FASCINATING FACTS OF THE DAY: 21 Weird Facts About British History That Will Change Your Idea Of It
The British have a long and interesting history. After having established themselves as a superpower, they have conquered, flourished and are now a substantial part of three continents. Despite all their might and power, they couldn’t escape the strange events that were part of their history. Here we’ve gathered some weird facts about British history that you wouldn’t want to miss…
1. During the First World War, the secret service agents used semen as invisible ink. They had a motto “Every man his own stylo”.
According to the diary of Walter Kirke, during World War I, the Deputy Head of Military Intelligence in France, Mansfield Cumming, used invisible ink to communicate secret messages. He was told that using semen was best for this purpose because it didn’t react to any regular methods used for detection such as iodine vapors. The method was soon abandoned because of the smell the receiver got.(1, 2)
2. Margaret Thatcher, first female British prime minister, was part of the team that was improving soft serve ice creams.
Mister Softee is a US ice cream distributor that had then partnered with J. Lyons and Co. where Margaret Thatcher was working. They were trying to develop a soft serve recipe that they could use on their machines. While Thatcher was at Lyons, she worked on cakes and pies as well, apart from ice creams. Referring to her work, her opponents often commented on her politics saying she “added air, lowered quality and raised profits”.(source)
3. King Henry III had a polar bear in his Royal Menagerie. It went fishing in River Thames and attracted many viewers.
Haakon IV of Norway is said to have gifted a polar bear to King Henry III. The King’s fancies were a problem for the sheriffs because they were ordered to pay four pence per day for the bear’s upkeep in the year 1251. That wasn’t all that the King did for his animals. He ordered the sheriffs again in 1254 to financially support the construction of an elephant house at the Tower. After his demise, the Kings and Queens continuously received many animals as gifts with the result that by 1828, there were more than 280 animals of 60 different species.(source)
4. King Henry VIII introduced tax on beards in the 16th century. The tax varied on the social status of the man sporting the beard.
The tax was reintroduced by the King’s daughter Elizabeth I for every beard that was older than two weeks. England was not the only country that had the beard tax. As part of modernization of Russia, Emperor Peter I introduced it as well. Whoever paid the tax, received a copper or silver token and whoever did not, was forcibly and publicly shaved.(source)
5. The City of London sold the 1831 London Bridge because it wasn’t strong enough to support the increased traffic in 1967. The bridge was bought by Robert P. McCulloch and relocated to Arizona, US.
The 1831 London Bridge was built by John Rennie and his son across River Thames. In 1967, the bridge was dismantled, after being sold, to be shipped to Arizona. The bridge finished being reassembled in 1971 across Lake Havasu which McCulloch received from the US government for free with a promise to develop it. It took almost a year to take the bridge apart, ship it to Port of Long Beach and transport it by land to the lake. The assembly and reconstruction took around three years to finish.(source)
6. During the late 19th century, an attempt to suicide was treated at par with attempt to murder and was punishable by hanging the offender.
Suicide was widely considered as against since the dawn of Christianity and other modern religions. The Church either excommunicated anyone who attempted suicide or punished them. One such practice was seen in France in the 17th century when the person was dragged into the streets face down, then hung or thrown onto a garbage heap along with confiscation of property. There were many people through history including Thomas Moore who supported the victims.(1, 2)
7. In the early 19th century, the British government spent 40 percent of its annual expenditure to free slaves and as compensation for slave owners’.
According to the terms of Slavery Abolition Act, the British government raised 20 million pounds, which equals 69.93 billion pounds as of 2013, along with an additional 400, 000 pounds (1.4 billion as of 2013) to free slaves. The Act provided compensation for slave owners who would be losing their property. The movement to abolish slavery started as early as 1772 when a slave was freed in England after Lord Mansfield’s judgement. Since then there have been many anti-slavery movements that set into motion its complete abolition.(source)
8. Those who could not afford chimney cleaning services dropped a goose with its legs tied, down the chimney. It gave birth to the phrase “the blacker the goose, the cleaner the flue”.
When the goose flaps its wings, it cleans the chimney as it comes down. Small children were the usual chimney sweepers back then because only they could fit into it. People sold the soot they got from their chimneys to farmers and gardeners to use as fertilizer. Chimney sweeping was one of the essential things to do for clean air in the house. It is said that Queen Victoria ordered the chimneys be cleaned often after she found out that people breathed foggy, smoke filled air at homes.(source)
9. The Victorians called sausages “little bags of mystery” because there was no knowing what could be inside them.
The Victorians were rather skeptical about sausages and felt that they might be partially filled with horsemeat. The doubts they had were probably justified as there seem to have been reports of butchers killing horses to make sausages. Sometimes butchers were inspected and even moved court where veterinarians gave proof against them. However, how far those accusations and doubts were true is not entirely clear.(1, 2)
10. In the 16th century, the Parliament passed a law that every man, excluding nobility and children younger than six, must wear a flat cap on Sundays and holidays, to avoid being fined.
The Act was passed to increase wool trade within the country. The Bill was repealed in the year 1597, however, the flat cap continues to be widely used even today. Other such sumptuary laws include restrictions on the colors of clothes, fabric and material, food and even the amount of money spent on luxuries were decreed based on the rank and social status of people. It was also a way for the kings and government to prevent or reduce expenditure on foreign goods.(source)
11. The world’s first speeding ticket was give to Walter Arnold in Kent for going at 8 mph on a road with a 2 mph speed limit.
Back then, along with staying below the speed limits you had to have a person walking and waving a red flag in front of the vehicle to alert pedestrians. The speed limits are certainly laughable compared to what we have now. But as motor cars were relatively uncommon, they were known to scare a few. The driver of the said car was nabbed after being spotted by a police constable who chased him for five miles on a bicycle.(source)
12. During the Victorian era, Britain had a population explosion, reaching more than twice the size it was before.
During the Victorian era, Britain experienced many revolutionary changes as compared to other countries. There were agricultural and industrial revolutions which considerably eased lives, increased fertility rates and standards of living. Because of the revolution, Britain was able to provide for its population at the right pace, whereas other countries fell into the Malthusian Trap. Their rate of population expansion was faster than the rate at which they could grow and provide resources, resulting in famine.(source)
13. Queen Victoria received a huge block of half a ton of cheddar cheese as her wedding gift from the cheesemakers of Somerset.
Known as the Great Pennard Cheese, it was made from the milk donated by farmers from 700 cows. The cheese was prepared by 26 milkmaids and later placed in a three-foot octagonal mould in June, 1939. When the cheese was presented to the Queen on February 10, 1840, she said she preferred a more mature cheese. So the farmers took it back to present it for royal christening.
The cheese was later caught up in a legal feud with some merchants who tried to earn quick money with a plaster cast of the cheese. Though the farmers won, the original cheese was later broken and fed to pigs.(source)
14. Between the years 1912 and 1948, art was considered an Olympic sport and works of art from architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpting were awarded medals.
The founder of Olympic Movement Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, felt that the games should reflect a completely educated man in both mind and body. He felt that art and sport should be combined and that men should compete in sport rather than in war. But, in 1954 the idea of artists participating in Olympics was abandoned and replaced by Olympic cultural programs.(source)
15. In the late 1894 London experienced what is known as the Great Horse Manure Crisis. There were so many horses that The Times predicted every street would be buried in nine feet deep horse dung in 50 years.
And that wasn’t all. Each horse produced as much as 2 pints (a little less than 4 liters) of urine every day. As horses aren’t exactly toilet trained, they did everything on the streets. Another problem was the removal of carcasses. With the average life expectancy of horses being around 3 years, it seemed a common occurrence. At that time New York was also suffering from the same inconveniences. However, they were all saved as motor cars were then invented and became the most preferred form of transport.(source)
16. During WWII, the British government popularized the idea that eating carrots can improve night vision, to hide the fact that RAF had advanced radar systems that accurately spotted enemy bombers.
That was not all they had in mind. The government also wanted to get rid of them as carrots were one vegetable that the country produced in surplus as food was getting scarce because of war. There was also an increase of awareness to cook economically among housewives. The BBC used to broadcast a program called “From the Kitchen Front” giving guidance about healthy and economic ways to eat with a result that the population stayed healthy despite Germany’s food blockade by 1941.(source)
17. During the early 1700s gin was so over-consumed among the poor and common man, that it reached epidemic proportions. The British spent the first half of the century, an era also known as Gin Craze, passing five Acts to get it under control.
The government’s efforts were often greeted with instances of law-breaking and violence against the informants of the locations of illegal gin makers. It was estimated that on an average, a person drank as much as 10 liters of gin per year. However, after the Gin Act 1751, which introduced strict requirements for production or sales, along with a rise in grain costs, the consumption finally decreased.(source)
18. On October 17, 1814, a huge beer vat ruptured, causing a domino effect with other vats. It flooded the Parish with 1.41 million liters of beer, killing at least eight.
The beer wave also destroyed two homes, crumbled the walls of a pub trapping a teenage girl and filled the basements in which many poor families lived. After the incident, named London Beer Flood, the case against the brewery was ruled out as an accident and an act of God. The company, needless to say, suffered financial repercussions and severe losses as they already paid duty on the beer.(source)
19. During the early 1800s, the name Mary was so popular that as many as half the women in UK had that name.
According to the data collected from census records, birth and death records, and doctors’ registrations, by the year 1800, the name Mary was the first popular name, constituting 23% of all names. It was 53.2% popular among the top three names and a whopping 82% popular among the top ten names. The same can be said about the name John. The other popular names include Elizabeth, Margaret, Susan, Sarah and Emily.(source)
20. The Victorians used to take post-mortem family photographs with their deceased, posing as if alive.
During the Victorian era there was a shift from getting a painting done, which was expensive, to taking a photograph, which was quicker and easier. Child mortality rates were very high back then compared to now. This made them immortalize the deceased by dressing them in beautiful clothes, in a seated position, posing with the family.(source)
21. During the early 1800s people used to send “vinegar valentines” anonymously to the person they hated. The cards contained humorous and often insulting comments about the recipient.
On Valentine’s Day, when many people received romantic gestures and sweet-natured cards, some received vinegar cards. The cards were of cheap quality, usually just a single paper, often depicting ugly caricatures and snide comments about the recipient’s looks, occupation or intelligence. What’s worse is the fact that back then they had to pay when they received a mail rather than when they send it. The cards were popular among the poor and working class who didn’t have much money to spend.(source)