The Shortest War in History

No body wants a war, at least not many right-minded people.  If there has to be a war then it is best for all involved if it is as short and painless as possible.  History is full of lengthy, bloody wars so if you’ve never heard of the 1896 British-Zanzibar war then it is probably for good reasons.  Mainly that the entire war lasted about the same amount of time it will take me to write this post.

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The Anglo-Zanzibar War was a military conflict fought between the United Kingdom and the Zanzibar Sultanate on 27 August 1896. The conflict lasted between 38 and 45 minutes, marking it as the shortest recorded war in history.

The story begins with the signing of the Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty between Britain and Germany in 1890. This treaty effectively drew up spheres of influence between the imperial powers in East Africa; Zanzibar was ceded to British influence, whilst Germany was given control over mainland Tanzania.

With this new found influence, Britain declared Zanzibar a protectorate of the British Empire and moved to install their own ‘puppet’ Sultan to look after the region. Hamad bin Thuwaini, who had been a supporter of the British in the area, was given the position in 1893.

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Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini

Hamad ruled over this relatively peaceful protectorate for just over 3 years until, on August 25, 1896, he died suddenly in his palace. Although the truth will never be fully known about the causes for his death, it is widely believed that his cousin, Khalid bin Barghash had him poisoned.

This belief is compounded by the fact that within a few hours of Hamad’s death, Khalid had already moved into the palace and assumed the position of Sultan, all without British approval.

Needless to say the local British diplomats were not at all happy with this turn of events, and the chief diplomat in the area, Basil Cave, quickly declared that Khalid should stand down. Khalid ignored these warnings and instead starting gathering his forces around the Palace.

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Sir Basil Shillito Cave

 

These forces were surprisingly well armed, although it’s worth noting that quite a few of their guns and cannons were actually diplomatic gifts that had been presented to the former Sultan over the years! By the end of 25th August, Khalid had his palace secured with almost 3,000 men, several artillery guns and even a modestly armed Royal Yacht in the nearby harbour.

At the same time, the British already had two warships anchored in the harbour, the HMS Philomel and the HMS Rush, and troops were quickly being sent ashore to protect the British Consulate and to keep the local population from rioting. Cave (pictured to the right) also requested backup from another nearby British ship, the HMS Sparrow, which entered the harbour on the evening of the 25th August.

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The map of the battlefield.

Even though Cave had a significant armed presence in the harbour, he knew that he did not have the authority to open hostilities without express approval of the British government. To prepare for all eventualities, he sent a telegram to the Foreign Office that evening stating: “Are we authorised in the event of all attempts at a peaceful solution proving useless, to fire on the Palace from the men-of-war?” Whilst waiting for a reply from Whitehall, Cave continued issuing ultimatums to Khalid but to no avail.

The next day, two more British warships entered the harbour, the HMS Racoon and the HMS St George, the latter carrying Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, commander of the British fleet in the area At the same time, Cave had received a telegraph from Whitehall stating:

“You are authorised to adopt whatever measures you may consider necessary, and will be supported in your action by Her Majesty’s Government. Do not, however, attempt to take any action which you are not certain of being able to accomplish successfully.”

The ultimatum given to Khalid expired at 09:00 East Africa Time (EAT) on 27th August, by which time the British had gathered three cruisers, two gunboats, 150 marines and sailors, and 900 Zanzibaris in the harbour area. The Royal Navy contingent were under the command of Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson while their Zanzibaris were commanded by Brigadier-General Lloyd Mathews of the Zanzibar army (who was also the First Minister of Zanzibar). Around 2,800 Zanzibaris defended the palace; most were recruited from the civilian population, but they also included the sultan’s palace guard and several hundred of his servants and slaves. The defenders had several artillery pieces and machine guns, which were set in front of the palace sighted at the British ships. A bombardment, opened at 09:02, set the palace on fire and disabled the defending artillery.

A small naval action took place, with the British sinking the Zanzibari royal yacht HHS Glasgow and two smaller vessels, and some shots were fired ineffectually at the pro-British Zanzibari troops as they approached the palace. The flag at the palace was shot down and fire ceased at 09:40.

The sultan’s forces sustained roughly 500 casualties, while only one British sailor was injured.  It’s worth noting that a large number of the casualties included the wounded whilst others were killed during a fire in the palace.

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The aftermath of the war.

As for Khalid, he managed to escape with a small group of loyal followers to the local German Consulate. Despite repeated calls from the British for his extradition, he was smuggled out of the country on October 2nd by the German navy and taken to modern day Tanzania. It was not until British forces invaded East Africa in 1916 that Khalid was finally captured and subsequently taken to Saint Helena for exile. After ‘serving time’, he was later allowed to return to East Africa where he died in 1927.

Of the 500 casualties or wounded, most of the deaths occurred because of the fire that engulfed the Royal Palace of Zanzibar Sultanate.   During the war, the British fired 1,000 rifle rounds, 4,100 machine gun rounds and 500 shells.

With Khalid out of the way, London was free to place the pro-British Sultan Hamud on the throne of Zanzibar, and he ruled on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government for the next six years. Britain outlawed what had made Zanzibar famous for centuries, slavery. Zanzibar remained a British protectorate until 1963. The following year Zanzibar merged with the Republic of Tanganyika which together form the modern nation of Tanzania.

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Putting the stone into Harrow Wealdstone – London’s Neolithic Standing Stone?

I was feeling pleased that I had managed to find the first two little known ancient and even neolithic spots with out any maps and so decided to see one more if I could find it.  I had considered  Grim’s Dyke which was both the boundary of Mercia (was one of the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy) and that it was possibly a defensive works by the Catuvellauni tribe against the Romans.

However I used to play on Grim’s Dyke as a child even though it was deep into woods usually unvisited by adults and I really wanted to see something new, well new to me.  Perhaps one for another post!

And having seen a holy spring and an ancient burial mound then perhaps that other great mystery of ancient England is that of standing stones.

One of the places I pass through every day on my way into London is Harrow and Wealdstone.  Harrow of course is famous for its ancient church and public school.  Whilst Weald is an old English word for a forested and uncultivated highland area which rather fits in with the woods around Grim’s Dyke doesn’t it?

But what about the stone part?  There had to be a stone here originally, maybe a standing stone like those of Stonehenge, Avebury, Castlerigg or Clava Cairns.  Could there really be a standing stone in the midst of busy old London?

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Can you see the standing stone of London?

I set off on the H12 bus to Harrow and Wealdstone bus garage which is near the centre of Wealdstone and so made the most sense of where such a stone might be, if it ever was there in the first place.  I wasn’t to be disappointed, well I was and I wasn’t.  I found the stone and it is a standing stone though obviously not quite like one of the towering 100 tonne stones of the countryside.

English folklore frequently tells the story of wandering Stones, such as the Diamond or Swindon Stone of Avebury which is said visit the River Kennet “for a drink at midnight”, returning by day break to sleep off it’s aerobic jaunt. The Weald Stone went missing for a time too; between a mention in 1549 and its re-appearance in 1834 we can only assume that the Weald Stone was either buried, sank into the ground, or went walk about for some 285 years!

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According to an article entitled “Some Thoughts on the Wealdstone” in the Harrow Civic Bulletin (1951), a certain Thomas Toumor “widened the runnel (stream) in his meadow against the Stone before the feast of Pentecost (Wit Sunday)” in 1523. Suggestion is made that the Weald Stone was subsequently either pushed into the runnel as a prank, or that its undermined foundation simply resulted in its collapse.

It seems quite within the realm of possibility that it simply slumped into the mud and silt following Toumour’s digging and with no practical importance, was allowed to slumber until its re-appearance in 1834; when local builders dug it up. Walter Druett states in his book Harrow Through The Ages (1938) that “There is some doubt concerning the purpose of these stones which were brought from a long distance, but they were probably used as direction points and may also have indicated the burying place of some chieftain”.

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The Weald Stone Inn used to stand here but has recently been replaced by an Indian Restaurant. Prior to it’s re-building in 1935, the Weald Stone was apparently embedded in the corner of the “old house” which was constructed around 1834, if indeed the Weald Stone used was the original. It therefore seems unlikely that the Weald Stone was ever used as either a coal marker or a step up to ones horse and/or carriage. It may have been set upright in the ground or it could be a fragment of a much larger Stone; it would be interesting to find a drawing of the original Red Lion Hotel circa 1834, showing the Stone in situ.   I wouldn’t be surprised if much of the stone is underground or if the stone is now on its side.  Maybe that was a wise thing to do as it would only take a few idiots to destroy a pre-historic monument in the middle of not particularly wealthy district of London.

It must be said that it cannot be proven that the standing Weald Stone has been here since Neolithic times, it is also possible that it has been relocated there in the past few thousand years but it was  a recognised land mark in Tudor times and is mentioned in the books of King Henry VIII.

Well that marks the end of my gallivanting around Watford, Harrow/Middlesex.  I think my mission to prove that there is history just about everywhere in Britain has been a success.  Who’d have thought that you could find prehistoric mounds, holy wells and standing stones all within London?

I hope you enjoyed my little jaunt and if you like to discover more tours in person with me then visit https://yeoldeenglandtours.co.uk/our-tours-2/   There is much more to Britain than London and there is much more to London than the big tourist sights… though I go there too 🙂

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It might not be as dramatic as Stonehenge but you can’t sit on Stonehenge and you also can’t walk 20 seconds to have a curry afterwards either!

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Looking for and finding Waxwell, a Holy Well in Pinner (London)

Fresh from my success of finding a possible Neolithic burial mound in the middle of densely populated Watford, I was on the lookout for the second in the triumverate of off-beat and ancient sites and it lay just a few miles away, part on foot and part on the Metropolitan Line to the old village of Pinner.   Long ago subsumed by London, it was once a village and indeed retains quite a rural charm away from the busy main road.

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Pinner Village in the midst of London!

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Pinner Police Station

You don’t get many fine old police stations like that do you?  The only crimes that seem to happen in Pinner is the out of this world property prices but then the houses are old and quaint aren’t they?

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It struck me as a little typical that on the few spare hours I can find that I am in effect still doing something so close to my work and indeed writings; perhaps it means I have found my true calling in life.

After a bit of a walk up the reassuringly named Waxwell Lane, I finally came across what I was looking for.

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Well Well Well. Waecc’s Spring, Wakeswell,… Waxwell.

There is a tradition that anyone who drunk of the well would stay in Pinner forever, this being a tradition often associated from Anglo-Saxon sites, such as Keldwell in Lincolnshire and Bywell in Northumberland, both Saxon sounding wells so there appears to be a significant relationship. Pinner residents obviously found me a little uncouth and so took the trouble of bricking up the water flow before I arrived.

Yet it was a very reliable water source especially in dry periods when people would travel from miles around to collect it.  The healing properties of the water ranged from the being good for eyes to unusually reviving people at the point of death! Sadly, since 1870, the site has been sealed up and the site is now dry and deep in leaves. The well consists of a large red brick domed structure set into the bank and earth covered.  The water arose under an arch in a semi circular basin set into base of the chamber with three steps reaching the water.

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Wax Well Name was first recorded in 1274 as ‘Wakeswell’ Thought to mean ‘Waecc’s’ Spring. Until mid-19th century the well was the most important source of water in Pinner village and reputed to have healing properties.

 

Wax Well Name was first recorded in 1274 as ‘Wakeswell’ Thought to mean ‘Waecc’s’ Spring. Until mid-19th century the well was the most important source of water in Pinner village and reputed to have healing properties.”

The name is either from a personal name or Anglo-Saxon Woecce which means ‘to guard’ perhaps suggesting that the water was important or associated with a ritual. However, the site is close to Grim’s Dyke which was the boundary of Mercia (was one of the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy)  so the guard may relate to use by people associated with that site.  Before that it was possibly a defensive works by the Catuvellauni tribe against the Romans.

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As you can see the well is still in an excellent state of preservation despite the water source being blocked off.  Britain and even London is full of Holy Wells and Sacred Springs but especially in London, so many of them are lost, hidden or out of bounds so to find one right here with even a public bench to sit and admire the view is quite rare.

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With 2 ancient sites under my belt, I thought I would hurry on to the third and final spot of the day.

 

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Looking for a neolithic burial mound in my local (Cassiobury) Park

It’s reached the time of year that I’ve gone a bit doolally  and I mean more doolally than I generally am from the 1st of January until around the 31st December each year.

I’ve not had a day off for years and been out on tour every day for months.  I also feel that I’ve been on the computer far too much as because despite being out for 7-10 hours a day, I also do Admin work for up to 7-10 hours each day too.

Due to a triple whammy of last minute cancellations today, I had the day off.  Well not really off as I worked from 5am-10am on the computer and was back at it from about 2pm.  The eagle-eyed of my readers will notice however that 4 hours of my day-time were entirely unaccounted for which is a rare thing indeed for me.

I really didn’t want to spend all day on the computer even if I were writing on my next book.  Instead I set myself a challenge of seeing if I could find any really old and unusual historic sights not far from home but easily accessible by public transport.  So I missed out the obvious Roman St Albans and various other historic and pre-historic that would involve trampling through mud (London has just had almost 2 months of rain in 36 hours).  I also decided not to include mental asylums or ancient pubs which I felt would have been cheating.

As it happened I found quite a few and so though I would visit 3 of them which I managed to do quite easily in less than 3 hours.

My first escapade took me to Cassiobury Park in Watford.  I have mentioned it in passing before in as Troy McClure might have said such hit blog posts as A walk along the Grand Union Canal  or  London – The first National Park City in the World .  Outside my blog the park has even been the setting for a planet on Star Wars.

I knew of various historical spots in and around the park but on Monday I became aware that right in the middle of this park I know so well there may be a pre-historic mound or barrow.

Finding this mound was to be no easy task in a park bigger than Londons Hyde Park and with an almost totally undocumented and not very pronounced mound too.   I managed to find a glimpse of it on Google Maps at a favourable time of year.

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I’m always one for going out on a wild-goose chase (might I shamelessly plug my book on idioms Straight From The Horse’s Mouth).  As soon as I arrived within half a mile of the supposed mound or barrow I realised I had forgotten one of the most basic tenants of British archaeology and that is don’t go looking for something hidden in the middle of summer when grass and everything else can grow inches in a week let alone over months.  I couldn’t see any of the marker trees that I had in my head as they were all obscured by other trees and I had deliberately left my phone at home, not that it has maps on it being from the 1990’s.

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Beautiful, huge, green and very lush Cassiobury Park

Surprisingly I found the mound rather quickly though it was even less pronounced than I’d been told it was… and it was about 100 yards from where I thought it might be.  Oh and it ended up not being a mound at all but only some natural feature bothered by a dense nest of brambles.  I did though take a photo just incase I didn’t find a more suitable candidate.

I needn’t have worried as a minute later I had found a very subtle but definitely looking mound a little way on.  You have to be used to looking for mounds to even spot this one and two ladies walked by it without giving it a second thought.

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It is a circular mount about 15 metres (45 feet) in diameter and only reaching a prominence of 1 metre around the surrounding area.

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The centre of the mound is marked by a rough wood carving of a prehistoric dead body or perhaps more likely of a sleeping figure.

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In fact I realise now that I had actually walked over the barrow about 10 years ago and joked that it might be a burial mound but I had no idea that I had all but discovered it.

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You can just make out the curvature of the mound on the photo above amongst the long grass.  It might not look much but this mound might just be 5-6,000 years old and back then it would have been altogether something more spectacular.  The ground slopes further away near the camera as it heads down to a river, something that would have been even more attractive to neolithic people than to joggers in the park today.

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Apparently it is easier to define when the grass is cut, though only slightly so.  There has been no archeology on the mound to discover what if anything might lay deep underground but it was identified as a possible neolithic earthworks monument in a 2013 document.  But you can just about see it on the photo above.

There are many better defined mounds and barrows even within a few miles of this one but if you’d like to see my favourite then check out my post West Kennet Long Barrow – A 6,000 year old burial tomb which has a fantastic video I filmed too which goes inside one of the best preserved barrows in the world.

I’m glad I found it and I also forgive myself for not really knowing about it before this week.  Given that if it is an authentic mound, it is thousands of years old then it may well not be excavated until long after we are all gone.

One of the things I wanted to prove today is that there is weird and secret history wherever we live, we just have to keep our eyes open, question everything and do a little research.  This was only the first stop off of the morning however and I had two more to make.

 

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The Knollys Rose Ceremony – Paying off a 619 year old rent

London and Britain is full of obscure ancient traditions and on Monday I bore witness to a ceremony that I did know about but never expected to see and it all has its foundations in events 619 years ago.  As sometimes dirty as London is these days, in almost every way (except perhaps for air), it was infinitely more filthy in days gone by.

The Knollys Rose Ceremony is held in June each year and is organised by the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames. On that day one red rose will be plucked from the garden in Seething Lane and taken to the Mansion House on the altar cushion of All Hallows by the Tower, where it will be presented to the Lord Mayor.

The ceremony commemorates an ancient City judgement dating from 1381. Sir Robert Knollys owned a house on Seething Lane. He was sent abroad to fight alongside John of Gaunt. While he was away, his wife, Constance,  is reputed to have become annoyed with the chaff dust blowing from the property opposite their house which was being used as threshing ground. As anyone super-rich would do, Constance bought the offending property and turned it into a rose garden.

All Hallows By The Tower Church

All Hallows By The Tower Church

Constance also built a footbridge over the lane to avoid the mud, but without the equivalent of planning permission. The penalty was that a red rose ‘rent’ from the garden had to be paid annually to the Lord Mayor. The rose payment was no more than a peppercorn rent, a symbolic fine upon Sir Robert, a leading citizen and a successful and respected soldier.

For this payment permission was given “to make an haut pas of the height of 14 feet” across the lane. The footbridge has long since disappeared, but the legal requirement for the payment of this quit-rent has been established as one of the City’s traditions.

This year’s Ceremony took place on Monday 17 June at 11am where I just happened to be with two tourists on my Sacred Secret Gardens and Ruins Walk The ceremony begins in Seething Lane Gardens, when one red rose is plucked and carried on the All Hallows By The Tower church altar cushion to Mansion House to be presented to the Lord Mayor.

Due to a small fire in the kitchen of Mansion House a few days earlier, a last minute change was made for the entire ceremony to take place in All Hallows Church.

I took the opportunity to put together a very hasty video, sitting as we politely did at the very rear of the church though in truth, we could have sat right at the front.  That’s what good manners gets you!

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100 years ago Aviators Alcock and Brown made their pioneering trans-Atlantic flight

Today, millions of people cross the Atlantic every year thanks to commercial air travel, but it’s easy to forget that it had never been done less than a century ago.

Glasgow born Arthur Brown was shot down over Germany during World War One, surviving only to be captured by the Germans and imprisoned. (Read about my relation Reuel Dunn who fought The Red Baron)

Manchester native John Alcock also became a prisoner of war, after his aircraft’s engine failed over Turkey’s Gulf of Xeros.

Undeterred by their experiences in the skies during the war, both men sought to continue their aviation careers regardless.

In April 1913 the London newspaper the Daily Mail offered a prize of £10,000 to “the aviator who shall first cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane in flight.”

Daily Mail Atlantic Flight Competition

Daily Mail Atlantic Flight Competition

The outbreak of World War One delayed the competition until 1918, precisely when a newly-released Alcock and Brown found they had a lot more time on their hands.

Unemployed in the wake of the war, Alcock employed Brown as his navigator after being impressed by his know-how.

Alcock and Brown weren’t the only flight team ready to take off from St John’s, Newfoundland on the morning of June 14. Several other teams had also entered the competition.

Fearing they might have lost their chance, the British pair quickly assembled their plane and took off at around 1.45pm, whilst their competitors were busy conducting a test.

Their hasty take off almost resulted in disaster when their Vickers Vimy plane barely cleared the trees at the end of the runway.

Alcock and Brown survived continuous cloud, snow and ice and a near-fatal stall in their open-cockpit Vickers Vimy, as well as a thick fog that meant they had to blind-fly almost the entire way.

The overloaded aircraft’s exhaust pipe burst, creating a noise so loud it made conversation impossible without intercom – which also failed.

Browns original Calculus notes made during flight in an attempt to keep their navigation on track.

If that wasn’t enough, their wind-driven generator also gave up, causing the pair to lose both radio contact and much-needed heating.

 

Alcock and Brown made landfall in County Galway at 8.40am on 15 June 1919, after just less than 16 hours in the skies.

Their aircraft suffered severe damage because of an attempt to land on what appeared from the air to be a suitable green field, but which turned out to be a bog near the town of Clifden.

Neither of the men were injured, with both being received as heroes by the local population of Galway.

 

Their plane sunk nose first into the Irish bog.

Their plane sunk nose first into the Irish bog.

Despite the cloud only lifting three times during their journey, Brown had managed to navigate them to within 20 miles of their original target destination using just a sextant and calculus.

After the engine stalled and they spiralled, they would not even have known which direction they were supposed to be going in, but being such a good pilot Alcock corrected the plane.  If they had come down in the sea they would never have been seen or heard of again, no-one would have known where they died.

They were enterprising, knowledgeable and confident men. It was pure skill, not luck, that saw them through.

Monuments around the world remember their success, from three statues in Newfoundland, Canada, to a memorial statue located at London Heathrow Airport erected in 1954.

The site where they landed in Galway, Ireland

The site where they landed in Galway, Ireland

After their incredible achievement, Alcock and Brown were received by then-Secretary of State for Air, Winston Churchill, who presented them with the Daily Mail prize for their crossing of the Atlantic in “less than 72 consecutive hours.”

But despite their incredible feat of survival, tragedy was only just around the corner.

John Alcock was killed on December 18, 1919 when he crashed in France on his way to the Paris Airshow.

Arthur Brown did however survive until relative old age despite his daredevil lifestyle, dying on October 4, 1948 at the age of 62.

Like many other modest figures, their achievements have been almost totally overlooked and for eight years, no-one repeated this amazing feat.

Then, in 1927, an American, Charles Lindbergh, caused a sensation after making the flight from New York to Paris without stopping, and alone.  Lindbergh caught people’s attention and made him a star whilst the true transatlantic pioneers are all but forgotten.

The skill of what they achieved was akin to the moon landing; it had never been done and was almost impossible.There are several possible explanations for the speed with which their achievement faded from the collective memory. In one way they were a victim of their time, according to Doug Millard, of the Science Museum in London.

The early 20th Century was awash with aeronautical achievements and, no sooner was one completed, someone else came along and set a new record. New speeds, heights and distances were constantly being reached with the UK at the time “really world-leading”, Mr Millard said.

Another possible reason was Australian pilot Harry Hawker, the “Ayrton Senna or Lewis Hamilton of his day”, had attempted the crossing but failed. Everyone thought he was dead and there were so many articles in the paper about him, the country mourned him.

Then it transpired he was still alive and there was so much more about that. A week later Alcock and Brown did what they did – I think there was a certain media fatigue by that point about aviation. Then on 21 June, the Germans scuppered their fleet at Scapa Flow which dominated the global news.   Charles Lindbergh by good fortune made his crossing in a quiet news period.

Alcock and Brown Statue at Heathrow Airport

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Winston Churchill style icon? Siren Suits – the precursor to Onesies.

It was only 2 or 3 years ago where much of the world, or at least those perhaps lacking in sartorial elegance, was obsessed with an item of clothing known as a Onesie.  Usually made for people who want a comfortable, cosy evening on the sofa or perhaps for those not going out on a quiet weekend.

Hard as it might be to believe, these outfits of teddy bears, bunny rabbits, stormtroopers and the rest were all influenced by none other than wartime Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.

In the late 19th century, at the height of the Victorian steam era, a new item of clothing appeared in the workplace for men who worked in heavy industry. Coal-fired boilers were powering industry all over Britain and the Empire but they needed regular cleaning and inspecting to maximise their output and for simple reasons of safety. This was a dirty job, and the men who undertook such maintenance adopted a long-sleeved, high-necked one-piece protective garment to stop grime and dust from entering. This all-in-one overall became known, therefore, as a ‘boiler suit’. Almost like a 19th century space suit without the astronaut helmet.

Soon their use spread not just to steam trains but by the 1930’s to racing drivers, factory workers, mechanics, sportsmen, flyers, motorcyclists… and bricklayers. They were in some circles fashionable, depending on who was wearing them.   This was what was behind Churchills inspiration for what he called a Romper Suit though which most others labelled as Siren Suits.

Churchill of course amongst his many other talents played his part with the invention of military tanks and floating Mulberry Harbours.

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Churchill in one of his more military-like Siren Suit with General Montgomery (Monty)

The ‘siren suit’, which bears resemblance to the infamous ‘onesie’, is a practical one-piece item of clothing originally designed by Sir Winston Churchill during the Second World War to be quickly slipped over his clothes in the event of an air raid. The great statesman had a variety of siren suits, which he referred to as ‘romper suits,’ including sombre, military style suits, as well as more extravagant pin-striped and velvet versions.

With the endorsement of Churchill, the wartime appeal of the siren suit spreads far and wide and they were particularly popular with women keen to protect their modesty.   The air raid sirens would sound out and if you were gambling on sleeping in your house rather than a sheet then you could jump out of bed and into your siren suit, zip it up and be running to safety in seconds.

Of course, his were a cut above, being tailor-made by his very distinguished shirtmaker Turnbull & Asser in a variety of colours and materials, including pinstripe, blue serge and, perhaps most famously, green velvet. Turnbull & Asser were often called upon to repair the garments, which Churchill wore them when off-duty and during the Battle of Britain, in Washington for his visit with Roosevelt, planning D-Day with Eisenhower and at the Yalta Conference with Stalin. The repairs, though, were never due to hostile action – it was cigars that took their toll.

Only three original Churchill siren suits are known to still exist, including the famous green velvet one, which is in the Turnbull & Asser collection. Velvet is hardly a practical material for manual work or suitable for formal meetings, so perhaps this leisure version – a sort of one-piece smoking jacket – can be seen as the ancestor of what became the ‘onesie’.  Either way, these suits have inspired work, leisure and fashion wear for over 80 years.

You can see some Churchills surviving Siren suits on my Ye Olde England Tours Churchill Walking Tour and War Rooms tour where we can visit his Turnbull and Asser or to his home at Chartwell House.

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