On this day in history : 10th July 1040 – To help the people of the town Lady Godiva rides naked through the streets of Coventry to force her husband, the Earl of Mercia, to lower taxes….
Whilst the story is most certainly a myth, Lady Godiva was a real person during the 11th Century…. The name ‘Godiva’ is a Latinised form of the Old English ‘Godgifu’ or ‘Godgyfu’ – meaning ‘gift of God’…. She was known for her kindness and her generosity to the Church – but then, so was her husband…. Together they helped found a Benedictine monastery in Coventry….
In the legend Lady Godiva’s husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia is portrayed as greedy and money grabbing – which seems rather unjust – as he was part of a husband and wife benefactor team….such slander would not be acceptable today…. The story of her naked horseback ride only appeared a hundred years or so after her death – when it was recorded by English monk Roger of Wendover, who was often known to ‘spin a good yarn’…. But anyhow, somehow it found its way into our history books – and makes a good tale….
The story goes that Lady Godiva was dismayed at the extortionate taxes that the Earl was levying on the good citizens of Coventry…. Time and time again she pleaded with her husband to be reasonable and to lessen the burden…. Eventually he jested that only if she were to ride naked through the town would he lower the taxes….
Taking him at his word she ordered the people of Coventry to remain indoors and not to look out of their windows…. She then disrobed, mounted her horse and with only her long flowing hair to afford her some modesty she rode through the town…. Only the temptation to peek was too much for one man – a tailor by the name of Tom…. But the second he clapped eyes on Lady Godiva he was instantly struck blind…. He was the original ‘Peeping Tom’….
True to his word Leofric, Earl of Mercia, held up his end of the bargain and reduced the taxes for the people of Coventry….
On this day in history: 9th July 1901 – The birth of English romance novelist Dame Barbara Cartland – who was also the step-grandmother of Diana, Princess of Wales….
Dame Barbara was born Mary Barbara Hamilton Cartland in Edgbaston, Birmingham, to Captain Bertram Cartland and Mary Hamilton Scobell…. She was educated at the Alice Ottley School and the Malvern Girls’ College…. At the end of World War One her father was killed and Barbara moved with her mother and two younger brothers to London – and it is then that she began to write….
Her first book ‘Jigsaw’ had been published by the time she had reached her early twenties…. In her writing career she was to write 723 books, which have been translated into some 38 languages…. She is especially known for her romance novels, particularly those set in the Victorian era – but she also wrote plays, drama, verse, magazine articles, music, operetta….and several biographies….
Becoming known on London’s social scene as one of the ‘Bright Young People’ Barbara was the hostess of some of the most glamorous parties…. It is said she had over 50 proposals of marriage before finally settling for Captain Alexander McCorquodale – ‘Sachie’….a British army officer from Scotland – who was heir to a fortune in the shape of the family printing business…. The couple married on the 23rd of April 1927 and in the September of 1929 she gave birth to a daughter, Raine…. However, the marriage was not set to last and ended in divorce in 1933….
It was during the late 1920s and the 1930s that Barbara was to develop an interest in gliding…. In 1931 she came up with the idea of a ‘long distance tow’ – and she herself undertook a 200 mile tow in a 2-seater glider…. Her idea led to a troop-carrying glider – and later, in 1984, she was awarded the Bishop Wright Air Industry Award for her contribution to aviation…. During the 1920s and 30s she could often be found at the Brooklands Airfield and Motor Racing Circuit….
On the 28th of December 1936 she married her former husband’s cousin, Hugh McCorquodale – and went on to have two sons, Ian in 1937 and Glen in 1939…. At the outbreak of World War Two she took her young family to Canada to escape the war but found she was unable to settle and so returned to England…. Once back on home soil she became Chief Lady Welfare Officer to the Services and immersed herself in the war effort and at the same time became involved in politics…. She also served with the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade…. In 1955 she was elected Conservative Councillor for Hertfordshire – and she campaigned for reforms to nursing homes, better pay for midwives and education for traveller children…. She was to serve as Councillor for 9 years – it was during this time that her husband passed away….
During the 1970s her writing success continued to grow – she even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the most prolific author alive…. It was also in this decade that she released an album of love songs with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra….
1981 saw the marriage of her step-granddaughter, Diana and Prince Charles…. However, Barbara was not invited to the wedding…. Although Barbara and Diana had always got on – Diana was a keen reader of her step-grandmother’s books, who would often send copies to her – a rift had now developed between them…. Barbara was publicly critical of Charles and Diana’s divorce – but the two had made their peace shortly before Diana’s death in 1997….
Barbara was made a Dame in 1991 for almost 70 years of literacy, political and social contributions…. In her later years she was always a popular figure with the media and made many television appearances, including ‘This is Your Life’….twice! Instantly recognisable by her love of pink, blonde wig and heavy makeup, she was iconic, if not also a little formidable….
Dame Barbara carried on writing into her 90s and since her death – peacefully at home on the 21st of May 2000 – many of her 160 unpublished manuscripts have been published posthumously….
On this day in history : 8th July 1822 – The death of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley – who drowned in a sudden storm whilst sailing his schooner in Italy….
The small schooner, ‘Don Juan’, was an open boat that had been custom built for Shelley in Genoa…. He was sailing from Livorno and was returning home to Lerici, when whilst in the Gulf of La Spezla, 10 miles from shore, a sudden violent storm struck – and the boat sank….
Although there was some suggestion that the boat had possibly been rammed, by a larger vessel, the accident was put down to the severe weather and the poor seamanship of the three men onboard…. As well as Shelley ‘Don Juan’ had been carrying retired naval officer Edward Elleker Williams and boat-boy Charles Vivien….
However, there were those who believed the sinking of ‘Don Juan’ was not an accident – and the stories began to circulate…. They ranged from Shelley having committed suicide on account of suffering from depression to the more fanciful idea of having been attacked by pirates…. It is said an Italian fisherman later confessed on his deathbed to having rammed the boat in order to rob it….
Shelley was having financial difficulties at the time; he owed a substantial sum after leaving his former home in wales without paying any rent – as well as having other debts – so he certainly had his enemies…. There was also a theory, which had some supporting evidence, that he may have been murdered by one of his enemies – some think by an intelligence agent who strongly disagreed with Shelley’s political views…. He had indeed been attacked by such a person in the past….and the supposed ramming of his boat fuelled the speculation….
Shelley’s body washed ashore a few days later – and would have already been in a state of decomposition…. As in keeping with quarantine regulations he was cremated on the beach near to Viareggio…. He had died just a month before his 30th birthday….
His ashes were interred in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome – with the Latin inscription ‘Cor Cordium’ – meaning ‘Heart of Hearts’…. And then followed with a few lines from Aerial’s song from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’…. Eventually a memorial to Shelley was created at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey….
On this day in history : 7th July 1919 – The birth of Jon Pertwee – best known for his portrayal of the Third Doctor in Dr Who – and for his role as Worzel Gummidge….
Born in Chelsea, London, John Devon Roland Pertwee – ‘Jon’ – came from a theatrical family…. (The ‘h’ in his name was dropped in the 1930s after a playbill incorrectly spelt his name)…. His father, Roland Pertwee, was an actor, playwright and screenwriter – and his mother, Alice Schultz, an actress…. He was also a distant cousin of actor Bill Pertwee, known for his role as ARP Warden Hodges in the sitcom ‘Dad’s Army’….
Jon’s parents separated when he was very young and although his father remarried he was mainly raised by his paternal grandmother…. He was educated at Frensham Heights School, in Farnham, Surrey – which is where he had his first taste of the theatre, in a school stage production of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’…. He then went to Sherborne School, Dorset – after a few intermediate Schools in between, from all of which he was expelled….
Young Jon was rebellious in nature – but from an early age he had been encouraged by his family to pursue an acting career…. This was despite being told several times by his teachers that he would never be successful as an actor on account of his partial lisp….
In 1936, on finishing school, he was accepted into RADA – only to be expelled again…. His refusal to play the part of a Greek ‘wind’ – because he thought it a waste of time – coupled with his writing rude things about his tutors on the lavatory walls earned him his marching orders….
Nevertheless, at the age of 18 he was contracted to the BBC and had a varied career in the repertory theatre and music hall – mainly as a comic actor…. During WW2 he was to serve in the Royal Navy, which in turn was to help his own career after the War…. In December 1945 he joined the BBC armed forces radio comedy ‘Mediterranean Merry-Go-Round’– which went on to have a spin-off show ‘Waterlogged Spa’ in 1948…. This saw him awarded his own radio series ‘Puffney Post Office’ in 1950 – but his biggest radio success came in 1959 with ‘The Navy Lark’…. Acting alongside several others who were already – or about to become – household names, such as Lesley Philips, Ronnie Barker, Dennis Price and Michael Bates, the series ran for 18 years….
Meanwhile his stage and film career was doing well and in 1955 he had married actress Jean Marsh…. However, they divorced in 1960 and in the same year he married Ingeborg Rhoesa with whom he had two children, a daughter, Dariel and son, Sean – both of whom went on to have successful acting careers….
In 1969 Jon was approached to take over from Patrick Troughton as Dr Who…. He played the role of the Third Doctor as a suave, dapper man of action – who was rather ‘tech savvy’…. In an era influenced by James Bond he was seen to love working on his gadgets in the TARDIS – and drove a vintage yellow roadster called ‘Bessie’ – which reflected Jon’s own love of cars…. As the Third Doctor he was the first Doctor to be broadcast in colour….
In early 1974 he announced that he was stepping down from Dr Who and for a while he returned to his stage career…. Then in 1979 he took on the starring role of Worzel Gummidge in the ITV children’s sitcom based on the books by Barbara Euphan Todd…. The antics of the loveable scarecrow who could come to life ran for four series until 1981 and also starred Una Stubbs, Bill Maynard and Joan Sims…. It even made Jon a ‘popstar’ when ‘Worzel’s Song’ reached No.33 and stayed in the UK music charts for seven weeks in 1980….
Jon continued to work on stage, in film and even advertisements…. His last formal TV appearance was on Cilla Black’s ‘Surprise Surprise’ in April 1996…. On the 20th of May 1996 he died suddenly from a heart attack in his sleep at his home in Connecticut…. His sudden death came as a shock to everyone…. He was aged 76….
He was cremated at Putney Vale Crematorium – and as were his wishes, a toy Worzel Gummidge was fixed to his coffin…. Ironically his very last film appearance, made just a week before his death, was as Dr Who for an advertisement for Vodafone….
On this day in history : 6th July 1978 – A fire breaks out on the Penzance to Paddington sleeper train…. Twelve people are killed and a further fifteen are injured….
The train had left Penzance at 9.30pm and had arrived at Plymouth at 11.50pm, where it was coupled-up to two sleeper cars…. Around 12.15am the electric train’s heating system was turned on and the journey resumed at 12.30am, making stops at Newton Abbot and Exeter….
On older trains used bed linen would have been transported in the guard’s compartment – but on these newer trains it was carried in plastic bags and placed in the vestibule (the enclosed chamber at the end between two carriages)…. On the Penzance to Paddington train these bags had been stacked against the heater…. The bags began to heat up and as they started to smoulder toxic gases, including carbon monoxide were given off…. As the ventilation system drew its fresh air from the vestibule the now poisonous air was pumped into the sleeping booths….
Before long a major fire had broken out…. The train stopped at Silk Mill signal box, about a mile from Taunton, at 2.41am – after the communications cord had been pulled…. Some passengers were already dead from carbon monoxide poisoning – others awoke and although hampered by smoke and heat managed to escape….
Fire fighters arrived within four minutes and local residents living nearby rushed to help…. Rescuers were hindered further as doors had been locked…. Many passengers chose to lock their doors whilst sleeping – and although against the rules carriage doors were locked as guards wanted to keep intruders out of the carriages…. This certainly made the rescue operation difficult but was not cited as the main cause of death…. Eleven people were killed immediately, through poisoning and smoke inhalation – the victims and injured were taken to nearby Musgrove Park Hospital…. A twelfth, Belgian passenger died in hospital the following month having never regained consciousness….