On this day in history….10th April 1877

On this day in history : 10th April 1877 – 14-year-old Rossa Matilda Richter, using the stage name ‘Zazel’, performs the first human cannonball act in London….

Public domain

Rossa was born into a family of acrobats in Lambeth, London in 1863….her parents having come to live in England from Dresden…. Her father was a well-known agent, supplying performers and animal acts to circuses and shows – whilst her mother was a dancer in a circus….

At the age of 4 or 5 Rossa started a career on the stage…. She took up ballet lessons and gymnastics and by the time she was 6 she was performing as a trapeze artist with the stage name ‘La Petite Lulu’….

When she was aged 12 Rossa joined an acrobat troupe that took her to Dublin, Marseilles and Toulouse…. It was whilst performing in Toulouse that she had an accident and subsequently returned home to London….

Rossa had come to the attention of Canadian daredevil William Leonard Hunt – ‘The Great Farini’….known for his death-defying stunts and particularly his high wire acts – such as his crossing of Niagara Falls…. It was he who conceived the idea for the human cannonball act…. In the beginning he used his stepson as the ‘cannonball’; the boy, dressed as a girl, wowed the crowds and the act became extremely popular…. Only after a serious accident that hospitalised the boy was his true identity revealed….

Farini needed a new ‘cannonball’….he had been hired by the Royal Aquarium in London to attract visitors…. Rossa’s father was very protective and swore that his daughter was not going to be used in one of Farini’s dangerous performances…. However, her mother had no such qualms and tricked Rossa’s father into signing an agreement with Farini – saying the contract was with someone else and that Rossa would just be singing and dancing….

Performing as ‘Zazel, the Beautiful Human Cannonball’ Rossa became an overnight success….thousands flocked to see her…. In the words of the Mackay Mercury “hurled from the jaws of death into the arms of fame”….and from the ‘jaws of death’ indeed it must have seemed…. The cannon operated using rubber springs, accompanied by a gunpowder explosion for effect only….the contraption was extremely temperamental and Rossa would have had no way of controlling her flight or landing…. A great deal depended on luck that she landed in the net….

Public domain

So popular was her act that often she would perform in front of 20,000 spectators and sometimes twice a day…. Even the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII attended her performance twice…. Wearing a skimpy costume she cut a fine figure and souvenir photographs sold well…. Rossa was soon earning £200 a week – a considerable amount of money at the time…. So successful was the show the Aquarium extended its run….

Public domain

Rossa went on to perform across Europe, adding more awe-inspiring acts such as high dives…. Eventually she went on to join Barnum’s Circus and ended up marrying its manager George Oscar Starr….

Although she suffered accidents nothing was as catastrophic as to harm her career….but all that was to change whilst performing in New Mexico…. Rossa was balancing on a high wire situated 40ft above the ground – when she fell…. She landed on her hands and knees – and broke her back….

Rossa spent several months in a body cast….she did recover – but was not to perform again….

On this day in history….9th April 1483

On this day in history : 9th April 1483 – A young Edward V accedes to the throne upon the death of his father, King Edward IV…. Edward and his brother mysteriously disappear whilst housed at the Tower of London….

King Edward V – Public domain

It was on Monday the 14th of April 1483 at Ludlow that the 12-year-old Edward learned of his father’s sudden death five days before…. King Edward IV had in his Will nominated his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, to serve as Protector of the Realm during his son’s minority….

Edward had been living at Ludlow Castle as the Prince of Wales – a role he was assisted in by his uncle, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers…. The Earl accompanied the boy to London to take the throne; however, the Duke of Gloucester had the Earl and other members of his party arrested and subsequently executed…. The Duke now had control of the young king and also that of his younger brother, Richard, the Duke of York….

Edward V as Prince of Wales – From Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, Lambeth Palace – Public domain

The Tower of London at the time was a royal residence as well as a prison – and it was here that Edward was brought to live whilst awaiting his coronation…. He was soon to be joined by his brother….

Edward’s reign came to an abrupt end just a few weeks later, on June the 26th…. His uncle, the Duke, claimed that Edward IV’s marriage to Queen Elizabeth (Woodville) was invalid and so their children were illegitimate…. His claim was accepted and Gloucester was proclaimed King Richard III….

King Edward V and the Duke of York in the Tower of London by Paul Delaroche – Public domain

It was not long after that the two young princes disappeared from the Tower of London; there are no recorded sightings of them after the summer of 1483…. Many historians believe that Richard III had them murdered – but the finger of blame has also been pointed at Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, or even at Richard III’s successor, Henry VII….

In 1674 some workmen at the Tower dug up a wooden box buried 10ft under the staircase leading to the chapel of the White Tower…. The box revealed two small skeletons; the remains were interred in Westminster Abbey and are believed to belong to the ‘Princes in the Tower’….

Krischnig – Public domain

On this day in history….8th April 1968

On this day in history : 8th April 1968 – BOAC flight 712 bound for Sydney catches fire shortly after takeoff from Heathrow…. Air stewardess Barbara Jane Harrison is awarded a posthumous George Cross for her bravery….

Barbara Jane Harrison GC – Fair use

22-year-old Jane (as she preferred to be called) from Bradford, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, had joined BOAC in May 1966…. She was at the time living in Kensington, London, sharing a flat with other BOAC flight attendants…. She had volunteered for the long haul flight to Sydney, which was to travel via Zurich, Tel Aviv, Tehran, Bombay (now Mumbai), Singapore and Perth….as she had been invited to a wedding in Sydney. It is also thought that she was possibly hoping to meet up with a pilot she had met a few months previously, who flew with Qantas….

BOAC flight 712 took off from Heathrow mid afternoon with 116 passengers and 11 crew on board; almost immediately after takeoff the No.2 engine of the Boeing caught light…. Officials on the ground watched in horror as the wing was engulfed in flames and then to add to the terror the engine fell from the aircraft….a fierce fire raged where the engine had been positioned….

The aircraft in flight over Thorpe, with the detached engine (circled) – Fair use

The plane made an emergency landing back at Heathrow – a perfect landing and quickly came to a halt….but by now the fire had intensified….

Jane’s duty was to help the steward at the back of the aircraft to open the rear door and inflate the emergency escape chute – and then to assist passengers at the back of the plane to leave in an orderly manner…. Only the chute twisted and the steward had to climb down to straighten it before it could be used…. Jane was left to attend to the passengers alone….

Approximately six made it down the chute before it disintegrated in the heat and flames…. Jane encouraged the remaining passengers to jump – even pushing some…. All the while flames and explosions were all around her….

It seems she was making preparations to jump herself – but at the last moment she turned back into the burning aircraft…. She was not to be seen alive again….

Fair use

Jane had gone back to try and help a disabled passenger, an Israeli woman, Esther Cohen – their bodies were found close together…. Along with them perished a young Australian teacher, Catherine Shearer, a widow named Mary Smith and an 8-year-old girl, Jacqueline Cooper, who was emigrating to Australia with her family….

In August 1969 Jane was awarded the George Cross; she is the only woman to have received it during peace time – and the youngest woman ever to be a recipient of it…. The award was collected by her father….

Jane is buried at Fulford Cemetery near York….

Jane’s grave, Fulford Cemetery, York – RHaworth CC BY-SA 3.0

On this day in history….7th April 1832

On this day in history : 7th April 1832 – Joseph Thompson, a Cumberland farmer, leads his wife by a straw rope around her neck to market in Carlisle, to sell her to the highest bidder….

A satirical engraving of the custom of wife selling – Public domain

The sale had been announced in the local newspaper and a large crowd gathered at the appointed time of 12 noon….

The couple had been married for three years and had no children…. She was an attractive, buxom woman around the age of 22…. As the sale began she stood on a chair above the crowd in her finest, fashionable clothes and appeared to be in good humour….

“Gentlemen, I have to offer you notice my wife, Mary Ann Thompson, whom I mean to sell to the highest and fairest bidder. Gentlemen, it is her wish as well as mine to part forever”….

Thompson went on to list his wife’s failings – saying she was a tormentor, domestic curse and daily devil – all of which caused much laughter from the crowd…. He then catalogued her attributes, which included that she could read a novel, milk cows, make butter, scold the maid, sing and was a good drinking companion…. He offered her at a price of 50 shillings but was eventually knocked down to 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog, by pensioner Henry Mears….

After shaking on the deal Thompson took the rope from around his wife’s neck, placed it around that of his new dog and retired to the nearest tavern…. Mary Ann and her new ‘husband’ then left the town together….

This all sounds rather far-fetched – but according to a local newspaper report of the time it did apparently happen….and actually was not such a rare occurrence…. Between 1780 and 1850 there were around 300 such sales recorded – and quite possibly there could have been many more…. One of the first reported was that of Samuel Whitehouse, who sold his wife Mary in the open marketplace to Thomas Griffiths for £1….

“Selling a Wife” – Thomas Rowlandson circa 1813 – Public domain

Divorces were an incredibly expensive affair and difficult to obtain…. If a marriage broke down a Private Act of Parliament had to be applied for by the man – (a woman was not allowed to file for divorce on account of being the possession of her husband) and cost around £3,000 – that’s well over £15,000 in today’s terms…. An end blessing from the Church also had to be obtained….

So, for the lower classes a legal divorce simply was not an option…. Although not technically legal ‘wife sales’ were an alternative way to end a marriage….and were generally accepted amongst the lower classes – with the authorities turning a blind eye…. Once ‘bought’ the marriage was considered null and void and a woman’s new ‘husband’ became financially responsible for her…. At the time a man owned all of his wife’s property and possessions – by selling her he gave up this right and she was entitled to take her worldly goods with her….

The sales were often only symbolic, with just one previously arranged bidder, usually the wife’s lover…. But sometimes bids were open to all, so she could be purchased by a complete stranger…. However, she had to be in agreement to the sale….some women actually demanded to be sold as it was the only way out of an unhappy marriage….

By the mid 1800s law enforcers had begun to clamp down on the sales – but by then it had become much easier to obtain a legal divorce….

On this day in history….6th April 1975

On this day in history : 6th April 1975 – A plane carrying 99 Vietnamese orphans lands at Heathrow Airport as part of ‘Operation Babylift’ – rescuing children from war-torn Vietnam….

Manhhai via Flickr

US President Gerald Ford had announced on the 3rd of April that America would begin evacuating orphans as American troops prepared to pull out of South Vietnam…. After two decades of fighting the city of Da Nang had fallen to the Communist Vietcong and Saigon (later to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City) and was under attack…. Ford feared for the lives of the orphans – his concerns being that the victorious Vietcong would show little mercy to the orphaned children, especially those who had been fathered by American servicemen….

Gerald R Ford – Image : Presidential Library and Museum

In total more than 3,300 children were air-lifted out of Vietnam….more than 2,200 of those to the United States. Canada, Australia, France, West Germany and Britain all joined in the operation….

A3854-03A 600dpi scan from Negative
1975, April 5 – Aircraft at San Francisco International Airport – San Francisco, CA – Nurses, Refugee Children, Others – children buckled into seats on plane; nurses moving in the background; all not in frame – Vacation Trip to California – Arrival of Operation Babylift Plane from South Vietnam; Vietnam Refugee – San Francisco, California

Tragically the very first plane bound for the States crashed 12 minutes after take off; whilst attempting an emergency landing after a door had blown out…. 138 were killed, including 78 children….

The children brought to England arrived on a 747 chartered by the Daily Mail newspaper – among them two survivors from the air crash…. Doctors and nurses accompanied the orphans – many of whom were only a few months old – on the 18 hour flight from Saigon…. On arrival at Heathrow thirty of the children had been diagnosed with pneumonia and six had to be immediately hospitalised; three were sadly to die….

A3854-04A 600dpi scan from Negative
1975, April 5 – Aircraft at San Francisco International Airport – San Francisco, CA – Nurses, Refugee Children – seated on aircraft; all not in frame – Vacation Trip to California – Arrival of Operation Babylift Plane from South Vietnam; Vietnam Refugee – San Francisco, California

There were those who condemned the newspaper, accusing it of performing a publicity stunt. The Red Cross said inadequate provision had been made to look after the children in Britain and that care should have been given to them in their homeland…. A spokesperson for the British Council for Aid for Refugees said it may be in the best interest for some to return to Saigon, as there were bound to be legal problems in making sure they were genuine orphans….

Blind Vietnamese orphan Le Thanh Phung, aged 9, hugs her new sister Karen Sharp, aged 6 – on arriving at Heathrow Airport – image credit : Manhhai via Flickr

As it was, none of the children were returned to Vietnam…. 51 were adopted and the remainder grew up in homes run by the Ockenden Venture and the British Vietnamese Orphans Project – (compared to out of 2,204 children taken to the US who were nearly all adopted within a few months)….

As adults many have tried to discover their roots – (or are in the process of doing so) – having grown up in Britain not knowing their date of birth or even their real name – only having the one given to them by the orphanage….

Manhhai via Flickr