, a hard-drinking racing car enthusiast and Desmond Cussen, a former bomber pilot whose family owned a successful chain of tobacconists. The relationship with Blakely was violent, with Ellis having a miscarriage after he punched her in the stomach, and the two men were jealous of each other. On Easter Day, 10 April 1955, Cussen gave Ellis a revolver, showed her how to use it and drove her to Hampstead Heath where she, high on drink and tranquillizers, shot and killed Blakely as he left a pub.
There was no real doubt of the outcome of the trial – Ellis didn’t mention Cussen’s involvement to her solicitor until the day before her exection. The jury took only 20 minutes to convict her and she was sentenced to hang. There was considerable interest in her case with a petition for clemency signed by more than 50,000 people. You can follow the debate in our newspaper archives and there are several biographies of Ellis available in Westminster Libraries
A less tragic event in 1955 was the publication on 27 August of the first edition of the Guinness Book of Records (now known as Guinness World Records). According to publishing legend, Hugh Beaver, the managing director of Guinness Breweries, wanted to settle an argument about which was the fastest game bird, the golden plover or the red grouse, but couldn’t find an appropriate reference book to answer the question.
The runner Christopher Chataway, who worked for Guinness, recommended the twins Norris and Ross McWhirter who, as well as being sports journalists themselves (Norris was the time-keeper when Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile) ran an agency which provided facts and figures to Fleet Street. They were commissioned to write the Guinness Book of Records and it became an instant hit with the annual revisions appearing in time for Christmas. The twins made regular appearance on the BBC children’s programme Record Breakers which ran for 276 episodes between 1972 and 2001 and which was presented for most of that time by Roy Castle. Readers of a certain age are probably humming the theme tune to themselves right now…
You can borrow the latest edition of the book from your local library – current random records include the Wolf of Wall Street winning the prize for the most swearing in one film with an average of 3.81 expletives per minute and Daniel Fleming of Cleethorpes holding the world record for greatest number of playable bagpipes (105). Oh, and the fastest game bird in Europe? It’s the plover.
Scott, John, Virgil, Alan, Gordon – also unforgettable to people of a certain age – are the five Tracy brothers, who, with their father Jeff, formed International Rescue, a top secret organisation dedicated to saving lives whose adventures were chronicled in Thunderbirds, first broadcast on 30 September 1965. The series used puppetry combined with scale-model special effects in a technique that producer Gerry Anderson called Supermarionation.
The show was an instant hit and characters such as Lady Penelope and her annoyingly nasal butler Parker became household names. The Tracy brothers were named after the Mercury Seven astronauts, while the puppets were modelled on leading actors such as Sean Connery and Charlton Heston. You can read more about Thunderbirds and other Anderson series such as Captain Scarlet and Stingray in Supermarionation Classics and don’t forget that the original series as well as its cinema incarnations are available on DVD.
October sees the 600th anniversary of one of the most celebrated battles in English history, Agincourt. Made famous by Shakespeare in Henry V, the battle, on St Crispins Day 1415, is well documented with several contemporary accounts surviving. While the English were heavily outnumbered, the use of the longbow against the French soldiers seems to have been a decisive fact in the English victory. Shakespeare’s play is still a favourite with theatre producers and there have been two notable cinema films – both great – one with Laurence Olivier, made during WW2, and more recently with Kenneth Branagh.
1940s cinema will be celebrated again, as 26 November sees the 70th anniversary of the release of Brief Encounter, the beloved romantic tragedy based on Noel Coward’s Still Life. The film tells the simple story of Laura Jesson (played by Celia Johnson), a middle class housewife in a rather dull marriage who meets doctor Alec Harvey in a railway station restaurant and finds that what starts out as a casual chat soon develops into an intensely emotional relationship. There have been other versions of the original play – one with Jane Asher and John Alderton plus Joan Collins as a slightly unlikely tea-shop manageress was broadcast by the BBC in 1991 and there was a simply terrible film version with Sophia Loren and Richard Burton – but none have matched the simple beauty of the original. that said, do check out Victoria Wood’s splendid parody (“I’ve a tin of orange pekoe I keep for the middle classes”):
Finally on 28 December 2015 we will have an anniversary that is central to the life of our city as we mark 950 years since the consecration of Westminster Abbey in 1065.
It was founded by Edward the Confessor (the only English king to be canonised), who died on 5 January 1066, only a week after the consecration. It was the first church in England built in the Norman Romanesque style and has been the traditional site for coronations ever since William the Conqueror. However, only a few arches and columns survive of Edward’s church – the current one dates from the thirteenth century and the reign of Henry III.
If you want to know what St Peter’s Abbey, as it was originally known, used to look like, you’ll have to check out the Bayeux Tapestry which features its only known picture. For more about the Abbey, check out some of the many books about it and of course, it’s there to visit too!
These are just some of the anniversaries that will be commemorated next year – no doubt we’ll also be hearing about the first ascent of the Matterhorn (14 July 1865), the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815), VE Day (8 May 1945) and as if that wasn’t enough… there’s another three years of the Great War centenary to work through!