On this day in history : 18th March 1925 – Fire destroys two floors of Madame Tussaud’s in London and many of the waxworks melt – leaving a grotesque scene….
The fire was discovered at 10.30pm and by 11.30pm the top floor was a raging inferno. One eyewitness, as reported by the Guardian at the time said flames leapt 50 feet high from the roof of the building – “The wax models could be distinctly heard sizzling themselves to death”…. Those waxworks represented world leaders, members of parliament, historical characters, sports personalities….and infamous criminals. A macabre scene of melted faces, charred twisted limbs and broken torsos…. Also lost was an important collection of Napoleonic relics, including Napoleon’s deathbed and carriages….
Dozens of fire engines attended…. The fire chief, Mr. A.R. Dyer had been enjoying a night out at a nearby theatre and arrived to start tackling the fire in full evening dress…. It took and hour and a half to bring the blaze under control and by midnight it was out…. The whole top floor was destroyed, the roof had collapsed, leaving the Planetarium dome a mere skeleton. Lower floors of the building suffered severe water damage….
Thankfully nobody was injured…. One survivor was a parrot in a cage – at first nobody was sure if it was a waxwork or real…. However, a few moments after being brought outside into the ‘fresh’ air it fully revived…. Evidently it was a talking parrot because apparently on recovery its first words were “This is a rotten business”….
Luckily the Baker Street attraction of Madame Tussaud’s was insured. In 1928 it reopened – complete with new cinema and restaurant…. Thankfully all the moulds for the waxworks were stored at a separate site….
On this day in history : 17th March 1845 – British inventor and businessman Stephen Perry patents the rubber band in London….
The Olmec people (meaning ‘rubber people’ in Aztec) had been using latex from the rubber tree to make balls with which to play sport dating back to around 1600BC…. The latex sap from the rubber tree Hevea brasiiensis hardens into a springy mass when exposed to the air….
Tapped rubber tree – Image credit: Irvin calicut CC BY-SA 3.0
Rubber had first arrived in Europe in the 1730s…. French explorer Charles Marie de La Condamine had returned with some samples from South America. It first appeared in Britain later that century and was soon discovered to be a miracle worker at erasing pencil markings…. It was given the name ‘rubber’ by chemist Joseph Priestly….
In 1820 Englishman Thomas Hancock patented elastic fastenings for gloves, shoes, suspenders and stockings…. He also invented the masticator – a machine to recycle rubber scraps for reuse…. He was later to join forces with Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh and together they produced Mackintosh raincoats….
But it was American inventor Charles Goodyear who came up with vulcanised rubber in 1839….giving rubber the ultimate strength and elasticity needed for the likes of the rubber band….
Stephen Perry, with his company Messrs Perry & Co. Rubber Manufacturers of London – who made products from vulcanised rubber – came up with the idea of a band to hold together papers or envelopes…. On the 17th of March 1845 he received British Patent No. 13880 for his rubber band….
On this day in history : 16th March 1872 – The first ever English FA Cup Final takes place between the Wanderers Football Club and the Royal Engineers at the Kennington Oval…..
Before 1871 there had been no regular competitive league games…. Secretary of the Football Association, Charles Alcock, drew up the plans for a league and 15 teams entered the first round in November 1871…. In the beginning it was based very much around the ‘old boys’ public schoolboy network….
Wanderers had formed in 1859 as Forest Football Club….consisting mainly of Harrow schoolboys…. They became known as the Wanderers as they had no fixed ground of their own – but by 1869 they had become based at the Kennington Oval…. Charles Alcock, who had played for Wanderers, was also Secretary of Surrey Cricket Club….
Many football clubs played on cricket grounds at this time…. Often football teams emerged from the cricket teams themselves – as the game was used as a way of keeping fitness up during the winter months…. It wasn’t until the late 1880s and into the 90s that purpose-built football grounds began to appear….
An estimated crowd of 2,000 paid a shilling at the door to watch 22 amateurs play on a cricket pitch, with no nets at the goals, in the first FA Cup Final….
Wanderers had only won one match in the qualifying fixtures….they had drawn with Queen’s Park, a Scottish team, in the semi-finals…. This meant a re-match – but the Scots did not have enough money to return to London and so had to withdraw from the competition…. Under the rules at the time, this meant Wanderers automatically gained a place in the final…. The Royal Engineers – who were founded in 1863 by Major Francis Marindin – secured their place with a 3-0 win over Crystal Palace in a replay….
The match was won by Wanderers, who beat the Royal Engineers 1-0…. The winning goal was scored 15 minutes into the game by Morton Betts, playing under the pseudonym ‘A.H. Chequer’ – as he had attended Harrow and played for Harrow Chequers…. His goal was a simple ‘tap in’ after the ball had been successfully dribbled through the Royal Engineers’ defence….
The FA Cup remains the oldest football competition in the World….
On this day in history : 15th March 1949 – The end of clothing rationing in Britain – after its introduction during World War II….
When clothing rationing was announced by Oliver Littleton, President of the Board of Trade, on the 1st of June 1941, it came as a complete surprise to many people…. The announcement was made just before a bank holiday to allow the retail trade time to adjust….
Roughly 25% of the British population wore a military uniform at the time….putting pressure on the textile and clothing industries…. The allocation of raw materials prioritised for the war effort – wool for uniforms, leather for boots, silk for parachutes – and so on…. Little was left for civilian use….and by reducing manufacture for civilian purposes more space was created in the factories for war related production….
Rationing was also intended to ensure fairness. Each item of clothing would be allocated points in the form of coupons….the amount varied according to the amount of material used and labour required for its manufacture…. For example – a pair of stockings would be 2 points, whereas a dress would have been 11…. A man’s shirt or a pair of trousers needed 8 coupons….women’s shoes needed 5 and a man’s pair required 7….
Children’s clothes had lower coupon values – as they needed to be purchased more frequently – as kids have a tendency to grow…. Often schools did not relax the school uniform rules and this caused problems for many….
At the beginning of rationing everybody was allocated 66 points to last a year….but this number decreased as time went on…. At the lowest point there were just 3 coupons available per month – although from 1942 children were allocated an extra 10 points per year…. New mothers received an extra allowance of 50 coupons….and special provisions were made for some professions – such as manual workers and those who wore civilian uniforms….
One of the problems was that no matter the quality of the garment it carried the same coupon value…. This meant those with larger incomes could buy better quality clothes that lasted longer…. The Women’s Voluntary Service set up clothes exchanges to help those having difficulties in clothing their families…. In 1942 the government introduced the Utility Clothing Scheme…. A range of standardised, good quality, well-designed and price controlled garments was made available…. At first people worried that individual style would be lost, everyone would look the same – but most were pleasantly surprised as a considerable amount of choice was offered….
Women were still expected to look their best….keep standards up by not letting their appearance slip – it was thought to be good for the Country’s morale…. Make-up was still manufactured but in smaller quantities….it was never rationed but became very expensive as a luxury tax was added…. Women improvised, with tricks such as using beetroot juice as lipstick, even boot polish for mascara…. More attention was paid to hairstyles….
Clothing changed….skirts became straighter and shorter to save material…. Even men’s attire changed slightly, gone were the waistcoats and along came the two-piece suit…. Clothing was made with minimal pleating, gathering, pockets and buttons…. Straighter lines, no frills, no fuss….
Then there was the ‘Make-do and Mend’ campaign. Posters and leaflets were issued giving advice on how to make clothes last longer…. How to care for particular fabrics, prevent moth damage, make shoes go that extra mile…. Make-do and Mend classes started up, teaching skills such as dress making…. People became very creative at recycling and renovating existing clothes….and many made their own, spending their coupons on dress fabric – which usually worked out cheaper…. Some used curtain and furnishing fabric – until that too became rationed…. Even blackout material was used, as this did not require coupons…. Parachute silk was the ultimate prize – perfect for underwear, night gowns and of course, wedding dresses….
People were to some extent already used to make-do and mend, it had always been a way of life – so different to today’s consumer driven throwaway society….
On this day in history : 14th March 1757 – The execution by firing squad of Admiral John Byng on HMS Monarch at Portsmouth – for ‘failing to do his utmost’….
“In this country it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others”…. as written by the philosopher Voltaire in his controversial novella of the time ‘Candide’…. He was referring to a revision of a British law to make ‘failing to do his utmost against the enemy, either in battle of pursuit’ an offence punishable by death – among the officers of the British Navy….
John Byng was born in 1704 in Bedfordshire and joined the Navy at the age of 13…. By the time he was 23 he was a captain and a rear-admiral at 40…. By 1756, at the start of the Seven Years’ War, he was a well-respected Admiral….
Byng was given orders to prevent the French from capturing the garrison at Fort St. Philip on the island of Menorca – a British stronghold…. He set sail with a fleet of 10 ships to Gibraltar to collect a detachment of 700 soldiers…. From the onset Byng made it clear his resources were inadequate; he had 10 leaking ships and not enough men to sail them….
Having collected the Gibraltar garrison the fleet continued on its way….and on the 20th of May a battle with the French left some damage to the British ships whilst the French retreated unscathed…. Having learned the French already had a strong foothold on Menorca Byng decided to return to Gibraltar…. He sent a letter to the Admiralty explaining his reasons; the fort was already as good as lost – it would be a pointless exercise and an unnecessary risk to life….
When the letter arrived in London the government and King George II were furious…. The King’s words being…. “This man will not fight”….
In late June Fort St. Philip surrendered to the French and Byng was summoned home…. On his arrival he was arrested on breach of the 12th Article of War…. The court martial was held at the end of December with Byng being charged with ‘failing to do his utmost’…. Crowds chanted ‘swing, swing Admiral Byng’….
Although he defended himself the Admiral was found guilty – but was cleared of cowardice and disaffection…. It was with extreme reluctance that the death sentence was passed….Prime Minister William Pitt the elder appealed to King George for clemency for Byng – but this was refused – the King’s response being “You have taught me to look for the sense of my people elsewhere than in the House of Commons”….
At 7am on the day of the execution, during a howling gale, a coffin was brought onboard the Monarch, Admiral Byng’s flagship…. The inscription upon it read…. ‘The Hon. John Byng Esqr. Died March 14th 1757’….
Next the Admiral was brought on board…. The ship was soon full with officers from all of the other warships at anchor in the harbour at the time…. Other vessels crammed with spectators filled the waters….
At noon Admiral Byng, wearing a light grey coat, white breeches and a large white wig, was taken to the quarter-deck…. Waiting for him on a pile of sodden sawdust was a cushion, on which he knelt…. He tied the blindfold which he had reluctantly agreed to wear on account of the firing squad – six marines in their scarlet tunics – not to see his face…. The Admiral raised a neatly folded handkerchief in his right hand and after a pause of a few moments it dropped…. The six marines fired and he fell to the side – Admiral Byng was dead….
The King and his government had underestimated the French….rather than lose face they found a scapegoat….