On this day in history….5th January 1941

On this day in history : 5th January 1941 – The death of English record-breaking aviator Amy Johnson CBE – who is killed whilst delivering an RAF aircraft from Prestwick to RAF Kidlington in Oxfordshire, via Blackpool….


Amy was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia – a journey that took 19 days…. She was also the first woman to fly from London to Moscow in under a day, completing the 1,760 mile trip in approximately 21 hours…. In her time she held World records for the fastest flights from Britain to India, Britain to South Africa and Britain to Japan….


It was in 1940, during World War 2, that she joined the newly formed Air Transport Auxiliary, transporting RAF aircraft between airfields all over Britain….and it wasn’t long before she rose to the rank of First Officer….

On the 5th of January 1941 Amy was delivering an Airspeed Oxford aircraft to RAF Kidlington, near to Oxford….the weather conditions were atrocious, with freezing fog and heavy snow…. It was a journey that should have taken ninety minutes – but four hours later Amy’s plane was seen to ditch into the water of the Thames Estuary, on the Kent coast, near to Herne Bay….

An eye-witness, who was on board a Destroyer escorting a convoy, said he saw the plane was in trouble – with the engines cutting out and restarting. He also said the aircraft had hit the sea between the Destroyer and HMS Haslemere, which was nearby…. As it made contact with the sea the plane skidded along the surface for a bit and then began to sink. The door opened and the pilot jumped out – just as the plane sank, creating a turbulence, so the pilot was lost from sight…. He then witnessed a man jumping from HMS Haslemere with a rope tied around his waist….

At least some of this does tie-in with the official account of what happened…. Possibly Amy’s plane ran out of fuel, after she had become lost in the fog…. The crew of HMS Haslemere, a small converted ferry being used as an escort vessel, apparently spotted Amy’s parachute as she bailed from the aircraft….and they mounted a rescue mission. The story goes that Amy called out for help and a rope was thrown to her but she was unable to grasp it…. HMS Haslemere’s Commanding Officer, Lt Cmdr Walter Fletcher, with a rope attached to him, dived in to save her – but she had disappeared beneath the surface – and he had to be pulled back on board…. Amy’s body was never found – and Lt Cmdr Fletcher died a few days later from hyperthermia…. He was awarded the Albert Medal for his bravery posthumously….


However, Amy’s death has always remained shrouded in mystery….and it is a possibility there may have been a ‘cover-up’….

One theory, however an unlikely one, is that her plane was shot down by ‘friendly fire’…. In 1999 a former member of the 58th (Kent) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment claimed that an aircraft had been contacted by radio and the pilot asked to identify themselves…. Twice the wrong identification code (which was changed on a daily basis) was given…. Sixteen rounds of shells were fired and the plane crashed into the Thames Estuary…. Initially they believed they had shot down an enemy aircraft – and it was only the next day when they learned of Amy’s plight did they realise what they may have done…. Officers ordered them to keep quiet…. Experts believe this theory to be implausible – given the distance the guns were from the aircraft that Amy was flying….

In 2016 another version of what happened on board HMS Haslemere emerged….via the son of a naval reservist who had been serving as part of the crew at the time…. The ship had hit a sandbank during the rescue mission and had been put into reverse to free it…. The reservist sailor saw that Amy was getting too close to the stern and so he shouted to the Bridge to cut the engines…. An angry retort came back from one of the officers ~ “Don’t you tell me what to do!”…. A few moments later Amy was dragged beneath the boat….and was sucked into the blades of the propellers….

Of course this claim can never be verified – the reservist and his crew-mates were not called to give evidence at the enquiry….and no inquest was ever held in to Amy’s death as her body was never recovered…. Amy was 37-years-old – such a short life – but she achieved so much….and was much-loved by the British public….


On this day in history….4th January 1813

On this day in British history : 4th January 1813 – The birth of Sir Isaac Pitman – who developed the first major shorthand system…. At one time, Pitman shorthand was the most used system in the entire English-speaking world….

Image credit: The Pitman Collection, University of Bath

Nowadays Teeline is the most commonly used system – taking just a few months to learn as opposed to the typical year that Pitman takes…. There are those who believe that shorthand is becoming obsolete – there has been a steady decline in numbers of people taking shorthand courses over the last decade – in this digital age audio memos are cited as being one of the main reasons for its decline. However, others argue that shorthand still has its place; it is an invaluable tool in business and for students when taking notes, it is also still used in the Courtroom and among journalists….

Pitman popularised shorthand at a time when the Press and business were advancing at a rate that made it a commercial necessity….

Pitman Shorthand – Image : Public domain

Sir Isaac Pitman’s motto in life was “time saved is life gained’…. Born in Trowbridge, Wiltshire he was educated at the local grammar school. After a spell as a clerk in a textile mill he became an English teacher – and started teaching in Lincolnshire….

In 1835 he married Mary, a widow and twenty years his senior – and they moved to Gloucestershire. Pitman was dismissed by the authorities from the public education system when he became a Swedenborgian – a religious movement based upon the writings of scientist, theologist and Swedish Lutheran, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772)…. In 1837 Pitman became teetotal and a vegetarian in 1838….two practices he attributed for his excellent health throughout life – and his ability to work exceptionally long hours…. The Pitmans moved to Bath in 1839 and he opened a small private school….

Pitman was a great advocate of ‘the spelling reform for the English language’…. Modern spelling started to develop from about AD 1350 onwards – and so many influences meant many variations in spelling. The aim of the reform being to create more consistency….

At around the same time Pitman learned Samuel Taylor’s shorthand system – and became interested in creating his own system, using sound. In his phonetic system symbols do not represent letters but sounds – resulting in a quick way to write down information. He published his first pamphlet ‘Sound-Hand’ in 1837….

Pitman Shorthand Consonants – Image credit Xanthoxyl – own work CC BY-SA-3.0

By 1843 his publishing business had become successful enough for him to give up teaching. In 1844 he published ‘Phonotypy’ – which was to become his major publication on the spelling reform….and in 1845 the first version of the ‘English Phonotypic Alphabet’ was published….

Pitman’s wife died in 1857 but he remarried in 1861, this time to a woman eight years younger than himself, Isabella Masters…. Then in 1886 he went into partnership with his sons, Alfred and Ernest and together they formed Isaac Pitman & Sons…. It was to become one of the World’s leading educational publishers – having offices in London, Bath, New York, Toronto, Melbourne, Tokyo and Johannesburg….

Sir Isaac Pitman received his knighthood in 1894….he died in 1897….

Image credit: T via Flickr

On this day in history….3rd January 1911

On this day in history : 3rd January 1911 – The Siege of Sidney Street takes place….a gun battle is waged on the streets of London as two Latvian anarchists hold out in an East End tenement for several hours – against over 200 armed police and a detachment of soldiers….


The drama had begun to unfold three weeks previously, on the 16th of December 1910. A gang of Latvian revolutionaries had attempted to rob a jeweller’s shop in Houndsditch. The gang, calling itself ‘Leesma’, meaning ‘flame’, consisted of approximately thirteen people, including two women….their purpose was to commit robberies to raise money to help fund fellow activists in Latvia and Russia, who supported Lenin and the Bolshevik Movement….

The gang had rented rooms in a building annexing the back of the jeweller’s shop….the plan was to break through the common wall between the two adjoining properties. They chose to carry out their planned robbery on a Friday night….but being a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood – and Friday being the Jewish Sabbath – it was a particularly quiet time. Alerted by the noise the gang were making whilst attempting the robbery local residents called the police….

Eight unarmed police officers arrived, three sergeants and five Constables….the gang opened fire on them. Three policemen were killed and two were injured – the gang then made their escape…. One Latvian was injured – having been shot accidentally by another member of the gang. He was carried away by his friends but later died from his injuries – and was found dead in his lodgings the following morning….

The police immediately mounted a search and by the end of December had most of the gang in custody…. They then received a tip-off that two members, Fritz Svaars and William Sokolow, were hiding at 100 Sidney Street, which is located at the heart of Stepney. A room at the address was being rented by Betsy Gershan, the girlfriend of Sokolow. Being the East End of London the area was very overpopulated and the property itself overcrowded….fourteen people were registered at the address, two families with young children….

At midday on the 2nd of January two horse-drawn vehicles arrived in Sidney Street; concealed inside were armed policemen – and the building was placed under observation….

During the early hours of the 3rd of January a long snaking line of over 200 policemen made their way to 100 Sidney Street. Some were armed – but their weapons, such as revolvers, shotguns and tube guns, were old and antiquated. The men had not been briefed as to the nature of the task at hand – but they knew it was dangerous, as married men had been excluded from the operation….


By dawn all was in place and the police were ready to take action. Somehow they managed to evacuate 100 Sidney Street and the surrounding properties without alerting Svaars and Sokolow, who were on the second floor…. The pair were Continue reading “On this day in history….3rd January 1911”

On this day in history….9th October 1799

On this day in history : 9th October 1799 – The sinking of HMS Lutine…. Later its bell is salvaged and presented to shipping insurers Lloyds of London – where it is rung to mark the loss of a ship – or indeed the safe return….

A frigate similar to HMS Lutine – Public domain

Lutine was a French frigate and was launched in 1779…. As one of the sixteen ships handed over to Britain on the 18th of December 1793, following the end of the Siege of Toulon, it was then to serve in the Royal Navy….

Carrying a cargo of gold Lutine sank in a violent storm at Vlieland, in the West Frisian Islands off the cost of the northern Netherlands…. All but one of the 240 onboard perished….

HMS Lutine in distress – Unknown author – Public domain

The shifting sandbanks of the region were always going to make it nigh on impossible to conduct a truly successful salvage operation – most of the cargo has never been recovered…. It is estimated around £1.2m (the equivalent in today’s terms being £119m) in bullion and coins went down with the ship – an exact figure cannot be determined as a later fire at Lloyd’s destroyed all records…. The gold had been destined to provide the banks in Hamburg with funds to try and prevent a stock market crash….

The gold was insured by Lloyds of London, who paid the claim out in full – which meant the lost cargo now belonged to them…. On the 29th of October 1799 instructions were issued to attempt to recover the gold and in December 1799 salvage operations began…. With the shifting sands the ship was rapidly filling with silt…. Over the years various salvage attempts have yielded small recoveries but only amounting to a fraction of what lies down there….

The ship’s bell was recovered on the 17th of July 1858 – it was found tangled in chains between the rudder and ship’s wheel…. It weighs 106lb and is 18in in diameter – engraved upon it is ‘ST. JEAN – 1779’ – nobody knows why this name does not correspond to the Lutine…. The bell was installed in The Royal Exchange in 1859, hanging from the rostrum in the underwriting room at Lloyds…. It was rung every time news of an overdue ship was received; one toll for a loss and two for a safe arrival into port…. The last time it was rung for a ship’s loss was in 1979 – and the return of an overdue ship in 1989…. The bell has developed a crack and so ‘ringing the news’ for shipping has now ceased…. Nowadays it only tolls for the passing of a member of the Royal family – as it was for when Princess Diana died and the death of the Queen Mother…. And of course, most recently on the 15th of September 2022 – when a single ring of the bell marked the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and then finished with two rings to acclaim the new King Charles III….

Lloyds of London Image Portfolio Feb2011

When Lloyds moved in 1929 the Lutine Bell was installed in the new premises in Leadenhall Street and then in 1958 it was relocated to Lloyds’ headquarters in Lime Street…. Since 1986 it has been situated in the most recent Lime Street headquarters….