On this day in history….20th April 1912

On this day in history : 20th April 1912 – The death of Irish-born writer Bram Stoker, author of the 1897 gothic horror ‘Dracula’….

Bram Stoker – Public domain

Born on the 8th of November 1847 in Clontarf, Dublin, Abraham (Bram) Stoker was the third of seven children and his father worked as a senior civil servant….

Bram was a sickly child and spent many of his early years bedridden and was not expected to live – although nobody seemed to know exactly what ailed him…. He would entertain himself by ‘people watching’ through his bedroom window and listening to the stories and legends of Irish history told to him by his mother…. No doubt these pass-times helped fuel his creative imagination….

By the age of seven Bram had recovered from his mystery illness and was able to start his formal education, attending a private school run by Reverend William Woods…. Despite his frailty during his early childhood Bram was to go on to thrive both physically and academically…. He grew into a tall strapping young man and after being admitted to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1864 he even excelled at sporting activities…. He was recognised as Dublin University’s Athletic Sports Champion in 1867 and played rugby for the University…. He was President of the University Philosophical Society and auditor of the College Historical Society…. He also became interested in the theatre….

After graduating Trinity with a Bachelor of Arts in 1870 Bram was then to go on to gain a Master of Arts in 1875…. He was to embark on a career path which followed in his father’s footsteps as a civil servant, taking a position at Dublin Castle…. He also took an unpaid role as theatre critic for the Dublin Evening Mail – and in December 1876 gave a favourable review for actor Henry Irving’s ‘Hamlet’ at the Theatre Royal, Dublin…. This review was to change Bram’s life…. Henry Irving was Bram’s idol – and he would no doubt have been delighted when he received an invitation to dinner from Irving…. The two were to become firm friends….

Sir Henry Irving as ‘Hamlet’ from a painting by Sir Edwin Long – Image from the Wellcome Collection

Bram had started to write seriously in his twenties; his story ‘Crystal Cup’ was published in 1872 by the London Society and he followed it up with his four-part ‘The Chain of Destiny’…. He also wrote a non-fiction book, ‘The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland’, which was published in 1879….

In 1878 Bram married Florence Balcombe, who was a renowned beauty and had formerly been romantically linked to Oscar Wilde…. Bram counted Wilde amongst his friends having met him during his student days…. The friendship was tested as Wilde was initially upset that Florence had chosen Bram over him – but eventually differences were overcome and Bram and Wilde resumed their friendship….

Florence Balcombe – Public domain

Following their marriage the Stokers moved to London as Irving had invited Bram to manage his Lyceum Theatre – which Bram continued to do for the next 27 years (1878-1904)…. On the 31st of December 1879 Bram and Florence became parents to a son who they named ‘Irving Noel Thornley Stoker’ – he was to be their only child….

Inevitably Bram was to make many connections in his role as manager of the Lyceum…. He was to become well-known in theatrical circles and included amongst his friends and acquaintances people such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Buffalo Bill (Cody) and Mark Twain…. He was acquainted with William Gladstone, Theodore Roosevelt and Lord and Lady Randolph…. One of his closest friends was British novelist Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine (usually known as Hall Caine) – Bram dedicated his masterpiece ‘Dracula’ to his friend….

Hall Caine from a portrait by R E Morrison – Public domain

Henry Irving received a Knighthood in 1895 – he was the first actor to be knighted…. Bram accompanied Irving on many of his tours, particularly America but also to other parts of the world…. However, surprisingly, he never visited Eastern Europe – the setting for his masterpiece novel…. He was to set two of his novels in America and further novels in the small Scottish village of Cruden Bay in Aberdeenshire – a place dear to him and where he would spend month long holidays…. It was here that he began to write ‘Dracula’ in 1895 – it is believed Dracula Castle may have been inspired by the nearby ‘Slains Castle’…. Further inspiration for the novel had already been received by a previous visit in 1890 to the North Yorkshire seaside town of Whitby (which had also provided inspiration for another of his novels ‘The Snake’s Pass’ in 1890)…. ‘Dracula’ was finally published on the 26th of May 1897….

Slains Castle

The story of ‘Dracula’ involves Jonathan Harker, a solicitor, who when on a business trip stays at the Transylvanian Castle of Count Dracula…. Harker discovers that Dracula is a vampire and flees…. The Count follows him to England and begins to terrorise Whitby…. A group form, led by Abraham Van Helsing, to hunt Dracula down – which they eventually succeed to do and manage to kill him…. The book itself is written in the format of the diary entries and journals of the main characters….

Bram had met a Hungarian-Jewish writer, traveller and expert in Turkic languages and culture by the name of Armin Vambery…. Some say Vambery’s tales may have given Bram the idea for ‘Count Dracula’ – but there are others who dispute this…. Bram’s original idea as a title for his novel was ‘The Un-Dead’…. His Count was going to have been from Austria – and was to have been called ‘Wampyr’…. However, he found the name ‘Dracula’ whilst browsing in Whitby Library and thought it a more suitable name…. After its publication ‘Dracula’ was immediately well received – and has become one of the most successful literary works of all time…. Since publication it has never been out of print…. There have been several play versions of the novel and a film….

Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, 1931 – Public domain

After a series of strokes Bram was to die at 26, St. George’s Square, his London home…. He was cremated and his ashes rest at Golders Green Crematorium, North West London…. An annual festival to honour the literary achievements of Bram Stoker is held in Dublin….

On this day in history….13th April 1880

On this day in history : 13th April 1880 – The death of Scottish botanist and plant hunter Robert Fortune – who brought to us some 250 new species of ornamental plants – and tea to India….

Public domain

Fortune was born in Kelloe, Berwickshire on the 16th of September 1812…. Little is known of his early years and to those who knew him he volunteered little information…. However, we do know he was an apprentice in the gardens of Moredun House and showed promise from the start…. He managed to gain a place at Edinburgh’s Botanic Garden and trained under William McNab, a man who was not easy to impress…. But impress him Fortune did – and with McNab’s backing around 1840 he became Superintendent of the Hothouse Department at the Horticultural Society’s garden at Chiswick, London….

A few months later fortune was granted the position of the Society’s new species collector in China…. He was sent off to find, amongst other things:- double yellow roses, blue peonies, true mandarin oranges, tea plants and information on the peaches that grew in the Emperor’s garden – which were said to weight 2lb each!

Arriving in Hong Kong on the 6th of July 1843 Fortune wasted no time in starting his search…. Over the next three years he made excursions deep into the northern provinces of China…. As plants and seeds were seen as property of the Chinese Empire Fortune would not have been particularly welcome…. He was to encounter many hazards including being threatened at knifepoint by angry crowds, as he went about collecting species such as wisteria and weigela…. He also faced horrendous storms and even pirates on the Yangtze River…. To blend in and avert suspicion he disguised himself as a local Chinese merchant…. He learnt to speak Mandarin, shaved his head and even sported a pigtail…. With this disguise Fortune was able to collect his species to transport back home…. He did this by using Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward’s Wardian cases, an early type of terrarium….

Public domain

He finally returned to London in May 1846 and the following year published his book ‘Three Years’ Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China’…. Using the journals he had kept he detailed Chinese gardening and agriculture and the history of China’s tea culture…. He had brought back with him a vast array of beautiful exotic ornamental plants and flowers, which were subsequently introduced to the gardens of Europe, the USA and Australia….

Fortune was to set off for China again…. This time for the East India Company, with the mission of securing the best possible tea plants with which to establish plantations in India…. Once more he disguised himself as a local merchant…. He hired an interpreter and ventured into the tea regions of China…. He managed to collect over 2,000 plants and some 17,000 germinating seeds, which were taken to the Himalayas to establish India’s tea industry….

Fortune was to make a further two trips to China and a trip to Japan…. He was to introduce hundreds of trees, shrubs and flowers to us…. From the Kumquat….to many varieties of azaleas, tree peonies and chrysanthemums…. Even the Dragon tree – and camellias, including the ‘Robert Fortune’ which was named for him….

Public domain

Fortune died in London and was buried in Brompton Cemetery….

On this day in history….2nd March 1999

On this day in history : 2nd March 1999 – The death of singer and record producer Dusty Springfield – who’s career spanned five decades – from the 1950s through to the 90s….

Image source : Philips Records / Billboard – Public domain

Dusty was born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien on the 16th of April 1939 in West Hampstead, London – into an Irish Catholic family…. She spent the early part of her childhood in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire before later moving to West London….

She began to sing with her brother Dion, performing in folk clubs – and in 1957 the pair worked in Butlin’s holiday camps…. She then joined the Lana Sisters in 1958, performed on television and played live shows both at home in the UK and at US Air Force bases in Europe….

In 1960 she was back working with her brother and together with Tim Field they formed ‘The Springfields’ – a folk-pop trio, who went on to have chart success both here and in the US…. It was at this time that she and Dion changed their names…. The story goes the band got their name by taking Tim’s surname and as it was a beautiful day added ‘Spring’ to it, giving the name ‘Springfield’…. She changed her name to ‘Dusty Springfield’ and Dion changed his to ‘Tom Springfield’….

Image credit : Bradford Timeline via Flickr

Dusty’s solo career began in 1963 with I Only Want To Be With You, which charted at No.4…. It was followed by a succession of other hits, such as Wishin’ and Hopin’ (1964), I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself (1964), You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me (1966) and Son Of A Preacher Man (1968)…. It was also in the late 1960s that she was given her own variety show on the BBC, with guest appearances from the likes of Tina Turner and Jimi Hendrix….

Dusty, 1966 – Trade ad for ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’ – Philips Records

The blonde beehive hair-do and darkly made up eyes gave Dusty the iconic 60’s look…. She could also be a high-spirited lass in nature….and liked nothing more than a good old food fight! Once making the newspaper headlines when she aimed a cake at a waiter at the Melody Maker Polls Awards….

Image credit : Bradford Timeline via Flickr

Dusty relocated to the States in 1970….the strain was beginning to show…. She had been living with American songwriter Norma Tanega since late 1966 but cracks were beginning to appear in the relationship…. Dusty didn’t like the media intrusion into her private life nor the speculation about her sexual orientation…. By now her health was beginning to deteriorate and she was suffering from bouts of depression…. She settled in Los Angeles and became involved in campaigning for animal rights…. By the mid 1970s she had slipped into relative obscurity and had begun to drink heavily….

But in 1987 there was to be a massive turnabout…. She was asked by The Pet Shop Boys to record What Have I Done To Deserve This? with them….which went on to reach No.2 on both sides of the Atlantic…. She then recorded the theme tune to the 1989 film Scandal, a version of The Pet Shop Boys’ Nothing Has Been Proved…. It was at this point that she came back to England to live…. A BBC biography, ‘Dusty’, was televised in May 1994 – and she released a new album A Very Fine Love in 1995….

Record cover – Fair use

It was whilst recording this album in Nashville during January 1994 that Dusty became unwell…. Her doctors in England diagnosed breast cancer and she underwent intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatment – putting her cancer into remission…. However, by mid 1996 it was back…. Dusty died in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire on the 2nd of March 1999….

On this day in history….1st March 1910

On this day in history : 1st March 1910 – The birth of English actor and writer David Niven – who’s many films include Casino Royale, Around the World in 80 Days and The Guns of Navarone….

James David Graham Niven was born in Belgrave Mansions, London, into a military family – he was the youngest of four children and he was named for the day on which he was born – St. David’s Day…. He studied at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire before taking his place at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst – where he gained a Commission as Second Lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry….

Niven was keen to try his hand at acting – so he left his post in the army and travelled to Hollywood, where he managed to secure several minor roles…. He then appeared as an extra in British film There Goes the Bride in 1932 which subsequently got him more small parts….

At the outbreak of World War 2 he rejoined the army, being recommissioned as a lieutenant…. During this time he made a couple of war propaganda, morale boosting films:- The First of the Few, about the Spitfire aircraft, which greatly pleased Winston Churchill and The Way Ahead in which he starred with Peter Ustinov….

After the War Niven resumed his acting career making A Matter of Life and Death in 1946 before returning to Hollywood to star in the 1947 film The Bishop’s Wife alongside Cary Grant…. Niven had only been back in Hollywood six weeks when tragedy was to strike…. During a party at the Beverley Hills house of American actor Tyrone Power, a game of hide and seek had been taking place…. Niven’s wife, Primula, had opened the door to what she thought was a cupboard – only it was in fact a stone staircase leading to the basement…. She fell and sustained a fractured skull, dying from her injuries…. She was 28-years-old – the couple had two young sons….

In 1948 Niven met Swedish fashion model Hjordis Pauline Tersmeden – he was instantly smitten…. The pair married and had two children – but it was to be a stormy marriage, with her violent temper and his numerous affairs, including a rumoured one with Princess Margaret….

David Niven with his wife Hjordis Tersmeden, 1960 – Public domain

During the late 1940s and early 50s Niven’s career declined for a while…. However, in 1951 he made Happy Go Lovely, a musical with Vera-Ellen which was a big hit at the British Box Office…. He then went on to do a stint on Broadway which landed him a part in the film version of the stage play The Moon is Blue in 1953 – for which he won a Golden Globe….

With his career now well and truly back on track a string of successful films were to come…. One of his biggest roles was as Phileas Fogg in the 1956 hit Around the Word in 80 Days…. With his dry British wit Niven had never been more in demand…. He also did work for television with several TV dramas to his name, even hosting his own drama series The David Niven Show in 1959….

He still continued with light hearted movies such as the 1960 film Please Dont Eat the Daisies with Doris Day, which was highly successful – but he was soon to show his versatility…. In 1961 he starred in the massive film The Guns of Navarone….which was then to see him cast in a run of war movies….

He returned to comedy in 1963 with The Pink Panther…. 1966 saw him in the horror film Eye of the Devil and then in 1967 he played the part of James Bond 007 in Ian Flemming’s Casino Royale….

He carried on working on various films during the 1970s – but by 1980 ill health was beginning to show…. During a couple of TV interviews his slurred speech left audiences wondering if he had been drinking – but it was actually a symptom of his illness, motor neurone disease…. He died at his chalet in Switzerland in July 1983….

As well as being such an accomplished actor Niven also wrote four books…. His autobiography The Moon’s a Balloon in 1971, which was very well received….and in 1975 a collection of humorous reminiscences of Hollywood…. He also wrote two novels and was working on a third at the time of his death….

On this day in history….28th February 1873

On this day in history : 28th February 1873 – The birth of William McMaster Murdoch – the officer in charge of RMS Titanic at the time it struck an iceberg – and who’s death remains a mystery….

William McMaster Murdoch – Public domain

Murdoch was born at ‘Sunnyside’ in Dalbeattie, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland into a seafaring family…. His father was Captain Samuel Murdoch, a master mariner and his mother was Jeannie Muirhead….

After attending school in Dalbeattie Murdoch became an apprentice mariner with Liverpool’s William Joyce & Co – onboard the ‘Charles Cosworth’….

He went on to serve as First Mate on the ‘Saint Cuthbert’ from May 1895 – but it was later to sink off of Uruguay during a hurricane in 1897…. Between the remainder of 1887 until the end of 1889 he served as First Officer on board ships belonging to Joyce & Co, trading between New York and Shanghai….

Murdoch, who had a reputation for being shrewd and a man of good judgement, began working for the White Star Line in 1900…. He served on several of the company’s ships, including the cross Atlantic steamers ‘Arabic’, ‘Adriatic’ and ‘Oceanic’…. It was on an Atlantic crossing in 1903 that he was to meet his future wife – Ada Florence Banks – a 29-year-old school teacher from New Zealand…. They were married in Southampton in the September of 1907….

In May 1911 Murdoch was made First Officer on Titanic’s sister ship RMS Olympic….and then posted to RMS Titanic itself for the maiden voyage in April 1912….

From left to right : Murdoch, Chief Engineer Joseph Evans, Fourth Officer David Alexander and Captain Edward J Smith – onboard the Olympic

First Officer Murdoch was on the bridge as the officer in charge on the 14th of April, when an iceberg was seen at 11.39pm…. Murdoch was reported as giving the order “Hard astarboard” (meaning rudder hard-a-port) – whilst also ordering the engines full astern…. This was the last manoeuvre the Titanic was to make – but it was too late….37 seconds after the sighting of the iceberg Titanic was to strike it….

When the order came from Captain Smith to abandon ship Murdoch was responsible for the starboard evacuation…. He was to oversee the launching of approximately ten lifeboats – the last official sighting of him was as he was trying to launch one of the collapsible lifeboats…. At around 1.15am the officers had met in Murdoch’s cabin and handguns had been issued to them…. Around 2am shots were heard and at 2.15am collapsible ‘Lifeboat A’ floated free…. Murdoch had disappeared, assumed drowned….

RMS Titanic departing Southampton 10th April 1912 – Public domain

However, there were conflicting accounts as to what happened to Murdoch…. Several passengers, including first class passenger George Rheims and third class passenger Eugene Daly, claimed to have seen an officer shoot himself with a revolver at the forward lifeboat station on the starboard side, just before the Titanic went down…. These were statements strongly denied by Second Officer Lightoller, who testified at the later inquiry that he had seen Murdoch being swept into the sea…. However, the inquiry suggested that Lightoller was not in a position onboard at the time to be able to see where Murdoch was…. Perhaps the Second Officer was trying to protect Murdoch’s wife from the reality of her husband’s death ~ if he had indeed taken his own life…. One could hardly blame Murdoch for preferring a quick death as opposed to the unknown alternative…. He had already helped many to take their own chance at survival – and yet there was little hope for his own….

Years later Lightoller apparently admitted he knew of someone who had died by suicide on that night – but he never gave a name…. Was it Murdoch?

Murdoch in his 30s – Public domain