On this day in history….5th April 1847

On this day in history : 5th April 1847 – The opening of Birkenhead Park, Merseyside…. Designed by Sir Joseph Paxton it is the first publicly funded park in the World….

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Birkenhead Park – Image credit: Benkid77 via flickr

The idea was to create a countryside landscape of open meadows, lakes and woodland – a green oasis in an urban landscape…. It was a turning point in social development at a time of poor health conditions as a result of the industrial revolution…. With its Roman Boathouse and Swiss Bridge it was meant as a ‘Park for the People’….

Public money was used to buy 226 acres of marshy grazing land….plots around the edge of the proposed park were sold off to help fund the project…. It took five years to complete – the design by Joseph Paxton but the building work supervised by Edward Kemp – both of whom had worked on the redesigning of the gardens at Chatsworth House…. The entrances, gateways, lodges and other structures were designed by architects Lewis Hornblower and John Robertson….

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The Grand Entrance – ReptOn1x CC BY-SA 3.0

It was opened by Lord Morpeth, 7th Earl of Carlisle and around 10,000 people attended the opening…. The Park inspired the design of Central Park in New York….

Having been designated a conservation area in 1977 this was then upgraded by English Heritage to a Grade 1 listed historic landscape and conservation area in 1995…. By the end of the 20th century it had become rundown and neglected – and underwent an £11.5m renovation project which was completed in 2007…. Paths were improved, trees and shrubs replanted and the lakes emptied, cleaned and reshaped – restoring the Park to its former Victorian magnificence….

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The Gabled Cricket Pavilion – ReptOn1x CC BY-SA 3.0

A new visitor’s centre and cafe were built and a children’s play area added…. It is home to two cricket clubs, a rugby club and has tennis courts, football pitches, bowling greens, two fishing lakes, a fitness trail and woodland walks…. Still a green oasis in an urban landscape….

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Map of Birkenhead Park

On this day in history….29th March 1871

On this day in history : 29th March 1871 – The Royal Albert Hall in London is opened by Queen Victoria…. Originally it was to be called The Central Hall of Arts and Sciences….img_2677

Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, had a vision borne from the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851 – a venue to promote the understanding and appreciation of the arts and sciences…. After his death from typhoid fever in 1861 the plans were shelved – but later revived by his collaborator on the Great Exhibition, Henry Cole…. Inspired by the ancient Roman amphitheatres Cole’s original intention had been for an establishment to hold 30,000 people – but this was revised to 7,000 for financial and practicality reasons; nowadays, due to safety regulations it has a capacity of 5,500….

On the 20th of May 1867 Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone…. A special marquee designed to accommodate 7,000 was erected – but it was more like 10,000 who packed in to witness Her Majesty lay the red Aberdeen granite block…. Beneath the stone was placed a time capsule which has lain undisturbed ever since…. Inside we know are some gold and silver coins and an inscription from Prime Minister Edward Smith-Stanley…. Of what else lies in the capsule little is known; the foundation stone is now located in the K stalls, row 11, under seat 87 in the main auditorium….img_2676

Queen Victoria, who was still in mourning and wearing all black, was rarely seen in public…. As the stone was laid she said “It is my wish that this Hall should bear his name to whom it will have owed its existence and be called The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Science”…. The Archbishop of Canterbury gave the benediction and a composition by Prince Albert ‘Invocation to Harmony’ was performed by an orchestra…. The ceremony was closed by a 21 gun salute from Hyde Park and a trumpet fanfare by Her Majesty’s Life Guards….

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The Hall at the opening ceremony, seen from Kensington Gardens. Public domain

At the opening ceremony of the Royal Albert Hall, some four years later, Queen Victoria was so overcome with emotion that her son, Edward Prince of Wales, had to make a speech on her behalf…. Her only recorded words of the day being that it reminded her of the British constitution….img_2678

On this day in history….26th March 1885

On this day in history : 26th March 1885 – The first official British cremation takes place at Woking Crematorium in Surrey…. It is the first of only three cremations in this year….

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Woking Crematorium – Image courtesy of PicturePrince via Wikimedia

With the arrival of Christianity came the belief that cremation was a Pagan practice that made resurrection after death totally impossible…. However, by the late 19th century attitudes were changing – albeit very slowly…. Burial grounds were fast filling up – and there were those who raised concerns about the hygiene of burials…. Victorian funerals were elaborate, extremely expensive affairs – and for many, unaffordable….cremation offered a cheaper alternative to burial…. However, there were plenty who were terrified of the idea – of not actually being dead and being burned alive….

Woking Crematorium was founded in 1878 on land purchased by Sir Henry Thompson, Physician to Queen Victoria and a founder and President of the Cremation Society of Great Britain…. Seven years later the first cremation was to take place – that of a woman identified in The Times only as ‘a well-known figure in literary and scientific circles’….

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Sir Henry Thompson

The woman in question was writer and painter Jeanette Pickersgill…. Born Jeannette Caroline Grover in Amsterdam around 1814, she had married Henry Hall Pickersgill, an English artist, on the 20th of July 1837, in Soho, London…. Jeanette was an accomplished artist herself, her work being exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1848 – 1863….

Her cremation took place six days after her death – which had been certified by two doctors to be on the ‘safe side’ – and the cremation process was completed within an hour and a quarter…. Hers was the first of three cremations performed in 1885 – a year that saw a total of 597,357 recorded deaths in the United Kingdom….

In 1892 a further crematorium was established in Manchester, followed by Glasgow in 1895 and Liverpool in 1896…. By 1901 there were six functioning crematoriums – but even so, out of 551,585 deaths that year only 427 bodies were cremated…. London’s first crematorium, at Golders Green, came into operation in 1902…. Nowadays over 70% of those who die are cremated….

On this day in history….23rd March 1861

On this day in history : 23rd March 1861 – Horse-drawn tramcars begin operating on London’s streets for the first time…. They were introduced by an American, Mr. George Train….

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George Francis Train. Image credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC

America had been introduced to tramcars (streetcars) by George Francis Train some thirty years before he brought them to Britain…. The very first line he opened here was at Birkenhead in 1860…. Three demonstration lines were then installed in London; one along the Bayswater Road between Marble Arch and Porchester Terrace, another at Victoria and a further one between Westminster Bridge and Kennington….

The trams proved popular with many; thousands attracted by their novelty came to see them and ride upon them…. However, not everybody was happy….

Train had chosen fashionable, elite parts of London to trial his trams…. The wealthy residents had no need for public transport, as most owned their own carriages…. They complained of the crowds who got in their way, the noise and having to share the roads with this new form of transport…. Then there was the problem with the actual rails, which stood proud to the road surface causing difficulties for other road vehicles….

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London United Tramways tram in front of its tram-shed, Kew Road, Richmond – Public domain

The ‘sticking-up’ rail – or ‘step-rail’ – was actually designed in a way (with a wide bottom plate some 5 inches wide) to take any width of carriage wheel….which at the time came in several different gauges…. The idea was that they could accommodate all vehicles, not just Train’s trams…. Unfortunately many carriages had accidents trying to use them…..numerous complaints were made to the transport commissioners, so that eventually on the 4th of October 1861, after six months in operation, Train was told to remove his tramway….

The advantages of the tramway had not gone unnoticed by the planners…. Nine years later, in 1870, the first tram service began between Brixton and Kennington…. This time the steel rails lay flush to the road surface….

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Public domain

Being on rails meant the tramcars were easier than the omnibuses for the horses to pull…. This in turn meant more passengers could be carried at one time using the same amount of horses…. As a result the fare, which worked out at 1d per mile, was cheaper than that of the buses…. With the addition of the railways’ cheaper early morning workers’ tickets public transport became accessible to everyone…. Another advantage was that the tram travelled slightly faster at 6mph, compared to the bus at 4mph…. Workers began to travel further to work, many moved out of the crowded city to the suburbs…. The tramway network had grown considerably, connecting new housing developments on the outskirts to the city centre….

Initially tram services were operated by private companies, such as the Pimlico, Peckham and Greenwich Street Tramways or the North Metropolitan Tramways…. London County Council could see the social benefits of the system, the cheap fares, accessibility and reliability…. The council saw it as an important part of their policy and during the 1890s made compulsory purchases on many of the horse tram routes….

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Croydon Horse Tram in London Road, Broad Green c.1890 – Public domain

The tramways still had their problems; the installation and maintenance of the lines caused disruption, derailments were a hazard….and then there was the horse poo….

A single bus or tram needed a team of twelve horses to keep it on the road for twelve hours a day…. Horses were rotated every 3-4 hours….they needed stabling, feeding, watering, veterinary and blacksmith services…. 55% of the operators’ fees went on the cost of caring for the horses – an average of £20,000 was collectively spent per year on horseshoes alone…. 50,000 horses were used to keep the public transport system going on London’s streets….horses that ate the equivalent of a quarter of a million acres worth of foodstuff and produced 1,000 tonnes of droppings per year…. Much of this was collected up and dumped in poorer areas of the city….

London Omnibus
Description: “Photograph of omnibus marked C.H. waiting for passengers with conductor on steps.” Photograph by RL Sirus. Date: 1884  http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

Eventually the electrification of trams and the arrival of the motor bus just before World War I meant the demand for the working horse became less and less…. The last horse-drawn trams were withdrawn in 1915….

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1882 Stephenson horse-drawn tram. Taken at the London Transport Museum at Covent Garden, London. Image credit: sv1ambo via Flickr

On this day in history : 7th March 1876

On this day in history : 7th March 1876 – Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell patents the telephone….

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An early telephone transmitter invented by Alexander Graham Bell around 1876. An improvement over Bell’s ‘gallows’ type instrument of 1875, it was Bell’s first device that could transmit intelligible speech – Public domain

Bell had worked with his father in London, who had developed a system to teach deaf people to speak. He in turn was most likely influenced by his own father, who had studied elocution and speech impediments…. It was an area that affected the Bell family in many ways….Bell’s own mother was almost totally deaf….

The Bells moved to the United States – Boston, Massachusetts – during the 1870s…. At first Bell worked as a teacher at the Pemberton Avenue School for the Deaf….it was here he met his wife, Mabel Hubbard – she was one of his students….

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Alexander Graham Bell and his family – Public domain

Bell began to explore the idea of transmitting speech over wires…. The downside of the telegraph system being the final message still had to be physically delivered after it had arrived at the receiving telegraph office…. With the help of electrician Thomas A. Watson, a prototype telephone was developed, which used electrical current and sound waves….

Unbeknown to Bell somebody else was working on a similar system….Elisha Gray had kept his work secret – Bell found out on the 11th February 1876, a Friday, that Gray intended to apply for a patent – and rushed to get the documentation completed for his own…. Both men applied for a patent on Monday the 14th of February….Bell’s solicitor obviously managed to file the paperwork first – records show his application was the 5th received at the Patent Office that day….whereas Gray’s was the 39th. Bell was granted US Patent No. 174,465 Improvement on Telegraphy on the 7th of March – Gray was left disappointed….

Three days later Bell made his first telephone call…. “Mr Watson….come here, I want you”…. Bell later wrote in his journal “To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I had said”….

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Watson in his later years, holding Bell’s original telephone – Public domain

There has long been controversy as to whether Bell ‘stole’ the patent…. It is indeed unusual for a patent to be issued before a device is fully working…. Three others all claimed to have invented the telephone first – Elisha Gray, Thomas Edison and Antonio Meucci – and said they had working devices…. There were more than 600 patent lawsuits brought against Bell – but each time the courts ruled in his favour….

Bell was never particularly interested in the commercial side of things – he was a scientist and inventor…. Among his other inventions were metal detectors, the Hydrofoil and Tetrahedral Kite…. His work also consisted of designs for aircraft, including helicopters…. Ironically he considered the telephone an intrusion….and refused to have one in his office….

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Public domain