On this day in history….11th April 1936

On this day in history : 11th April 1936 – Billy Butlin opens his first Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Skegness….changing the concept of the British family holiday….

Billy Butlin – Public domain

Billy Butlin was born in Cape Town in 1899 – but when he was around 7-years-old his parents separated and he came to England with his English mother…. For the next five years he travelled the Country with his grandmother’s fairground, where his mother sold gingerbread…. This gave the young Billy an insight into commerce and entertainment…. His mother emigrated to Canada when he was 12, leaving him in the care of an aunt; but two years later, once she had settled, she sent for him….

Finding it difficult to fit into school, where he was bullied and teased for his English accent, Billy left and found work in a department store…. He served in the Canadian army as a bugler during World War 1 and after the war returned to England – with just £5….

Billy invested £4 of his money into a stall on his uncle’s travelling fair…. One stall became several, some of which were at prime static locations…. He purchased some fairground equipment and started a travelling fair of his own…. By 1927 he had opened a static fairground in Skegness….he opened a similar one at Bognor Regis in 1932….

It was on a visit to Barry Island that Billy experienced the frustration of many a family holidaying in Britain at the time…. Staying in a boarding house he found himself being shooed out by his landlady between meals…. He felt sorry for the families who were on their holidays, locked out of their paid accommodation – in whatever weather – often with little to do….

Billy had already been considering the idea of providing accommodation to attract visitors to his fairground in Skegness…. Holiday camps were to a certain extent already founded – such as Warner’s – but it was Billy Butlin who was to take the concept and turn it into an iconic British culture….

After securing a plot of land Billy built his first camp at Ingoldmells, close to Skegness…. His idea was to provide a week’s holiday, with 3 meals a day and free entertainment in between…. A holiday would cost between 35 shillings and £3 per week, depending on the time of year…. He took out an advertisement in the Daily Express costing £500 (equating to over £30K in today’s terms) and on the 11th of April 1932 – Easter Eve – the camp was officially opened by aviator Amy Johnson – the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia….

He quickly realised the holiday makers were not interacting with one another quite the way he had intended – families were keeping themselves to themselves…. he asked Norman Bradford, an engineer who had been involved with the construction of the camp, to take on the duty of entertaining the guests…. Norman mingled with the holiday makers, chatting, telling jokes and creating a holiday atmosphere…. He was to become the first of Butlin’s Redcoats….and soon a whole team had been recruited….

Within a year the holiday camp had doubled in size – and two years later Billy built his second camp at Clacton-on-Sea…. Butlin’s holiday camps were on their way….

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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….