When you think of Big Ben, many of us think of a tower in London…or at least I did. The reality is that Big Ben isn’t the tower at all…it’s the bell. The tower is actually called the Elizabeth Tower…at least since 2012 when it was renamed that in honor of the current Queen Elizabeth. Prior to 2012, the tower was just called “the clock tower.” That was it’s official name, but it was nicknamed Saint Stephen’s tower. It’s funny that we can associate a specific name or idea to something, and have the whole thing totally wrong. The tower name is an interesting story, but that is not the only oddity when it comes to Big Ben.
As interesting as that was to me, I find it even more interesting to find out that there is actually a prison in the tower. A third of the way, or 114 steps up inside the tower is the Prison Room, where MPs in breach of codes of conduct were imprisoned. The prison room was last used in 1880 when newly elected MP Charles Bradlaugh, who was an atheist, refused to swear allegiance to Queen Victoria on the Bible. He was kept in the prison room overnight. These days there is a pub named after him in Northampton. I’m not sure how many more people were imprisoned there, but it is certainly a strange use for a clock tower.
There are 334 steps over 11 floors up to the belfry…399 up to the lantern of the Elizabeth Tower. Each clock face measures 23 feet in diameter. The minute hand on each clock face is 14 feet long, and the hour hand is 9 feet long. The main bell weighs 13.7 tons and is 9 feet in diameter. There are four quarter bells that are smaller. These have different dimensions to enable them to hit different notes. At the top of the tower is an extra light called the Ayrton Light. It was installed so Queen Victoria could see when the members of parliament were sitting after hours.
The current bell is not the original bell. The original bell was famously cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry. The contract to create the bell went to a company called Warners of Norton in Stockton-on-Tees. A 16.5 ton bell was created and delivered to London before the clock tower was ready. For several months, the bell was tested outside the tower. It was working fine until the man who designed it, Edmund Beckett Denison, decided he wanted it louder so added a much larger hammer. Three weeks later the bell broke. It was sent to Whitechapel Bell Foundry in pieces and melted down to create the new 13.5 ton bell. Once complete, it took 32 hours to winch it up the tower. Just two months after the bell named Big Ben first went into service in 1859, it was cracked. The hammer that was installed to ring the bell was roughly twice the size it should have been for a bell of that size. Nevertheless, the damage was done. The bell remains flawed to this day. A lighter hammer was fitted, and the bell was rotated slightly so that the hammer no longer hits the cracked section. The clock uses penny weights to keep the time accurate.
His name was Sir Nicholas George Winton MBE, but in his early years, he had not been bestowed with such an honor as knighthood. That came about much later in his life. Sir Winton was born on May 19, 1909 in Hampstead, London, England. He was a British humanitarian, born to German-Jewish parents, Rudolph Wertheim (1881–1937), a bank manager, and his wife Barbara (née Wertheimer, 1888–1978) who had emigrated to Britain. His parents had moved to London two years before he was born. The family name was Wertheim, but they changed it to Winton in an effort at integration. They also converted to Christianity, and Winton was baptized. God had a plan for Sir Winton’s life, although he would not know that for years.
On the eve of World War II, Sir Winton knew what his calling had been, and he quietly set about orchestrating the rescue of 669 children, most of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia. Sir Winton quickly found homes for the children and arranged for their safe passage to Britain. The operation was known as the Czech Kindertransport, which is German for “children’s transport, but it would not be called that right away. The transport was not a official operation, and was not sanctioned as such. He worked largely alone to set this up, and most people knew nothing about it for over 50 years, but the children did not forget the man they called the British Schindler, who had saved their lives.
Then, in 1988, he was invited to the BBC television program “That’s Life!.” It was a surprise party of sorts. Little did Sir Winton know, but his secret was no longer such a secret. Arriving at the show, Sir Winton was seated in a room full of people he did not know. Soon, the truth was told to him, and he found out that the “audience” was in fact a number of the children he had rescued all those years ago. The grateful children, now grown adults, wanted to reunite with the man who had saved then all those years ago. It was the British press who celebrated him and dubbed him the “British Schindler.” Sir Winton was brought to tears, as he looked around him at all of these people who owed him their very lives, but his story did not end there. In 2003, Nicholas Winton became Sir Nicholas George Winton MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for “services to humanity, in saving Jewish children from Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia.” Then, on October 28, 2014, he was awarded the highest honor of the Czech Republic, the Order of the White Lion (1st class), by Czech President Miloš Zeman. The little German-Jewish boy, whose family converted to Christianity, and who always felt a love for humanity and those in need, had become a great man indeed. God did have a plan for his life, and Sir Winton had made God proud. Sir Nicholas George Winton MBE passed away peacefully in his sleep on July 1, 2015, at Wexham Park Hospital, Slough, Berkshire, England, at the age of 106 years, having lived a full life. After the war, Winton worked for the International Refugee Organization and then the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Paris, where he met Grete Gjelstrup, a Danish secretary and accountant’s daughter. They married in her hometown of Vejle on October 31, 1948. The couple settled in Maidenhead, England, where they raised their three children: Nick (born 1951), Barbara (born 1954) and the youngest Robin (1956–1962), who was born with Down syndrome. At the family’s insisted Robin stayed with them, rather than being sent to a residential home. Sir Winton’s son, Robin died of meningitis, the day before his sixth birthday. The death was devastating for Winton and he founded a local support organization that later became Maidenhead Mencap. Winton stood, unsuccessfully, for the town council in 1954, but later found work in the finance departments of various companies. His wife, Grete preceded him in death in 1999. Sir Nicholas George Winton MBE was a truly remarkable man.
The Blitz was a German bombing offensive against Britain in 1940 and 1941, during World War II. The term was first used by the British press and is the German word for lightning. When the Germans bombed London in the Blitz bombing, the nerves of the people were very much on edge. They spent most of their nights in hiding in the subway tunnels. When they emerged, they had no idea what to expect. Most of them knew that their beloved city would be very different than it was before, and they knew that, in reality, it may never be the same. Yes, it could be rebuilt, but it would never…never be the same. The adults felt sick a they looked at the city they loved, but the adults were not the only people who were looking at the devastation.
Some of the saddest pictures taken after the Blitz bombings, were those taken of the children. I can’t imagine what must have been going through their minds as they looked at the devastation that was once their home. They had spent so many wonderful hours playing in their bedrooms, and now they had no bedrooms, or even a house for that matter. Their home had been reduced to a pile of rubble. Sitting there looking at what little is left, some children find a little bit of solace in the fact that a doll or something similar managed to survive the carnage…and they feel somehow blessed. And, of course, they are blessed, because for so many others, there is nothing left.
I’m sure that those little ones looked to their parents, hoping to see a spark of hope, or a little bit of encouragement, but all they saw was a look of shock and disbelief on the faces of their parents. That only served to create a deeper sense of concern in the children. What was going to happen to them now? Where would they live? And the really sad thing was that their parents are wondering the same things. These are the faces of war. We often think of the soldiers, usually facing off with the enemy. Yes, sometimes we think of the civilians, but most of us almost try not to think of them, because we can imagine what they are going through. The news photographers, however, have to see the civilians. They have to photograph the destruction. It is their job, but when we see those stories, with their necessary pictures, we really see how war affects the civilians, especially the children. And we are horrified.
For a long time, people in the 19th century, living in urban apartments, didn’t regularly take their children outside so they could get some fresh air. Then, the doctors started to recommend that these children really needed to get outside for fresh air. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that the parents were real excited about the idea of loading up their child and taking them for a walk…just to get the recommended amount of fresh air. Nevertheless, it was important, as the doctors told them that it would strengthen their immune system, and with the number of pandemics that had gone around, the parents really tried to do whatever they could to make this happen.
While physicians such as Dr. Luther Emmett Holt advised simply placing an infant’s basket near an open window, some parents took it a step further. Enter the Baby Cage. The baby cage was just what it sounded like. It was a platform, with chicken wire all around it to keep the baby in. This whole contraption was then suspended outside the window…even if the window was on the sixth floor or something. Personally, I can’t imagine hanging my baby outside my window for a dose of fresh air, but it was an actual thing in those days.
Eleanor Roosevelt, who by her own admission “knew absolutely nothing about handling or feeding a baby,” bought a chicken-wire cage after the birth of her daughter, Anna. She hung it out the window of her New York City apartment and placed Anna inside for her naps…until a concerned neighbor threatened to report her to the authorities. I would think so. If the brackets that suspended the cage to the window came loose…so long baby. I couldn’t find any incidence of such a thing happening, however. The first commercial patent for a baby cage was filed in 1922 by Emma Read of Spokane, Washington. The cages became popular in London in the 1930s among apartment dwellers without access to backyards. Ultimately, their popularity declined. It is possible that this was connected to safety concerns. As I said, I can imagine. I would have nightmares about that if it were my child.
I think most people love trains. The fascination of stepping onboard, and arriving at a totally different place without driving or flying is an alluring thought, not to mention a little romantic. Over the years, trains have been given names, almost as if they were alive and had personalities. In England, one of the most loved trains was The Flying Scotsman, so named in 1924, after the train had been in operation since 1862. The train was an express train, and was clocked at 100 mph on a special test run in 1934. It officially the first locomotive in the United Kingdom to have reached that speed. In those days, that was a phenomenal achievement…unheard of really.
The Flying Scotsman ran between Edinburgh and London, the capitals of Scotland and England, via the East Coast Main Line. It is currently operated by Virgin Trains East Coast. The East Coast Main Line over which the Flying Scotsman runs, was built in the 19th century by many small railway companies, but mergers and acquisitions led to only three companies controlling the route…the North British Railway (NBR), the North Eastern Railway (NER) and the Great Northern Railway (GNR). In 1860 the three companies established the East Coast Joint Stock for through services using common vehicles, and it is from this agreement that The Flying Scotsman came about.
The original journey took 10½ hours, including a half-hour stop at York for lunch. However, increasing competition and improvements in railway technology saw this time reduced to 8½ hours by the time of the Race to the North in 1888. From 1896, the train was modernized with such features as corridors between carriages, heating, and dining cars. The York stop was reduced to 15 minutes, as passengers could now have lunch on the train, but the end-to-end journey time remained 8½ hours.
It was the British Empire Exhibition made Flying Scotsman famous. Soon, it was featured at many more publicity events for the LNER. In 1928, it was given a new type of coal-car with a corridor, which meant that a new crew could take over without stopping the train. This allowed it to haul the first ever non-stop London to Edinburgh service on May 1, reducing the journey time to eight hours. The Flying Scotsman name has been maintained by the operators of the InterCity East Coast franchise since privatization of British Rail. The former Great North Eastern Railway even subtitled itself The Route of the Flying Scotsman, as a way of cashing in on of the train’s popularity. The Flying Scotsman was operated by GNER from April 1996 until November 2007, then by National Express East Coast until November 2009, East Coast until April 2015 and since by Virgin Trains East Coast.
On May 23, 2011 the Flying Scotsman brand was re-launched for a special daily fast service operated by East Coast departing Edinburgh at 05:40 and reaching London exactly four hours later, calling only at Newcastle. It is operated by an InterCity 225 Mallard set. Driving Van Trailer 82205 and 91 class locomotive 91101 were turned out in a special maroon livery for the launch of the service. East Coast claimed that this was part of a policy to bring back named trains to restore “a touch of glamour and romance”. However, for the first time in its history, it ran in one direction only. There is no northbound equivalent service. This schedule is still maintained today. Northbound, the fastest timetabled London to Edinburgh service now takes 4 hours 20 minutes. In October 2015, 91101 and 82205 were give a facelift of new vinyl in a new Flying Scotsman livery. The Flying Scotsman is the only passenger service to run non-stop through Darlington and York.
During World War II, the Germans began a bombing campaign, during the Battle for Britain, that was known as the Blitzkrieg, which means lightning war. The name was often shortened to the Blitz. The Blitz began on September 7, 1940 and would continue until May 1941. During these bombing raids, London was especially badly hit. At the start of the campaign, the government did not allow the use of underground rail stations as shelters, as they considered them a potential safety hazard. However, the people of London took the matter into their own hands and opened up the chained entrances to the tube stations. In the Underground they were safe from the high explosive and incendiary bombs that rained down on London night after night. With one or two exceptions, their confidence was rewarded. The City tube station was hit when a bomb went through the road and fell into it. Over 200 were killed, but for the most part the tubes proved to be good bomb shelters.
One eyewitness to the tube shelters said, “By 4.00 p.m. all the platforms and passage space of the underground station are staked out, chiefly with blankets folded in long strips laid against the wall – for the trains are still running and the platforms in use. A woman or child guards places for about six people. When the evening comes the rest of the family crowd in.” To start with the government underestimated the potential use of the underground stations. The government estimated that 87% or more of people would use the issued shelters…usually Anderson shelters…or spaces under stairs, and such. They assumed that only 4% of the population would use the underground stations. However, each night underground stations played host to thousands of families in London grateful for the protection they afforded. On November 8, 1940, a request went out for blankets to aid the people sleeping in these underground tunnels. Times were hard in many areas of the London, and many Londoners spent their winter nights in the underground tunnels and shelters. Supplies of any new or old blankets that could be spared were called for in order to provide additional warmth for these people.
London went into mandatory blackouts every night to try to be invisible to the bombers. Despite the blackout restrictions, the Luftwaffe had a relatively easy way of getting to London. They simply followed the route of the River Thames, which also directed them to the docks based at the East End of the city. Each night, the bombers first dropped incendiary bombs designed to give the following bombers the most obvious of markers. After the incendiary bombs, came the high explosives. The government used its control over all forms of the media to present a picture of life going on as normal despite the constant nightly attacks. I suppose some would call this fake news, but it was the governments way of making it look like the Germans weren’t making any headway. They did not show photos of people known as trekkers, the families who would spend the night away from their homes, preferably in local woodland or a park where they felt safer from attack. Such photos were censored. An American film called “London can take it” presented the image of a city devastated by bombs, but one that carried on as normal. The narrator makes the point that “bombs can only kill people, they cannot destroy the indomitable spirit of a nation.”
However, we know that in reality, life was not quite as easy as propaganda showed. Indeed, London could take it, but only because there was little else they could do. Under wartime restrictions, people could not simply leave their homes and move elsewhere. The poorest in London lived in the East End, and it was this area that was especially hit hard by bombing because of the docks that were based there. However, most of the families there could do little else except stay where they were unless specifically moved by the government. These families developed what became known as a war-time spirit. They adapted their lives to the constant night-time bombing. By May 1941, 43,000 had been killed across Britain and 1.4 million had been made homeless. Not only was London attacked, but so were many British cities. Coventry and Plymouth were particularly badly bombed but most of Britain’s cities were also attacked, including Manchester, Glasgow, and Liverpool. Nevertheless, they were not broken.
When I think of forms of entertainment, snail racing is about the furthest thing from my mind, but apparently it is a thing. In fact, on October 1, 1954 a ten year old boy named Martin Witter put his snail team through their rounds at a trial race at his home in Lynwood, California. Martin had formed, what he claimed to be, the only snail stable in the country. Every afternoon the snails were awakened for their trial runs by being placed in the sun. As the sunshine began to penetrate their shells, the snails came to life. On top of the racing snail’s shell, Martin had glued a tiny yoke made from a matchstick. The reins, made of string, were connected to a small simulated Roman chariot constructed from a fish food tin in which the snail driver sits. Speedy, in the harness and Butch, in the “Chariot” beat a neighborhood entry establishing a new track record of 3 feet in 5 minutes…not bad for a couple of racers, who we all know travel at a snail’s pace.
The “World Snail Racing Championships” is an annual event that started in Congham, Norfolk in the 1960s after its founder Tom Elwes saw the same event in France. At the 1995 race the snails set the benchmark time of two minutes by a snail named Archie. The 2008 event had to be cancelled because the course was waterlogged by a period of heavy rain. That was also just days after the death of its founder, Tom Elwes. The 2008 World Championships was won by Heikki Kovalainen and a snail named after a Formula One racing driver, in a time of three minutes, two seconds. The 2010 World Championship was won by a snail called Sidney in a time of three minutes and 41 seconds.
The first official live snail competitive race in London, the “Guinness Gastropod Championship” was held in 1999. It was called by horse racing commentator, John McCririck who started the race with the words “Ready, Steady, Slow”. This is the common terminology for the start of a race. The following year Guinness featured a snail race in their advertisement, Bet on Black as part of their “Good things come to those who wait” campaign. It kind of funny when you think about it. Waiting for the end of a snail race would definitely be a wait. The advertisement won the silver award at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival and was self-parodied for their “Extra Cold” campaign several years later.
The “Grand Championship Snail Race” began in Cambridgeshire in 1992 in the village of Snailwell as part of its annual summer holiday. The event regularly attracts up to 400 people to the village, more than doubling its normal population. The rules are that you’re not allowed to touch your snail during the race, change snails or doing something that would make your snail go faster than it should. The snail has to win the race on its own.
These days, since man has already been on the moon, I don’t suppose the scientists would feel the same excitement about seeing it through a telescope that they felt the first time they looked at it through a telescope. I’m sure that the creation of a map of the moon was an amazing accomplishment back in the 1600s. The earliest known telescope was built in 1608 in the Netherlands when an eyeglass maker named Hans Lippershey tried to obtain a patent on one. Although Lippershey did not receive his patent, news of the new invention soon spread across Europe. The design of these early refracting telescopes consisted of a convex objective lens and a concave eyepiece. The world was headed for a new and exciting journey that would someday put man in space and on the moon.
Thomas Harriot was a mathematician and astronomer who founded the English School of Algebra. He is described by some as “the greatest mathematician that Oxford has produced,” yet only recently has his name become widely known, and even now his achievements are not fully appreciated by most mathematicians. I’m sure he was an amazing mathematician, but it is his work in astronomy that interests me. As an undergraduate at Oxford, Harriot was a student at St Mary’s Hall. Harriot graduated in 1580 and went to London.
We know from manuscripts, belonging to Harriot, that he was engaged in deep studies of optics at Syon by 1597. Although in his manuscripts it states that he had discovered the sine law of refraction of light before 1597. The precise date of Harriot’s important discovery was July 1601. As with all his other mathematical discoveries, however, Harriot did not publish his findings. It is somewhat ironic, that Snell…to whom the discovery of this law is now attributed…was not the first to publish the result. Snell’s discovery was in 1621, about 20 years after Harriot’s discovery, but the result was not published until Descartes put it in print in 1637. He considered more complex systems and employed Christopher Tooke as a lens grinder from early 1605. His work on light now moved to the dispersion of light into colors. He began to develop a theory for the rainbow By 1606, Johannes Kepler had heard of the remarkable results on optics achieved by Harriot. Kepler wrote to Harriot, but the correspondence never really achieved any significant exchange of ideas. Perhaps Harriot was too wary of the difficulties that his work had nearly brought on him, or perhaps he did, as he claimed to Kepler, still intend to publish his results.
The appearance of a comet attracted Harriot’s attention and turned his scientific mind towards astronomy. He observed a comet on September 17, 1607 from Ilfracombe which would later be identified as Halley’s Comet. Kepler had discovered the comet six days earlier, but it would be the observations of Harriot and his friend…and student, William Lower which eventually were used by Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel to compute its orbit. His astronomy was now back in the forefront of his mind, and Harriot went on to make the earliest telescopic observations in England. On July 26, 1609 at 9pm, he sketched the Moon, after viewing it through a telescope with a magnification of 6. He sketched the Moon again a year later on July 17, 1610, by this time he had a telescope giving him a magnification of 10. Soon he had constructed a telescope with a magnification of 20, then by April 1611 he had a 32 magnification telescope. While mapping the moon might seem to some like a minor achievement, it inspired him to continuously improve the telescope.
Every time I research one of the weapons used in war, I am more and more stunned by the hatred that brings the need to destroy one another. During World War II, Hitler continuously created…or rather had his scientists create newer, more powerful, and more devastating bombs. His V-1 missile, also known as the V-1 flying bomb, or in German: Vergeltungswaffe 1, meaning “Vengeance Weapon 1” became known to the Allies as the buzz bomb, or doodlebug. In Germany it was known as Kirschkern, or cherrystone, and as Maikäfer or maybug. It was an early cruise missile, and also the first production aircraft to use a pulsejet for power.
The V-1 was developed at Peenemünde Army Research Center by the Nazi German Luftwaffe during World War II. During initial development it was known by the codename “Cherry Stone.” It was first of the so-called “Vengeance weapons” (V-weapons or Vergeltungswaffen) series designed for terror bombing of London. As one of my readers, Greg (sorry, I don’t know his last name) pointed out to me, it was one of the V weapons…the V-3 to be exact that would ultimately cause the death of Joseph Kennedy, but that is a story for another day. The range of the V-1 missile was limited, and so the thousands of V-1 missiles launched into England were fired from launch facilities along the French (Pas-de-Calais) and Dutch coasts. The first V-1 was launched at London on 13 June 1944, one week after, and actually prompted by the successful Allied landings in Europe. At its peak, more than one hundred V-1s a day were fired at south-east England, 9,521 in total, decreasing in number as sites were overrun until October 1944, when the last V-1 site in range of Britain was overrun by Allied forces. After this, the V-1s were directed at the port of Antwerp and other targets in Belgium, with 2,448 V-1s being launched. The attacks stopped only a month before the war in Europe ended, when the last launch site in the Low Countries was overrun on March 29, 1945.
It took a V-1 about 15 minutes to travel from its launch pad in Calais, France to the heart of London…a distance of nearly 95 miles. Nearly 10,000 V-1s were launched from sites in Northern France over an 80 day period beginning in June 1944. Their targets included London, as well as other cities in southern England. At the peak of the bombing, more than 100 rockets were hitting Britain daily. Casualties climbed to 22,000 people, with more than 6,000 of them fatalities. Hitler hoped his new weapons would crush British morale, bringing surrender. More V-1s would later be fired from inside Germany itself at Liege and the port of Antwerp. Hitler had underestimated the British, however. The British operated an arrangement of air defenses, including anti-aircraft guns and fighter aircraft, to intercept the bombs before they reached their targets as part of Operation Crossbow, while the launch sites and underground V-1 storage depots were targets of strategic bombings.
Back in the 1700s, there were no early warning systems for storms, and I suppose it wouldn’t matter anyway, at least not when it came to the Great Storm of 1703. The storm was a destructive extratropical cyclone that struck central and southern England on November 26, 1703, which would actually have been December 7, by today’s calendar. You see the dates all changed with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, which was originally developed in 1582, but not adopted by England until 1752. The storm brought with it high winds topping 80 miles per hour, which may not seem so extreme on dry land, but over water, it’s devastating. In fact, the wind was so bad, that it actually blew 2,000 chimney stacks over in London. It also blew over 4,000 oak trees down in New Forest. The winds blew ships hundreds of miles off course, and over 1,000 seamen lost their lives on the Goodwin Sands alone.
London suffered extensive damage. The lead roofing was blown off Westminster Abbey and Queen Anne had to seek shelter in a cellar at Saint James’s Palace to avoid collapsing chimneys and part of the roof. About 700 ships were heaped together in the Pool of London, which is the section of the Thames River downstream from the London Bridge. The ship HMS Vanguard was wrecked at Chatham. Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s HMS Association was blown from Harwich to Gothenburg in Sweden before it could make its way back to England. Pinnacles were blown from the top of King’s College Chapel, in Cambridge. At sea, many ships were wrecked, some of which were returning from helping Archduke Charles, the claimed King of Spain, fight the French in the War of the Spanish Succession. These ships included HMS Stirling Castle, HMS Northumberland, HMS Mary and HMS Restoration, with about 1,500 seamen killed particularly on the Goodwin Sands. Between 8,000 and 15,000 lives were lost overall.
The Church of England declared that the vicious storm was God’s vengeance for the sins of the nation. Maybe this is where the rediculous saying, “act of God” was coined. In fact, Daniel Defoe thought it was a divine punishment for poor performance against Catholic armies in the War of the Spanish Succession. That makes the whole statement even more ridiculous. I suppose people have to explain away these wild occurrences somehow, and since they didn’t have the science to explain the storm, they blamed God for it.