great british history

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March 24th 1944: The ‘Great Escape’

On this day in 1944, a group of Allied prisoners of war staged a daring escape attempt from the German prisoner of war camp at Stalag Luft III. This camp, located in what is now Poland, held captured Allied pilots mostly from Britain and the United States. In 1943, an Escape Committee under the leadership of Squadron Leader Roger Bushell of the RAF, supervised prisoners surreptitiously digging three 30 foot tunnels out of the camp, which they nicknamed ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’. The tunnels led to woods beyond the camp and were remarkably sophisticated - lined with wood, and equipped with rudimentary ventilation and electric lighting. The successful construction of the tunnels was particularly impressive as the Stalag Luft III camp was designed to make it extremely difficult to tunnel out as the barracks were raised and the area had a sandy subsoil. ‘Tom’ was discovered by the Germans in September 1943, and ‘Dick’ was abandoned to be used as a dirt depository, leaving ‘Harry’ as the prisoners’ only hope. By the time of the escape, American prisoners who had assisted in tunneling had been relocated to a different compound, making the escapeees mostly British and Commonwealth citizens. 200 airmen had planned to make their escape through the ‘Harry’ tunnel, but on the night of March 24th 1944, only 76 managed to escape the camp before they were discovered by the guards. However, only three of the escapees - Norwegians Per Bergsland and Jens Müller and Dutchman Bram van der Stok - found their freedom. The remaining 73 were recaptured, and 50 of them, including Bushell, were executed by the Gestapo on Adolf Hitler’s orders, while the rest were sent to other camps. While the escape was generally a failure, it helped boost morale among prisoners of war, and has become enshrined in popular memory due to its fictionalised depiction in the 1963 film The Great Escape.

“Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick, and Harry. One will succeed!”
- Roger Bushell

Caerlaverock Castle
Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland by Janbro

Constructed in the 13th century, Caerlaverock Castle was once the stronghold of Clan Maxwell. The fortress played a role in many conflicts – beginning with the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 13th and 14th centuries. Its final battle took place in 1640 CE during the period known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, where the castle was attacked and destroyed by a Covenanter army. 

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February 14th 1852: Great Ormond Street hospital founded

On this day in 1852, the Great Ormond Street Hopsital for Sick Children opened in London. In the mid-nineteenth century, despite high child mortality rates, there was little professional medical help available for children, with many parents opting to care for their children themselves. Dr. Charles West identified this problem, and drew attention to childhood diseases in a series of lectures. It was Dr. West who fought for the opening of Great Ormond Street, the first hospital of its kind in the UK. When the hospital first opened its doors, it had only ten beds, and was led by the matron Frances Willey. Great Ormond Street struggled financially in its first years, but in 1858 it was saved when famed author Charles Dickens gave a public reading of A Christmas Carol to raise money for the hospital. With Dickens’s money, the hospital could expand and increase its bed capacity to 75. In the years that followed, Great Ormond Street further expanded and attracted notable patrons who wanted to support its work. Most famously, in 1929 the author J.M. Barrie donated the copyright to his creation Peter Pan to the hospital, which has provided the hospital with a steady income. Great Ormond Street is a British institution, and continues to have a worldwide reputation for patient care.

Flint Castle (Castell y Fflint)
Flintshire, Wales by Steve Wainwright

Dating back to 1277 CE, Flint Castle was the first in a series of fortifications built by the English King Edward I during the Conquest of Wales (1277-1283). These castles – dubbed the Iron Ring – were designed to encircle northern Wales and aid in the oppression of its people. Consequently, Flint Castle was attacked during many of the Welsh uprisings. However, it saw its final military use during the English Civil War (1642-1651). Initially a Royalist stronghold, Flint Castle was subjected to a successful 3 month siege by the Parliamentarians. Afterwards, the castle was slighted so as to not be used in any further military conflicts.

rudston monolith ▴ rudston, east riding of yorkshire, england

the gritsone structure, which is 7.6 metres (25 ft) high and 1.75 metres (5 ft 9 in) wide, is the tallest megalith in the united kingdom. the monument dates to the late neolithic or early bronze age period; the nearest source of gritstone is nearly ten miles away, meaning it may have been moved to its current location by glacier. the tip is capped in lead to ward off erosion.

Bolton Castle
Yorkshire, England by Pixelda

Built between 1378 and 1399 CE, Bolton Castle was once the seat of power for the Barons Scrope. It was damaged extensively in 1536 as retribution for supporting the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion against Henry VIII. 

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December 5th 1952: Great Smog of London begins

On this day in 1952, the Great Smog descended on London, beginning a national crisis which lasted for four days. Following the Industrial Revolution, which began in the late eighteenth century, London saw a sharp rise in polluted, smoky fog (known as smog) due to toxic coal fumes emitted by factories. Smog, unlike fog, is often thick, discoloured, and foul-smelling, and several smogs affected London throughout the nineteenth century. December 1952 was bitterly cold, and as Londoners burned large amounts of coal to keep warm, the smoke joined with toxic fumes from factories. The smoke was trapped by an anticyclone in the region, and, unable to disperse, combined with fog to create a smog. The thick smog caused chaos in London, with traffic halted by poor visibility of a few metres, opportunists committing crime, and the poisonous air filling hospitals with people suffering from breathing problems. Around 4,000 people, plus numerous animals and livestock, are known to have died as a result of the fog, though recent estimates taking into account long-term damage are much higher at 12,000. The smog was London’s worst civilian disaster, producing more casualties than any single incident during the Second World War and the Blitz. To prevent future disasters, Parliament passed the Clean Air Act of 1956 which tried to limit smoke emissions. Innovations in technology and environmental legislation ensured that no such smog has ever occurred again, but invisible pollution remains a grave concern for modern cities.

(see: metoffice.gov.uk, historytoday.com)

micklegate bar ▴ york, north yorkshire, england

the city wall (gatehouse/bar) was constructed in the 12th century and updated in the 14th century. it was once the traditional ceremonial gate for monarchs entering the city. its name comes from the old norse mykla gata, meaning ‘great street’.

Christ Church Cathedral
Oxford, Oxfordshire

Originally St. Frideswide Priory, the church was taken over by Cardinal Wolsey in 1522 CE. Wolsey had planned to make this the site of his college – Cardinal College. However, after falling out with Henry VIII, the church came under control of the Crown. By 1546, King Henry had elevated the church to the status of a cathedral, and opened Christ Church College. 

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To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into the First World War, we’ve pulled these photos from our World War I collections. The first photograph shows American doughboys on parade past King George V and Queen Mary, as well as Queen Alexandra and other dignitaries.  The second photo shows African-American troops marching towards the front line in France in 1917.  

These two photographs come from one of our collections of World War I photographs (ms1187).  Our archives feature an array of materials relating to World War I and we will display some of this material here through the centenary of the Armistice in November 2018.