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….

Robert Fortune – 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….

Wardian case – 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….

Rhododendron Fortune
Butterfly Buddleia – Buddleja lindleyana – Image credit : Pancrat – own work – CC BY-SA 3.0
Winter Jasmin – Jasminium nudiflorum – Image credit : Wildfeuer CC BY-SA 2.5

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….

Kumquat – Image credit : Abaddon1337 – own work – CC BY-SA 3.0

to many varieties of azaleas, tree peonies and chrysanthemums…. Even the Dragon tree – and camellias, including the ‘Robert Fortune’ which was named for him….

Camellia Reticulata – Robert Fortune

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

On this day in history….22nd March 1808

On this day in history : 22nd March 1808 – The birth of author, social reformer and feminist Caroline Norton, who campaigned for women’s rights in Victorian England….

Caroline Norton – Public domain

Born Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan in London, Caroline was the granddaughter of Irish playwright and poet Richard Brinkley Sheridan…. Her father was Thomas Sheridan, a soldier and her mother was Scottish novelist Caroline Henrietta Callender…. Tragically Thomas died in 1817 whilst serving in South Africa – he left his family virtually penniless….

Caroline was the second of three daughters, all known as beauties and sometimes referred to as ‘The Three Graces’…. Caroline herself was a high-spirited girl and quick of tongue…. Her mother, finding it difficult to control her, packed her off to boarding school in Shalford, Surrey when she was 16….

Some of the girls attending the school were invited to Wonersh Park, the home of local landowner William Norton, Lord Grantley…. It was here that Caroline caught the eye of Lord Grantley’s younger brother, George Norton…. He made up his mind there and then that he was going to marry her…. He wasted no time in writing to her mother….who whilst keen to see her daughter married off, insisted that they wait for three years…. The marriage took place in 1827, she was 19 and not overly happy about the union but agreed as she was all too aware of her family’s continuing financial difficulties….

The marriage was a disaster from the start…. He was somewhat dull, jealous – and a little dim…. She was bright, quick-witted and flirtatious…. They were also completely incompatible in their political views…. Norton was a hardline Tory – and MP for Guildford – whereas Caroline had liberal tendencies and like her grandfather she supported the Whigs…. Because she dared to voice her opinions she suffered regular, savage beatings at the hands of her husband….

Caroline buried herself in her writing…. She had shown a gift for verse from an early age…. It was two such pieces, ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’ in 1829 and ‘The Undying One’ in 1830, that led to her being appointed editor of the publications ‘La Belle Assemblee’ and ‘Court Magazine’….thus giving her some financial independence…. She counted amongst her close friends influential people, such as Mary Shelley, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Benjamin Disraeli, Edward Trelawney, Fanny Kemble and the then Home Secretary Lord Melbourne….

Portrait engraving of Caroline from one of her books – Tucker Collection – New York Library Archives – Public domain

Caroline finally left her husband in 1836…. Norton retaliated by accusing her of having an affair with Lord Melbourne…. It was a friendship he had initially encouraged – for his own gains…. Having lost his Conservative seat Norton had hoped that by using her friendship with Melbourne she could secure him a highly-paid government post…. Caroline and Melbourne, a widower who liked the ladies, were to become the subject of gossip – something Norton had in the beginning turned a blind eye to…. But once his wife had left him he sued Melbourne for seducing her…. He lost the case but Caroline’s reputation was in tatters…. To add to her misery Norton denied her access to their three young sons, Fletcher b.1829, Brinsley b.1831 and William b.1833…. Caroline’s battle against her husband for access to her boys eventually led to the Infant Custody Bill, 1839….

Norton then tried to claim the money she earned from her writing…. This prompted her to write to Queen Victoria, as part of a campaign to ensure women were supported after divorce…. The letter was published and became influential in helping the Marriage and Divorce Act 1857 succeed….

Watercolour sketch of Caroline by Emma Fergusson, 1860, National Portrait Gallery of Scotland – Image : Stephencdickson – own work CC BY-SA 4.0

Caroline herself was refused a divorce by her husband – she was not released from the legality of the marriage until his death in 1875…. Two years later, in March 1877, she married her old friend of 25 years, Sir William Stirling Maxwell, the Scottish historical writer and politician…. Sadly only three months later, on the 15th of June 1877, Caroline was to die….

On this day in history….5th March 1850

On this day in history : 5th March 1850 – The completion of the Britannia Bridge – linking the island of Anglesey and mainland Wales across the Menai Strait….

Original box section bridge circa 1852 – Public domain

The Menai Strait is a narrow stretch of tidal water, approximately 16 miles long separating Anglesey from the mainland…. Access across it had been solely provided by a road bridge – the Menai Bridge – a mile to the east and which had opened in 1826…. However, with the rise of rail travel a direct link to London was required – particularly to ease the journeys of MPs travelling from Ireland to Westminster, so a second bridge became necessary….

Postcard of the bridge circa 1902 – from the private collection of Jochem Hollestelle – Public domain

Initially consideration was given to using the existing bridge but it was the opinion of George Stephenson – ‘Father of Railways’ – that this particular type of suspension bridge would be unsuitable for locomotive use…. Consent for the new Britannia Bridge was granted on the 30th of June 1845…. Stephenson’s son, Robert Stephenson, was appointed Chief Engineer for the project, his design team included William Fairbairn and Eaton Hodgkinson…. They came up with a revolutionary tubular design; giant wrought iron tubes – two central main spans 140m long and two more spans at each end of 70m long…. It was thought initially that suspension chains would be needed but after careful consideration it was realised that this was not the case…. Compression force and tension would be dissipated as a train travelled across the tubes, enabling a heavy load to travel across the distance of the span….

1868 engraving showing Robert Stephenson with his team of engineers who designed the bridge – which can be seen in the background – Engraver James Scott – Public domain

Construction started on the 10th of April 1846 when the foundation stone was laid – the bridge was completed within four years…. On the 5th of March 1850 Stephenson himself fitted the last rivet into place, officially marking completion of the bridge…. On the 18th of March a single tube opened to rail traffic and by the 21st of October it was fully operational….

The bridge was decorated by four large limestone lion sculptures by John Thomas – two at each end…. Local poet John Evans wrote “Four fat lions, Without any hair, Two on this side, And two over there”…. And for 120 years those four lions oversaw the save passage of travellers across the Menai Strait….

One of the four stone lions – Image : Velela – own work – Public domain

On the evening of the 23rd of May 1970 a group of boys were playing inside the tube structure when they dropped a burning torch…. The wooden, tar coated roof caught fire and because of the nature of the construction of the bridge it was impossible for the emergency services to bring the blaze under control…. It spread from the mainland side all the way across to Anglesey before eventually burning itself out…. The structure was still standing but declared unsafe – tubes were visibly sagging and some had split open….

Section of the original wrought iron tubular bridge – which now stands by the modern crossing – Image : Velela – own work – Public domain

Four years later the bridge came back into use having been reconstructed – but it looked very different…. The tubes had gone and arches spanning between the retained original towers now provided support for the rail deck…. In 1980 a further road deck was added above the railway to carry the main A55 across….

The modern-day bridge – Image : Velela – own work – Public domain

On this day in history….15th January 1867

On this day in history : 15th January 1867 – Ice covering the boating lake at Regent’s Park gives way…. Hundreds of skaters are plunged into the icy water – 40 people lose their lives….

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Illustrated Police News – 19 January 1867

Ice skating was an extremely popular leisure activity during Victorian times – frozen ponds and lakes were often advertised in newspapers…. Up to 300 people were enjoying themselves on the ice in Regent’s Park this particular afternoon – skating, sliding, playing games of ice-hockey….img_5597

At around 4.15 the ice suddenly gave way with no warning – breaking into thousands of pieces…. Between 100-200 people were plunged into 12 foot of icy water – the weight of their heavy Victorian clothing dragging them down…. Boats were hurriedly launched to try and rescue those floundering in the water….passers-by reached out with branches broken from trees….

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Illustrated London News – 26 January 1867

Those who lost their lives came from all walks of life, from gentry to the very poor…. Most were young men but there were also women and children among them…. 29-year-old James Griffin was on the ice selling oranges to the skaters – and another, John Bryon, was selling hot roasted chestnuts…. It took over a week to recover all of the bodies, fishermen from Kew were used to drag their nets along the bottom of the lake….

There was much debate at the later inquest, as to the cause of the accident…. Some blamed Skating Club members acting as stewards (known as ‘Icemen’) for breaking the ice around the edges to prevent access to the island…. They in turn blamed the ice-hockey players, people who had been jumping on the ice and even the sun for melting it…. Park keepers also came under scrutiny – as it was thought they may have broken the ice out of concern for the large collection of exotic water fowl housed on the lake…. But in truth the skaters themselves were chiefly to blame for their own misfortune….

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Penny Illustrated Paper – 26 January 1867

The previous day 21 people had fallen through the ice – thankfully all had been rescued…. An overnight dusting of snow had covered the cracks so they were not visible…. Despite prominent signs being displayed, warning of the danger of thin ice, such was the enthusiasm to have fun that the signs were ignored….

As a precaution to prevent such a tragedy from happening again the lake was drained and the depth reduced to 4 or 5 foot with soil and concrete…. However, the public were slow to learn – years later a similar incident was to happen….only this time because of the depth none of the 100 or so who fell in received anything more than a very cold bath….

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Regent’s Park Boating Lake – Alan Stanton via Flickr

On this day in history….31st August 1888

On this day in history : 31st August 1888 – Mary Ann Nichols, an East End of London prostitute, is found murdered and mutilated in Whitechapel…. She is the first victim to be attributed to Jack the Ripper….

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The Illustrated Police News, 8th September 1888 – Public domain

Mary Ann was born to Caroline and Edward Walker, a locksmith, on the 26th of August 1845…. On the 16th of January 1864 she married William Nichols, who worked for a printing company and together they had five children…. Mary Ann had a problem with alcohol and left her husband several times before the marriage finally broke up in 1881…. At first William supported his estranged wife with an allowance of 5 shillings per week – but in 1882 these payments stopped when William learned of his wife’s prostitution…. The law at the time stated that a man was no longer obliged to provide for his wife if she was earning money through illicit means….

Spending the rest of her days between workhouses and cheap lodging houses Mary Ann made a meagre living on her earnings as a prostitute and on charitable handouts…. As an alcoholic she drank most of her money – she could expect to earn around threepence a time for her trade – the same price as a large glass of gin….

Mary Ann’s last place of residence was at a boarding house in Spitalfields, where she shared a room with Nelly Holland…. At 12.30am on the 31st of August Mary Ann was seen to leave a public house in Brick Lane…. She was then turned away from the lodging house as she did not have the fourpence to pay for her bed for the night…. She was last seen alive by Nelly at 2.30am, standing on the corner of Osborn Street and Whitechapel Road soliciting for ‘business’….

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Bucks Row, site of the murder – Image courtesy Hulton Archive – Public domain

At 3.40am cart-man Charles Allen Cross came across Mary Ann and at first was unsure as to whether she was dead or unconscious…. Mary Ann’s skirts had been raised, so after adjusting them to give her some modesty, Cross and another passing cart-man summonsed the police…. A surgeon, Dr. Henry Llewelyn, was called and on his arrival, at around 4am, he pronounced that she had been dead for about half an hour…. Her throat had been cut twice, which would have killed her instantly – and then her abdomen had been mutilated….

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Mortuary photograph of Mary Ann Nichols – Public domain

Mary Ann was buried at the City of London Cemetery in a public grave on Thursday the 6th of September 1888…. In 1996 the Cemetery authorities marked her grave with a plaque…. It is thought Jack the Ripper was responsible for the murders of 11 prostitutes between 1885 and 1891….

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Mary Ann’s grave marker at City of London Cemetery – Image courtesy : Matt Brown CC BY-SA