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Little-known secrets of British history

Jo Carlowe / 19 October 2018

History or mystery? Nailing the ‘truths’ about the past can be like nailing jelly, but here Jo Carlowe hammers out a few that may surprise you.

In 1915 barrister Cecil Chubb was tasked by his wife to buy dining chairs and bought Stonehenge instead

Kell horreur!

Henry VIII blamed his wives for the failure of all but one to bear him a surviving male heir. However, the problem may have lain with Henry himself – or with his blood. If his blood type was ‘Kell positive’, a Kell negative woman might bear him one healthy child, but develop antibodies that would kill any subsequent Kell-positive foetus. This would explain why 11 pregnancies or more produced just four surviving offspring, including Henry Fitzroy, Henry’s son with his mistress Bessie Blount. Catherine of Aragon suffered repeated miscarriages before the birth of Mary, who was presumably Kell-negative. Anne Boleyn gave birth to Elizabeth, but afterwards had at least one miscarriage, of a ‘man child’; for her, there was to be no son. And for this Henry had thrown over Catherine and split with Rome! Strange to think that but for reproductive incompatibility, there might have been no divorce, beheaded, died… , and no English Reformation.

Bang went Dudley’s chances!

The wedding of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in 1486 saw England’s first firework display, and such was the Tudor passion for pyrotechnics that Elizabeth I even appointed a Fire Master of England. But firework frenzy could get out of hand. For Elizabeth’s visit to Kenilworth Castle in July 1572, as part of the revels laid on by her suitor Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, a mock battle was staged, complete with fiery dragon effects and fireworks shot from cannons. One attendee would recall a ‘blaze of burning darts… streams and hail of fiery sparks, lightnings of wildfire… all with such terror and vehemence that the heavens thundered’. Fireballs rained down upon the town, and houses burnt to the ground, with at least one fatality, obliging the Queen to pay £25 compensation. Pity the egregious Dudley, who had lavished a fortune on this elaborate marriage proposal! He just wanted to start a flame in her heart – but instead set the world on fire.

Fireballs rained down upon the town, and houses burnt to the ground, with at least one fatality

Royal flush

It is widely believed that Victorian Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet, and he did indeed patent the floating ball cock, but it was another Englishman, Sir John Harington, who, in 1596, devised a flush toilet, a deep bowl fed by a gush of water from a cistern above. You cannot see the one he installed for Elizabeth I at long-gone Richmond Palace, but if you travel to Hadrian’s Wall you will discover the country’s oldest loos. ‘The Romans had flushing toilets,’ says Andrew Roberts, English Heritage Properties Historian. ‘The best preserved in Britain are at Housesteads Roman Fort in Northumberland.’ The toilet block would have served the 800 men garrisoned at the fort. Communal latrines were sited over a channel of rainwater and draining surface water. No use in a drought.

If you travel to Hadrian’s Wall you will discover the country’s oldest loos

Brother of the Bard

William was not the only Shakespeare to tread the boards. His youngest brother, Edmund, 16 years his junior, was apparently stage struck, too. He followed William to London to apprentice as a ‘player’ and, aged 12, may have been the ‘Ned’ cast as the concubine Rhodope in The Seven Deadly Sins. Sadly, he was to shuffle off this mortal coil in 1607, aged 27, possibly succumbing to the plague. Someone – probably Will – paid for ‘a forenoon knell of the great bell’ for his funeral at St Saviour’s (now Southwark Cathedral), close to the Globe Theatre. ‘He was buried inside the church (which was more expensive), and if you go to Southwark Cathedral today, you will find a memorial tablet to him on the floor of the chancel,’ says Dr Paul Edmondson, head of research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Phoney business

So much for Thomas Crapper. Now it is surely true that the telephone was invented by a Scot, Alexander Graham Bell. Or was it? In 2002 the US Congress ruled that ‘the official inventor of the telephone’ was Antonio Meucci, a Florentine immigrant too poor to afford $250 for a lasting patent. He and Bell had shared a laboratory and, it has been suggested, Bell stole his invention of the ‘teletrofono’. So the record had been set straight at last. Or had it? Among other contenders for the credit is an American, Elisha Gray, who filed a caveat (an announcement of intention to patent) at the US Patent Office on February 14, 1876 – two hours after Bell’s own lawyers filed an actual patent. After two years of litigation Bell was legally named as the inventor in 1878, and though the controversy continues, the names Meucci nor Gray just don’t have a ring to them.

Fashion victims

A willingness to suffer for our looks can be the death of us. In the 1850s there were an average three deaths a week from burning crinolines. Surely this shocking statistic, thundered The Times, ‘ought to startle the most thoughtless of the privileged sex’. In 1871, Oscar Wilde’s half-sisters, Mary and Emily, both suffered fatal burns after their hooped skirts went up in flames during a last – a very last – waltz. At the same time, the ‘madness’ of hatters, we now know, was caused by exposure to mercury. Then there was that drop-dead-gorgeous shade of emerald, Scheele’s green, laced with arsenic, which was all the rage for wallpapers (even William Morris used it) and clothing. Working with the pigment would cause terrible, sometimes fatal symptoms. It was also toxic to the wearer, absorbed into the bloodstream as she perspired. ‘As the arsenic replaced phosphorus in the bone, it would accumulate until it reached levels where it could cause permanent damage for which there is still no cure,’ says Lee Clark of York Museums Trust. Traces remain in a Victorian gown displayed at York Castle Museum’s ‘Shaping the Body’ exhibition. Curators wear gloves to handle it.

The pits

In the early 19th century, women and children commonly worked alongside men in coalmines, but it would take a tragedy to bring their toils to wider notice. On July 4, 1838, 26 children drowned when the Huskar Pit near Barnsley flooded. A Royal Commission was set up, and its findings included the revelation that men often stripped naked for the hot and sweaty work of cutting coal. One Samuel Scriven, investigating conditions in Staffordshire, found women working alongside men, bare to the waist or – horrors! – wearing trousers. Never mind the purgatorial conditions, this was an outrage. For the Daily News the wearing of such garb ‘tends to destroy all sense of decency’. Even the miners’ union denounced the ‘most sickening sight’. The Mines and Collieries Act 1842 banned boys under ten and all females from underground work.

Lot 15: one prehistoric stone circle

On a September day in 1915, local man Cecil Chubb, barrister and lunatic-asylum owner, attended an auction in Salisbury, tasked by his wife, Mary, with buying dining chairs. Instead, on a whim, he bought Stonehenge from the estate of the Antrobus family, who had owned it from 1800, for £6,600 (about £474,000 in today’s money). Chubb had known the site since boyhood and loved its ‘inexpressible charm’. In October 1918 he donated it to the nation, receiving in return a knighthood and the title Viscount Stonehenge. English Heritage has been celebrating the centenary. Whether or not Mary got her dining chairs history does not record.

Chubb had known the site since boyhood and loved its ‘inexpressible charm’

The only way was Oxford

In 1915, during the First World War, the good people of Oxfordshire were, unawares, at risk of being overrun – by the 1.4 million residents of Essex, the county closest to the Western Front. Under secret government plans, in the event of enemy invasion, Essex folk were to head out, carrying only jewellery, money, and enough food for three days, following arrows painted on walls, trees and lampposts. In a scorched earth policy, crops and livestock were to be destroyed, along with weaponry, petrol and alcohol, which was rumoured to have fuelled the barbarism of German soldiers in France and Belgium. In August 1916 the plans were quietly scrapped. To find out where you can still see a guiding arrow or two, visit Historic England at

Essex folk were to head out, carrying only jewellery, money, and enough food for three days

Truly, deeply mad?

It is one of the great love stories, the king who gave up the throne to wed a Baltimore divorcee. Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, Duke and Duchess of Windsor, lie side by side in the royal burial ground near Windsor, united in death – but life was a sorrier tale. Before meeting Wallis, Edward had affairs with a string of married women. She, in turn, still loved her second husband, Ernest, when her flirtation with the then Prince of Wales spun out of control. The one grand passion of her life was a friend’s husband, Herman Rogers. She dallied with gay Woolworth heir Jimmy Donahue. Since her death in 1986, revelations and speculation have abounded. Edward, it is variously claimed, was alcoholic, anorexic, infantile, autistic, insane. Wallis, it has even been suggested, wasn’t a woman at all. Now a documentary accuses the ‘playboy prince’ of plotting with the Nazis to take back the throne. That’s history for you. In the words of WH Auden, ‘There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.’

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