Historical Anecdotes Story Of London

Historical Anecdotes: B

Historical Anecdotes: B
by Anthony Waldstock

This is a series of articles that has grown out of the daily listings of what happened “On This Day”. Many of the events, particularly those related to science, seemed to us to need some more information than is possible in the daily listing format. Still others had amusing or informative anecdotes associated with them that we felt were worth sharing with our readers. The series is designed for browsing and dipping into and we have therefore set up a comprehensive system of links to make this as easy and as enjoyable as possible.

Historical Anecdotes: B

by Anthony Waldstock

This series of articles will present occasional anecdotal, amusing and factual notes behind the people and events on the This Day in History digests. Entries are determined by the daily posting of events in history with the first entries appearing for March 12th and are arranged alphabetically. With the steady increase of material, each letter of the alphabet now (April 17th 2002) has its own page. People are indexed according to their family or surnames whereas kings, popes, emperors etc. are listed according to their regnal names– e.g. Charles Boycott would be found under B, Pope Gregory under G and Queen Mary Tudor under M. Other items are indexed by the most significant word in the title, for example Artificial Ice will be found under I but Sad Iron will be found under S.

Links back to the monthly digests for “This Day in History” can be found at the bottom of the introductory page but each of the entries on the other pages will have a link to take you back to the specific date with which it is associated. Note that if you have come here from the Background Briefings link on the Home page, you can go back there by clicking on the site Masthead above. When appropriate, there are additional links back to other referring pages on the site such as the People of London page.

Within the series there are two sets of links. At the top of each page there will be a table of links to the other indexing letters to allow browsing by individual pages. At the bottom of each page you will also find a set of links which will allow you to scroll backward (Previous) and forward (next) through the pages. The pages are looped so the “Previous” link from A will be to Z and the “Next” link from Z will be to A. There will also be a central link back to this introduction page whose main content is an alphabetic list of the complete set of entries. From there, you will be able to browse the titles of the individual entries and jump directly to those that interest you. By definition, the number of entries will augment on a daily basis so it is worth checking back there frequently.

Links to Entries by Index Letter


In 1633, bananas appeared on sale in Britain for the first time. They were exhibited in the shop window of Thomas Johnson of Snow Hill, London. It was not until 1884 that the fruit was regularly imported into Britain. They came from the Canary Islands and were imported by Elder Dempster and Co.Return to This Day in History


In 1964, first BASIC program was run on a computer at about 4:00 a.m. The word is an acronym for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, designed to be an easy programming language to learn quickly how to write simple programs. It was invented at Dartmouth University by professors John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz. And the first implementation was a BASIC compiler. Originally designed for mainframe computers the language was adopted for use on personal computers when they became available. During the 1970s, it was the principal programming language taught to students, and continues to be a popular choice among educators. Despite its simplicity, BASIC is used for a wide variety of business applications. There is an ANSI standard for the BASIC language, but most versions of it include many proprietary extensions. Microsoft’s popular Visual Basic, for example, adds many object-oriented features to the standard versiojn. Recently, many variations have appeared as programming, or macro, languages within applications. For example, Microsoft Word and Excel both come with a version of BASIC with which users can write programs to customize and automate these applications.Return to This Day in History

Ulugh Beg

The only important Mongol scientist and mathematician, he was the greatest astronomer of his time. In 1428 he began the construction of his great observatory at Samarkand. In his observations he discovered a number of errors in the computations of the 2nd-century Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy (90-168), whose figures were still being used. His star map, with 994 stars, was the first new one since Hipparchus (160-125 BCE). After Ulugh Beg was assassinated by his son, the observatory fell to ruins and had disappeared by 1500. It was rediscovered only in 1908. Written in Arabic, his work went unread by the world’s next generation of astronomers. When his tables were translated into Latin in 1665, telescopic observations had surpassed them.
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B(urrhus) F(rederick) Skinner was an American psychologist and an influential exponent of Behaviourism. This discipline views human behaviour in terms of physiological responses to the environment. It favours the controlled, scientific study of response as the most direct means of elucidating the fundamentals of man’s nature. He created a “Skinner box” to develop an experimental insight into the learning processes of animals. The box was a simple environment with a lever which delivered a reward or punishment when the animal pressed it. His theories were based on these experiments and he later extended them to describe the behaviour of humans.
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In 1809, at the age of 26, Friederich Wilhelm Bessel was appointed director of Frederick William III of Prussia’s new Königsberg Observatory and professor of astronomy, where he spent the rest of his career. His monumental work was the determination of the positions and proper motions for about 50,000 stars. This paved the way for the first accurate determination of interstellar distances. He also determined the constants of precession (the sustained rotation of the axis of rotation itself), nutation (the periodic irregular oscillation of the earth’s poles) and aberration (the apparent displacement in the position of a star as a result of the earth’s motion around the sun). He was, in 1838, the first to measure the distance of a star other than the sun (61 Cygni) by parallax. He also investigated the problem of heliocentricity and systematised the mathematical function required to explain it. This function is now known as the Bessel Function and has many other applications in mathematics.
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Bessemer Converter

Before the mid-nineteenth century steel was an expensive metal produced in small quantities and chiefly used in the manufacture of swords. Cast iron was more cheaply produced in large quantities and was, therefore, extensively used in civil engineering. However, as it became necessary to build bigger and greater bridges, especially to carry railways, it became increasingly necessary to use high quality steel.

In England, Henry Bessemer described a new and cheaper process of steel making to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science on August 11th 1856. This resulted in considerable financial support which enabled him to develop is experimental work into a large-scale steel making unit at Sheffield. The operating principle of the Bessemer Converter is the removal of impurities in molten pig iron by forcing a blast of air through it. These impurities – carbon, slicon, manganese, sulphur and phosphorous – are converted into their oxides and either burnt off as gases or absorbed into slag which forms on top of the molten metal.

No external heating is required as the chemical heats of reaction produce temperatures which are sufficiently high to keep the metal in a molten state. When most of the impurities were removed and the molten metal was relatively pure controlled amounts of a manganese-iron alloy, ferro-silicon and aluminium were added to remove iron oxide and excess oxygen. Finally, to convert the iron into steel, carbon in the form of coke or anthracite was added to bring the carbon content to the correct proportion for the type of steel required. The slag produced by the process was very rich in soluble phosphoric acid and was further used top produce fertiliser.
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The first lightweight all-metal bicycle was patented in 1870 by James Starley and William Hillman at the Coventry Machinists Company. They called it the cycle and it was the first to employ tension wheels with wire spokes. In a typical act of British Daring-do the inventors agreed to ride the ninety-six miles from London to Coventry in a single day. They managed it with not time at all to spare – the Cathedral clock in Coventry struck midnight just as the arrived at Starley’s house. The bicycle went on sale in September 1871 with a price tag of £8 or £12 if the cyclist wanted the optional speed-gear.Return to This Day in History

Wilhelm von Biela

Austrian astronomer, known for his measurement in 1826 of a previously known comet as having an orbital period of 6 years and 219 days. It was subsequently, known as Biela’s Comet and was observed to break in two in 1846. In 1852 the fragments returned as widely separated twin comets that were not seen again. However, in both 1872 and 1885 bright meteor showers (known as Andromedids, or Bielids) were observed when the Earth crossed the path of the comet’s known orbit. This observation provided the first concrete evidence for the idea that some meteors are composed of fragments of disintegrated comets.
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Big Bang

In 1948, the famous letter to Physical Review from the three scientists Alpher, Bethe and Gamow’s was published. Their paper gave a “hot Big Bang” mathematical analysis of atomic events during the creation of the universe, and explained the relative abundances of the light elements (particularly helium) in the universe. The Big Bang theory had previously been around as a competing theory with the so-called Steady State theory for a number of years and this paper more or less decided the issue in favour of what is now widely accepted as the origin of the universe.

In fact, the paper was written by Alpher and Gamow. The esteemed Hans Bethe was persuaded to lend his name as a co-author for the amusing similarity to “alpha, beta, gamma,” the first letters of the Greek alphabet. Bethe did actually make later contributions to disccussions of the theory.
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Charles Cunningham Boycott was born in Norfolk on March 12th 1832. After a career in the army he retired as a Captain in 1873 and took the post as Estate Agent on Lord Erne’s Irish estates in Mayo. Erne was a so-called “absentee” landlord – one of many who never visited their Irish estates, and who had no first-hand idea of the conditions under which their “tenants” lived. From 1879, under the leadership of people such as the MP Charles Stuart Parnell, the Land League actively campaigned for the restoration of something like the original Irish Celtic system of land management. This called for the abolition of “Landlordism” and the creation of a system of peasant proprietorship. After the devastation of the Famine, many of its survivor in rural Ireland were no longer in a mood to accept the legal denial of their basic rights. For many in the West of the country, the “rent” they had to pay for a hovel and a small patch on which to grow potatoes for their own consumption left them penniless and hungry. The agitation at times erupted into violence and outrage, the ordinary law ceased to function over large parts of the country, and the Land League set up its own land courts.
As part of the non-violent campaign, the League called for the social ostracisation of all landlords’ agents who refused to comply with the initial demands for a reduction in the “rents” charged to the Irish peasantry working the land. In the autumn of 1880, Charles Boycott was the first unlucky recipient of the treatment. When he refused to lower rents he found that he and his family were completely isolated in their community. No household servants or farm laborers would work for them, no shopkeepers would provide them service and their mail delivery ceased. He brought in fifty Cavan Orangemen to harvest the estate’s crops who worked under the protection of 1,000 members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, at a cost of £10,000 to the Westminster government in November 1880. He left Ireland permanently in 1886.
The celebrity of the case ensured that his surname would pass into the English Language as synonymous with group action to withhold support or patronage in protest at an organization’s actions. The Government in London, under Gladstone, reacted by introducing the Coercion Bill which made it illegal for the Irish to refuse to work for, or to boycott produce from, English landlords. Under the terms of the Act, Parnell and his fellows were gaoled, and the Land League suppressed, in October 1881.
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Charles Boys

Boys was a physicist, mathematician and inventor of instruments. In 1881 he invented the integraph, a machine for drawing the antiderivative of a function. However, he known particularly for his utilization of the torsion of quartz fibres in the measurement of minute forces, enabling him to elaborate (1895) on Henry Cavendish’s experiment to improve the values obtained for the Newtonian gravitational constant. He also invented an improved automatic recording calorimeter for testing manufactured gas (1905) and high-speed cameras to photograph rapidly moving objects, such as bullets and lightning discharges.

In 1888 Boys was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. The following year he became assistant professor at the Royal College of Science, South Kensington, a post he held until 1897. While holding this post he supplemented his income examining for the University of London. He also took up an applied science post of Metropolitan Gas Referee in 1897 and he held this post until the Referees were abolished in 1939 but he was retained in an advisory capacity until 1943.

His (alleged) ill-treatment of his wife led to her having an affair with Andrew Forsyth, professor of mathematics at Cambridge. The resulting scandal forced Forsyth to resign his chair in 1910 and Boys divorced his wife after 18 years of marriage. She married Forsyth and they left the country for a while spending some time in Calcutta. From 1913 onwards Boys lived in rooms in Westminster, going every weekend to the country where he had a workshop. Upon retirement in 1939, he grew weeds.
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Joseph Bramah

Bramah (1748-1814) was an English engineer and inventor whose lock manufacturing shop in London was the cradle of the British machine-tool industry. A central figure in early Victorian lock making and manufacturing, he influenced almost every mechanical trade of his time. His influence was probably greater for the manufacturing processes he developed, than for the product itself. He took out his first patent on a safety lock in 1784 and in the following year he patented his hydraulic press, known as the Bramah press, which was used for heavy forging. He also devised a numerical printing machine for bank notes and was one of the first to suggest the practicability of screw propellers and of hydraulic transmission. He invented milling and planing machines and other machine tools, a beer-engine in 1797 and a water-closet which bore his name.
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John Bull died on March 12th 1628 in Antwerp. He was born in Somerset in 1562 and became a choirboy in the Chapel Royal, London. By 1582 he had become organist of Hereford Cathedral and returned to London as Organist of the Queen’s Chapel in 1586. He succeeded to the position of organist at the Chapel Royal in 1591 and had obtained a D. Mus. from Cambridge before 1592. In 1596 he was appointed the first Professor of Music at the Gresham College and in 1601 began a foreign tour, leaving Thomas, son of William Byrd, as his deputy at the college. As the position could only be held by a single man, he resigned the post on his marriage in 1607. As a Catholic, life was increasingly difficult in a Protestant, and increasingly Puritan, England and he left the country in 1613, taking up a post as organist at the archducal chapel in Brussels. He took up the post of organist at Antwerp Cathedral in 1617 and remained there until his death. He was one of England’s finest virtuoso composers and is considered one of the founders of contrapuntal keyboard music. Amongst his compositions is, according to tradition, the British National AnthemGod Save the Queen.
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James Burbage

In the Elizabethan period actor, or players, were lumped together with vagabonds and liable to prosecution or local summary justice. In order to survive and develop they needed powerful protection. Fortunately, the queen herself was extremely fond of drama and members of her court were patrons of individual bands of players. They acted on a variety of stages, giving private performances in the great halls of their patron’s houses and the queen’s palaces, at the Inns of Court, for the public in Town halls or in the courtyards of the many inns and taverns in the cities.

During the 1570s many city authorities did their best to prevent the public performances, nowhere more so than in London. Their reasons were few but powerful:

  • The players attracted rowdy crowds.
  • They caused riots and disturbances.
  • The crowds disturbed the peace of citizens in their going to and coming from the entertainments.
  • They tempted apprentices from their trade and into drink and lewd behaviour.
  • The players sometimes made unseemly comment on their betters.
  • Above all there was the perpetual risk of the Plague which was easily spread in crowded assemblies.

The Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London did succeed in banning all players from acting within the jurisdiction of the City. The boundaries of the City, however were small, and the magistrates of the surrounding counties, especially Middlesex and Southwark were less rigorous in their approach.

Enter James Burbage. He was the chief player of the band supported by the Earl of Leicester and his son, Richard, was acquiring a reputation as a great tragic actor. In 1576, James acquired a twenty-one years’ lease on a piece of land in Shoreditch just to the north of the city boundaries. Here he built the first permanent playhouse and called it simply the Theatre. It was a great success and other playhouses followed, notably the Curtain, also in Shoreditch, and the Rose on Bankside in Southwark. The latter was erected by Burbage’s rival, Edward Alleyn who led the band under the patronage of the Lord admiral.

By 1594, Elizabethan Theatre was firmly established in London. In the summer of this year, Burbage formed the band known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Players. The company included Will Kemp, who had played in Europe and whose character was a clown directly descended from Arlequino of the Italian Commedia dell’ Arte. It also included William Shakespeare. At Christmas in 1594 the company presented Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors as part of the elaborate revels at Gray’s Inn at Court and one of their earliest successes, in 1595, was Romeo and Juliet.

The lease of the ground on which the Theatre stood, originally for twenty-one years, was finally due to expire in April 1597. The conditions specified that either Burbage could renew the lease on agreed conditions or remove the playhouse building before the expiry date. If he failed to fulfill either condition the whole was appropriated to the landlord, Giles Alleyn. He was difficult and refused terms which were in any way acceptable to the players and a long wrangle ensued.

Burbage, meanwhile, attempted to revive the earlier notion of a private indoor theatre. This had been pioneered by Richard Farrant in 1576 when he acquired a lease on part of Lord Cobham’s property, what was the monastery of the Black Friars before the Dissolution. Here, until 1590, Farrant, and after his death in 1580, John Lyly, put on private performances using companies of boy actors drawn from St Paul’s School and the Chapel Royal. The two groups were known as the Children of Windsor and the Children of the Chapel. These performances were very popular and Elizabeth was a frequent visitor.

In 1596, Burbage realised that the growing popularity of the plays had a downside. Young men of fashion and intelligence were attending in increasing numbers and they, rather than the paying public, were the greatest source of the players’ income. However, these wealthy patrons were also increasingly put off by the mixed and noisy crowds who paid their pennies to stand in the ‘groundling’, the open space or yard of the public theatres. Burbage, saw the private theatre as a possible solution. In addition, a private indoor theatre would be unaffected by the weather and a small audience paying premium prices would essentially subsidise the larger audiences paying their pennies at the open theatres.

He acquired the upper floor of the old refectory building of the monastery and, ad considerable personal expense, turned it into an indoor theatre. However, Blackfriars had become a fashionable residential area and there were immediate misgivings on the part of the residents. The playhouse, they claimed, would be a great nuisance with its noises of drums and trumpets and the crowds of people thronging the narrow lanes to and in the area. They had influence at court and the Privy Council gave orders that Burbage was not to use the building for playing. The objections were eventually overcome, with royal backing, and the Blackfriars Playhouse became the first theatre to use lighting. It was finally closed by the Puritans in the dark days of the Commonwealth.

James Burbage died in 1597 and his mantle fell on his sons Richard and Cuthbert. Meanwhile, no progress had been made with Giles Alleyn and the protracted argument rumbled on into 1598. Late in that year it became obvious that unless something drastic was done, Alleyn intended to impound the Theatre building. The chief sharers in the Company, the Burbages, Shakespeare, John Hemings, Augustine Phillips, Thomas Pope and Will Kemp, agreed to finance a new Playhouse. A site was found on Bankside and the lease was signed on December 25th 1598.

Three days later, when Alleyn was away from London, the Burbages and a number of their friends armed themselves and, with the builder Peter Street, marched to the Theatre and dismantled the timber building. They carried the timbers across London Bridge to the new site where they deposited the timbers. Street set about building the new theatre and completed it by July 1599. It opened as the Globe, the name derived from its sign which showed Hercules carrying the world on his shoulders.
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Admiral John Byng

John Byng (1704-1778) was the fourth son of Admiral George Byng. At the age of 14, he followed his father into the Navy and by 1745, by means of his father’s influence, had risen to the rank of rear admiral in the Mediterranean fleet. In 1756, the French precipitated the Seven Years War when they blockaded the port of Mahon in Minorca. The British authorities were slow to react but outraged public opinion eventually spurred them into hasty and precipitate action. On March 11th, 1756, John Byng was appointed to the command of a fleet, which was then ordered to proceed to Minorca. The position of second in command was given to Rear-Admiral Temple West.

However, this fleet, which should, given the circumstances, have been a large and powerful one, consisted only of ten ships of the line. Even these few ships were only fitted out with great difficulty. This was rather surprising given that, at the time, twenty-seven ships of the line were cruising in the Channel and the Bay of Biscay and twenty-eight ships of the line were in commission in home waters. It is impossible not to conclude that the Admiralty had failed to grasp the seriousness of the French action. Be that as it may, Byng was not permitted to utilise any of these ships or to draw crews from them for his mission which was evidently regarded as a wholly subsidiary one. He was also directed to take on board the absent officers of the Minorca garrison and a reinforcement of troops, consisting of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, under the command of Colonel Lord Robert Bertie. To make room for these men, all the Marines belonging to the Naval squadron were sent on shore. Nobody in authority seems to have noticed that when Byng had landed the troops at Port Mahon, the absence of the Marines would have rendered his fleet unfit for any subsequent action at sea.

Byng arrived at Gibraltar on May 2nd. He was there joined by some of the ships, which, under Captain the Hon. George Edgcumbe, were already in the Mediterranean; and he received intelligence that the Toulon squadron had landed a French army in Minorca, and that the enemy was already in possession of almost every strong position in the island. Byng communicated to General Fowke, the Governor of Gibraltar, an order from home to the effect that, subject to certain conditions, a detachment from the garrison, equal to a battalion of men, was to be embarked on board the fleet. But General Fowke and his advisers came to the conclusion, firstly, that it would be extremely dangerous, if not impracticable, to throw succour into Port Mahon; and secondly, that the garrison of Gibraltar was already too weak to spare the specified detachment without danger to itself. Yet as the fleet was in great want of men, and as Edgcumbe’s ships had left their Marines, and some of their seamen, in Minorca to assist in the work of defence, the Governor permitted 1 captain, 6 subalterns, 9 sergeants, 11 corporals, 5 drummers and 200 privates to embark, it being represented to him that, without such reinforcement, several of the ships would be absolutely unable to go into action.

The British and French fleets finally engaged on May 20th in an inconclusive action. The losses in killed and wounded were nearly equal, but the French had lost no officers of rank, whereas in Byng’s fleet Captain Andrews, of the Defiance, was killed, and Captain Noel, of the Princess Louisa, was mortally wounded. The British ships also suffered much more than the French in their masts, yards and rigging. Byng called a council of war on board the Ramillies, and summoned to it not only the naval officers, but also several of the land officers who were on board the ships. It resolved that there was no prospect that an attack on the French fleet would relieve Mahon and that an attack by the British fleet in its present condition would endanger Gibralter also. As a result, the squadron sailed for Gibraltar, and, on the way, occupied itself in repairing such damages as could be repaired at sea. Arriving at Gibralter, Byng found reinforcements which had been sent out to him under Commodore Thomas Broderick. After Byng’s departure from England, the Ministry seems to have finally understood the full extent of the danger in the Mediterranean. It was too late. The British garrison at Minorca surrendered a month after Byng’s return to Gibralter.

The first reports of the surrender to reach London were from, biased and exaggerated, French sources and inflamed both establishment and public opinion. Byng’s own, more factual, account was not published in the London Gazette until ten days after its arrival at the Admiralty and then with serious omissions. The message was clear. The Admiralty, of course, had acted to preserve the honour of England but Admiral Byng had failed. He and West were recalled to England where Byng was arrested and tried under Court Martial under the provisions of the 12th Article of War. He was acquitted of cowardice or disaffection but found guilty of neglect of duty and condemned to death. He was executed by firing squad on the quarter-deck of HMS Monarque in Portsmouth at noon on March 14th 1757. The above illustration of his execution comes from a contemporary Broadsheet.

Thus, political face was saved and public outrage (based on endemic anti-French sentiment) assuaged. It is, perhaps, a terrible irony that Voltaire, in his Candide of two years later, could refer to England with the comment: Dans ce pays-ci il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres. (In this country it is thought well to kill an admiral from time to encourage the others.)
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