On this day in history….14th July 1967

On this day in history : 14th July 1967 – Abortion is legalised in Britain, ending the misery of many of the illegal backstreet terminations that claimed the lives of so many women….

ImageCreator CC BY-SA 3.0

Throughout history attitude towards abortion in the Western World had been more relaxed – it was considered the foetus was part of the woman and abortion was acceptable providing it took place before ‘quickening’ started – or when the baby’s movements began to be felt (16-20 weeks)…. However, towards the end of the 18th century attitudes began to change – including in Britain….

Art from a 13th century illuminated manuscript – featuring a herbalist preparing a concoction containing pennyroyal for a woman – Public domain

In 1803 The Ellenborough Act was brought in…. Any abortions carried out after quickening carried the death penalty…. In 1837 the Act was amended to include all abortion…. This was relaxed in 1861 with The offences Against the Person Act, which meant performing an abortion or trying to self abort carried a sentence of life imprisonment….

The Infant Life Preservation Act replaced this in 1929 – making it to crime to kill a viable foetus in all cases except when an expectant mother’s life was at risk…. However, this didn’t last for long – a succession of laws followed to eventually all but totally take away even this access to a termination….

During the 1930s MPs and women’s groups began to audibly voice concerns about the loss of life and damage to women’s health…. Between 1923-33 around 15% of maternal deaths were due to illegal abortions…. This eventually led to the establishment of The Abortion Law Reform Association in 1936…. In 1938 Dr Alex Bourne was acquitted for performing an illegal abortion – this case set a precedence….and during the 1950s support for reform grew…. The contraceptive pill arrived in the 1960s (initially for married women only) and finally The Abortion Act, sponsored by David Steel MP came in 1967….coming into effect as law on the 27th of April 1968…. Abortion became legal under certain circumstances, with the approval of two doctors…. At last control over women was coming to an end….though it didn’t happen overnight – but it was a start….

Cooperative Women Demand Legislation of Abortion, 1934 – The Wellcome Collection CC BY

Before the Act came in to force it is estimated some 100,000 women had undergone backstreet abortions – but in reality it is likely the number was much higher than this…. Other women resorted to DIY methods; drinking bleach, scalding baths, moving heavy furniture or even using a knitting needle or crochet hook on themselves…. Advertisements would appear in newspapers for cures for ‘menstrual blockages’ – but women knew these were abortion aids…. One of the most common and cheapest was for a lead based potion – which was responsible for poisoning and blinding many women…. (Below is an example of an advertisement for Beecham’s Pills from the 1880s – which discreetly claimed to be an abortion aid in the small print – I am not suggesting this was the lead based preparation previously mentioned)….

Suggestive advertisment for the use of Beecham’s Pills as an abortion aid, 1880s…. Beecham’s (Life time : na) CC BY-SA 3.0

A network of backstreet abortionists spread across the country…. Extra staff had to be drafted in to hospital accident and emergency departments on Friday nights – as Friday, being pay-day, would be the time many women would seek out the services of the illegal abortionists…. Often performing the ‘operation’ in squalid conditions, the abortionist would usually be unskilled – although occasionally they may have had limited nursing experience – sometimes they could even be a friend or relative of the woman…. Inevitably things often went wrong and emergency medical help had to be sought…. Sometimes there was loss of life….to avoid police questioning and bringing shame on the families sympathetic doctors were known to lie on death certificates, saying the woman had died of miscarriage….

These weren’t all ‘fallen women’…. many already had large families and simply could not afford to feed another mouth…. So many women were forced to take such drastic measures….

On this day in history….13th July 1955

On this day in history : 13th July 1955 – Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, is executed at Holloway Prison for the murder of her lover, David Blakely….

Born on the 9th of October 1926 in Rhyl, North Wales, Ruth at a young age was then to move with her family to Basingstoke, Hampshire – where she went on to attend Fairfields Senior Girls’ School…. Leaving at 14 she found work as a waitress…. The family moved to London in 1941 – and when Ruth was 17 she became pregnant by a married Canadian soldier…. She gave birth to a son, who was initially brought up by Ruth’s mother….

Ruth took up nude modelling – and through this got a job as a nightclub hostess…. She also took up prostitution and in 1950 fell pregnant once again…. This time she had a backstreet abortion….

Ruth Ellis – Fair use

In November 1950 she married George Johnston Ellis, a dentist with two sons from a previous marriage…. He was a jealous, possessive and violent alcoholic and became convinced Ruth was having an affair….needless to say, it was a stormy marriage…. When Ruth gave birth to their daughter he refused to believe the baby was his…. Ruth took her son and daughter and moved back in with her parents…. She also returned to prostitution….

1953 saw Ruth become the manageress of a nightclub in Knightsbridge…. She had by now made a number of celebrity friends, among them racing driver Mike Hawthorn….and it was through him that she met his fellow racing driver friend, David Blakely…. Although he was already engaged to another, Blakely had soon moved into Ruth’s flat above the nightclub…. and it wasn’t long before she was pregnant again…. Once more she had a termination….

Ruth also started seeing former RAF pilot Desmond Cussen, who was now a director of the family business, a wholesale and retail tobacconists across London and also South Wales…. When Ruth was sacked from her nightclub job it was his Oxford Street home that she moved into…. All the while she continued to carry-on with Blakely…. This relationship was becoming increasingly violent as Ruth insisted on seeing other men…. In January 1955 she suffered a miscarriage after Blakely punched her in the stomach following an argument….

Blakely wanted to end the relationship and went to stay with friends – wanting to lie-low…. On Easter Sunday, the 10th of April 1955, Ruth, having an inkling of where he was hiding, went to the address in Hampstead, London…. She arrived just in time to see his car drive off…. With an idea of where he may be going she walked the quarter mile or so to the Magdala public house – and sure enough his car was outside…. Ruth waited and around 9.30pm he and friend Clive Gunnell left the pub…. Ruth stepped from the doorway of the newsagents where she had been waiting and said “Hello, David”…. Blakely ignored her and continued to fumble for his car keys…. Ruth shouted his name – she then took a .38 calibre Smith & Weston Victory Model revolver from her handbag – and fired 5 shots at Blakely….

Site of the Magdala pub (2008) which closed in 2016 – Steve Bowen – Public domain

The first shot missed…. Blakely ran…. Ruth fired again, this time the bullet struck Blakely and he collapsed on to the pavement…. Ruth stood over him and fired 3 more bullets into his body…. She fired one last bullet into the ground….which ricocheted off the road, hitting and injuring Gladys Kensington-Yule, a by-stander, in the thumb….

Ruth, in shock, asked “Will you call the police, Clive?” An off-duty police officer, Alan Thompson, who was at the scene, took the gun from Ruth – and arrested her….


Ruth’s trial took place in Court No.1 at the Old Bailey on the 20th of June 1955 – the jury took just 20 minutes to convict her…. Her execution was performed by Albert Pierrepoint….

Image credit : Bradford Timeline via Flickr

On this day in history….12th July 1910

On this day in history : 12th July 1910 – Pioneering pilot and co-founder of Rolls Royce, Charles Rolls, is killed when the tail of his bi-plane breaks off during a flying display….

Photograph on the front page of the Illustrated London News, 16 July 1910 – Public domain

32-year-old Charles had been flying at Hengistbury Airfield, Southbourne, Bournemouth when the tail of his Wright Flyer broke away…. He was the first air fatality in the UK – and the 11th internationally….

Charles Steward Rolls had been born on the 27th of August 1877 at Berkeley Square, London but kept strong connections with the family home, The Hendre, in Monmouth, Wales…. He attended Eton and then Trinity College, Cambridge and studied mechanical and applied science….

Charles Rolls – Public domain

In 1896, at the age of 18, he travelled to Paris to buy his first car….a Peugeot Phaeton – and it is thought this was the first car in Cambridge – and one of the first three in Wales…. He became a founder member of the Automobile Club of Great Britain….

Charles was also a keen cyclist and captained Cambridge University’s Bicycle Club before his graduation in 1898…. In January 1903 he started one of Britain’s first car dealerships, C.S.Rolls & Co. in Fulham, selling Peugeot and Belgian Minerva automobiles….

It was on May the 4th 1904 that he met Henry Royce, through a mutual friend at the Royal Automobile Club…. Charles was impressed with Henry’s ‘Royce 10’ – a two-cylinder car….and the two formed a partnership….’Rolls Royce’….

But alongside that Charles was also a keen pioneer aviator, initially as a balloonist – having made over 170 flights…. In 1903 he won the Gordon Bennett Gold Medal for the longest single flight time…. Then on the 8th of October 1908 he became the second ever Briton to go up in an aeroplane – in a plane piloted by Wilbur Wright…. In October 1909 he bought his own aircraft….a Wright Flyer and made over 200 flights in it….becoming the second person licensed to fly a plane…. He was the first man to make a non-stop double-crossing of the English Channel….and helped found the Royal Aero Club….

C.S. Rolls in a balloon – Horace Hall – Public domain

On this day in history….11th July 1859

On this day in history : 11th July 1859 – Big Ben chimes for the first time….but just two months later it is to crack and is taken out of commission for nearly four years….

Big Ben – Image credit : D S Pugh CC BY-SA 2.0

Most people refer to the clock tower – (which was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee) – as ‘Big Ben’ ~ but it is actually the name given to the bell housed inside…. It is believed to have been named after Sir Benjamin, First Commissioner for Works – and indeed his name is inscribed upon it….

Image credit : Diliff CC BY 2.5

However, the current bell is not the original one…. In August 1856 a bell was cast by Warners of Norton, Stockton-on-Tees….and it was originally to be called the ‘Royal Victoria’…. Unfortunately this first bell cracked during testing in October 1857 and a second bell had to be cast…. This time the honour went to George Mears at his Whitechapel Foundry in April 1858…. However, this bell cracked too – but the problem was solved by turning it a quarter clockwise and chiming it with a lighter hammer….

Big Ben finally went into service in July 1859 – but disaster struck with yet another crack in the following September…. According to the foundry manager, a hammer more than twice the maximum weight specified had been used….

Since that time Big Ben has fallen silent on other occasions…. In 1976 it was taken out of commission for 9 months for repairs….and again for 7 weeks in 2007…. On Monday the 21st of August 2017, after the 12 noon chimes, Big Ben’s bongs temporarily ceased….as extensive repair, conservation and refurbishment work on the clock tower began…. The bell remains silent for the time being – except for on special occasions, such as New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Day….img_3526

Big Ben weighs a massive 13.7 tonnes, is 7.2ft (2.2m) tall and 8.9ft (2.7m) in diameter…. Its hammer weighs 200kg…. Elizabeth Tower is 96m tall and has 11 floors…. Each clock Face is 23ft (7m) in diameter and is made of 312 sections of opal glass…. The hour hand is 9.2ft (2.8m) in length and the minute hand is 14ft (4.3m)…. The clock is accurate to one second…. It is expected work will be completed by 2021 – and then we will hear Big Ben’s bongs every day once more….


On this day in history….10th July AD138

On this day in history : 10th July AD138 – The Roman Emperor Hadrian, upon whose orders the wall across northern England was built to keep out the ‘barbarians’, dies at his villa in Baiae, Italy….

Marble bust of Hadrian at the Venice National Archaeological Museum – Image : Livioandronico2013 – CC BY-SA 4.0

Hadrian was 62-years-old when he died – for the last few years of his life he had suffered chronic illness…. He had ruled the Roman Empire for 21 years…. Initially he was buried at Puteoli, near to Baiae – but not long after his remains were moved to the Gardens of Domitia, Rome…. Then, in AD139, on completion of the Castel Sant’Angelo, which was built for Hadrian by his successor Antoninus Pius, Hadrian’s body was cremated and his ashes placed there with those of his wife and adopted son – who also died in AD138….

Hadrian visited England in AD122 and it was then that he ordered the building of a wall across the north of the country…. It remained the north-western frontier of the Roman Empire for nearly 300 years….and is the best preserved frontier of the empire….

Hadrian’s Wall west of Caw Gap

The wall, built by the Roman Army, took 15,000 men at least 6 years to build…. It was 73 miles (80 Roman miles) long and ran from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway on the Irish Sea to the west….

Built to separate the Romans from the barbarians the original plan had been for the wall to have a guarded gate every couple of miles – with observation towers in-between….however, between 14 and 17 forts were later added…. Most of the wall was built from stone but a 30 mile stretch of the eastern section was a turf bank some 6m (20 Roman ft) wide…. The stone wall would have been a maximum 4.6m (15 Roman ft) high and 3m (10 Roman ft) wide…. There would have been a walkway along the top and possibly a parapet wall…. To the south of the wall a large ditch with a mound on each side, known as the ‘vallum’ was dug…. There are sections of the route where this has survived better than the wall itself…. After its construction it is thought the wall would have been plastered and then whitewashed so it stood out for miles around….

Vallum at Hadrian’s Wall near Milecastle 42 (Cawfields) – Image: Voice of Clam CC BY-SA 3.0

Only about 10% of the wall now survives; over the centuries much of the stone has been robbed…. Long sections were used for road building during the 1700s – especially by General Wade to build a military road during the Jacobite insurrection…. It was only in the 19th century that archaeologists and historians began to take a real interest….

In 1987 Hadrian’s Wall was made a World Heritage Site and in 2003 a National Trail footpath following the route from Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway was opened – which walkers are asked to adhere to…. Today’s historians are convinced there is still so much more to learn and discover….