On this day in history….21st January 1924

On this day in history : 24th January 1924 – The birth of Alfred Hawthorne Hill – better known to us as the slapstick comedian and actor Benny Hill….

Waxwork of Benny Hill in character as Fred Scuttle on The Benny Hill Show – Ricardo Liberato via Wikimedia Commons

Hill was born in Southampton – both his father and grandfather before him had been circus clowns…. Hill had a variety of jobs after leaving school…. He worked in Woolworth’s, did a spell as a milkman, was a driver, a bridge operator and even a drummer – before finally becoming assistant stage manager for a touring theatre company….

In 1942 he was called up – and served as a truck driver, mechanic and search light operator in Normandy, France…. However, his talent to entertain did not go unnoticed and he was eventually transferred to Combined Services Entertainment – the division which provided entertainment to the British Armed Forces…. It was at this time he changed his name to Benny – after his favourite comedian Jack Benny….

After the War he performed on radio – and made his TV debut in 1950…. He pursued a film career, with credits including ‘Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines’, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ and ‘The Italian Job’ – amongst others….

But his real glory came from his long running TV series ‘The Benny Hill Show’…. With its sketches of slapstick, parody, mime and double entendre the show ran in one form or another from January 1955 to May 1989 – and aired in over 140 countries…. In 1971 audience in the UK peaked at more than 21 million viewers…. However, declining numbers meant that in 1989 the show was axed….

Hill never married, although he proposed to at least two women – he had no children…. By the late 1980s his health had begun to decline – and in February 1992 he was advised to have a heart bypass after a mild heart attack…. He declined….a week later he was also diagnosed with kidney failure…. Benny Hill died alone, in his armchair in front of the TV, in April 1992….

Portrait of Benny Hill, from Press Kit – Fair use

On this day in history….20th January 1987

On this day in history : 20th January 1987 – Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite is kidnapped in Beirut, where he had been attempting to negotiate the release of Western hostages….

Terry Waite in April 1993 – Mike Harris, English Wikipedia – Public domain

Waite had been made Secretary for Anglican Communion Affairs by Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie in 1980…. His role was to work with churches abroad organising the Archbishop’s overseas trips…. It was in this role that he became involved in the case of a group detained in Iran on spying charges and he managed to successfully secure their release….Then in 1984, after negotiating with Colonel Gadaffi, he managed to secure the release of four Britons held in Libya….

Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury March 1980 – January 1991 : Maximet – own work – Public domain

Over the following two years he was to become involved in trying to regain the freedom of four Americans being held in Lebanon by the Islamic Jihad Organisation…. He made three trips to Lebanon in all….

On his third and final trip he knew of the immense danger he was in…. He arrived in Beirut on the 12th of January 1987 to begin negotiations with the Islamic Extremist captors of the hostages….

He met with his contact who told him that the captors were willing to allow him to visit the hostages, who were apparently unwell and very depressed…. Naturally Waite expressed concerns for his own safety but was assured of safe conduct by his contact…. He asked for 24 hours to think about it and after much soul searching made his decision….

Waite felt that if he didn’t go and the captors were being truthful and had no intention of harming him or taking him captive, he would never be able to live with himself if one of the hostages were to die….

Of course, Waite was taken captive…. He was held for 1,763 days – the first four years of which he was kept in solitary confinement…. He was finally released on the 18th of November 1991, along with American academic Thomas Sutherland, who had been seized in 1985….

On this day in history….19th January 1848

On this day in history : 19th January 1848 – The birth of Matthew Webb, the English swimmer and diver who was the first recorded person to swim the English Channel….

Captain Matthew Webb
Captain Matthew Webb, July 1883 – Illustrated London News – Royal Museums Greenwich CC BY-SA 3.0

Webb was born in Dawley, near to Telford in Shropshire, he was one of twelve children….and he learned to swim in the River Severn…. At the age of 12 he joined the training ship HMS Conway and then two years later the Merchant Navy….

It was whilst serving as 2nd Mate on the Cunard Line’s ‘Russia’ that Webb was to become a hero…. The ship was sailing between New York and Liverpool when a man went overboard mid-Atlantic…. With no hesitation Webb dived in to try and save him…. His attempt was unsuccessful – but his heroic effort saw him rewarded with £100 for his bravery and awarded the Stanhope Medal – (an award which is given annually by the UK’s Royal Humane Society for the year’s most heroic rescue)…. Webb also became a celebrity because of the attention bestowed upon him by the Press…. Incidentally, this was not to be the only time Webb was to jump into the water in order to try and save a life…. He saved his own older brother, Thomas, from drowning in the River Severn in the Summer of 1863….

Webb became Captain of the steamship ‘Emerald’ – and one day in 1873 he read of the failed attempt by J.B. Johnson to swim the English Channel – and he decided he had to try himself…. So he left his job and began to train…. Initially he started at the Lambeth Baths but then progressed to the River Thames, Hollingworth Lake in Derbyshire and the English Channel itself….

Hollingworth Lake, Derbyshire

Webb’s first attempt, on the 12th of August 1875, was unsuccessful due to high winds and rough seas…. Twelve days later, on the 24th of August, he set off again from Admiralty Pier, Dover – greased-up in porpoise oil and flanked by three escort boats…. He continued his swim at a steady breaststroke, taking a zig-zag route across the Channel of nearly 40 miles long…. Despite being stung by jelly fish and being prevented from reaching the French shore because of strong currents for some five hours, he eventually arrived at the beach just outside Calais after 21 hours and 45 minutes in the water….

Webb became a national hero, the public loved him and he basked in the glory…. He went on to pursue a professional swimming career – particularly as a stunt swimmer…. One of his stunts involved floating in a tank of water for 128 hours….

Cariacture of Webb by Vanity Fair’s ‘Ape’ – published in 1875 – Carlo Pellegrini – Public domain

But his final stunt was one that many considered to be complete madness….an attempt to swim through the Whirlpool Rapids just below Niagara Falls…. On the 24th of July 1883 he launched himself into the Niagara River from a small boat and began to swim…. He died in a section of the river near to the entrance of the whirlpool…. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls….

On this day in history….18th January 1996

On this day in history : 18th January 1996 – Six major environmental groups add their support to the growing campaign against the controversial Newbury bypass….


The first Newbury bypass had been built in 1963 but by the 1980s it was unable to cope with the sheer volume of traffic…. A new route was proposed following the disused Didcot, Newbury and Southampton railway line – controversially running through three sites of special scientific interest…. A part of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – an English Heritage site registered as being the location of the battlefield for the first Battle of Newbury during the English Civil War – and a National Trust nature reserve…. Also along the route, areas had been identified as being the habitat of an endangered snail, the Desmoulin’s Whorl snail….particular to the local area….

Supporters of the proposed scheme insisted the new bypass would provide relief to the congested town centre of Newbury…. Those who opposed it claimed that within 10 years traffic would be back to intolerable levels – whilst they agreed there was a problem that needed to be addressed a bypass was not the answer…. The people of Newbury were divided, as many were against the scheme as were for it….

Nevertheless clearance work began on the 2nd of August 1995 with the demolition of six buildings in the way of the route…. The previous month had seen the first of the protest camps appear…. Well organised disruptions by activists caused major setbacks for the contractors….tunnels and treehouses were built and protesters used themselves as human shields to prevent plant equipment from being moved in….

Eviction of the Tot Hill Camp, February 1996 – Nick Woolley CC BY-SA 2.5

Finally work began in earnest the week prior to the 18th of January 1996 – on the 17th some 350 trees were felled and 35 protesters arrested…. On the 18th Friends of the Earth, the Council for British Archeology, Greenpeace UK, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Wildlife Trusts and the Worldwide Fund for Nature added their support for the campaign against the scheme….

On the 15th of February 5,000 protesters from across the UK joined together to peacefully march two miles along the route – no arrests were made…. It was claimed to be the largest ever single demonstration against road building in Britain…. Among the marchers were TV presenters and local residents Maggie Philbin and Johnny Morris….

Between January and April 1996 an area of approximately 360 acres of land was cleared – including 120 acres of woodland…. Nearly 10,000 mature trees, including oak, ash and beech, were felled….

Thames Valley Police feared the policing operation could cost as much as £12m and asked the government to help meet the cost…. By December 1996 the expense had reached £5m – and a further £30m was spent by the contractors on private security….

The protest camps remained on the route until 1997…. The road took 34 months to complete, at a cost of £100m – it opened in November 1998…. Over 1,000 people were arrested during the campaign….

On this day in history….17th January 1928

On this day in history : 17th January 1928 – The birth of British hairstylist and entrepreneur Vidal Sassoon, who revolutionised women’s hairdressing in the 1950s/60s….

Vidal Sassoon in 2006 – en.User:DierkA / de.Benutzer : The weaver

Vidal was born in Hammersmith, West London to Jewish parents and the family lived in Shepherd’s Bush…. His mother, born in the East End, came from a Ukrainian family who had emigrated to England during the 1880s…. His father was born in Thessaloniki, now part of northern Greece…. When Vidal was 3-years-old his father left for another woman…. Falling into poverty Vidal’s mother was unable to keep up the rent payments on their home and so the family were evicted…. She took Vidal and his younger brother to her sister’s flat – seven of them squeezed into the tiny space with no bathroom or inside toilet….

Vidal’s mother had no choice but to place her boys in the care of a Jewish orphanage….and here they stayed for seven years…. Their mother was only permitted to visit them once a month – and it wasn’t until Vidal was 11 and his mother had remarried that the family were to be reunited…. But even this was short-lived, as both Vidal and his brother were evacuated to Wiltshire at the beginning of World War 2….

Vidal returned to London and left school at the age of 14…. He was good at football and dreamed of being a professional player – but his mother had other ideas…. She had always wanted him to become a hairdresser and so she took him to the school of well-known stylist Adolph Cohen…. However, it was obvious there was no way the family could afford the cost of the expensive two-year course – but luck was on their side – Cohen, taking a shine to Vidal, waived the fees….

Vidal went on to train under Raymond Bessone in his Mayfair salon – and then in 1954 opened his own…. His interest in architecture gave him the inspiration to create the precisely angled geometric scissor cut and bob cut hairstyles which were to become his trademark…. Short, simple to maintain cuts that a woman could style herself at home….

It was not long before Vidal’s trendy Bond Street salon had celebrity clients, such as fashion designer Mary Quant and actress Nancy Kwan….

Mary having her cut by Vidal, 1964 – Kristine via Flickr

Vidal expanded his business to the States…. He famously created the ultra-short pixie cut of Mia Farrow for the film Rosemary’s Baby….

Mia Farrow’s Pixie hair cut – Fair use

His business grew and grew, he established salons and hairdressing schools across Europe and North America…. A range of beauty and haircare products was launched – Vidal would appear in the TV commercials in person…. His catchphrase – “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good”….

In Memoriam Day via Flickr