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Post Boxes

The famous red letter boxes which appear all over Britain were invented by the novelist Anthony Trollope who worked by day for the Post Office.

People Buried Standing Up

Both the printer John Baskerville and the poet Ben Jonson were buried standing up for different reasons. 

Baskerville was a non-believer and had a conical mausoleum built in his own garden with instructions for his burial as he disliked all ritual (This was later removed to make way for a canal!). 
Jonson wanted to be buried in Westminster Abbey but was so hard up that he couldn’t afford to purchase the six feet length required and asked for a cheaper two-foot plot and to be buried vertically.

Talking of Bodies being Moved

The great Novelist and cleric Laurence Sterne who wrote “Tristram Shandy” which influenced as disparate a group of people as Samuel Johnson, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche had his body moved from St George’s Burial Ground in Hanover Square in London to St Michael’s Church in Coxwold, Yorkshire. However a rumour persisted that his body was stolen from London and sold for dissection to the professor of anatomy at Cambridge. His features were said to be recognised by a student at the dissecting table and his skeleton, it is said, was for a long time preserved in the anatomy school at Cambridge.

When the body of Cardinal John Henry Newman was due to be moved from its supposed resting place in Rubery, Rednal, Birmingham to the Oratory in Birmingham the grave was found to be empty.

Not all Bodies were Buried

Jeremy Bentham’s body is kept in a cabinet at University College London. In his will Bentham asked his friend Doctor Southwood Smith to preserve his body as an auto icon. The skeleton is padded out with straw dressed in his own clothes surmounted by a wax head. The original skull was kept at his feet for as time but has since been removed. It was later given to the college in 1850. On 20 February the cabinet was removed from the South Cloisters of the Wilkins Building to its new place in the UCL’s Student Centre on Gordon Square. Not surprisingly the rumours that the cabinet was opened during College council meetings and that Bentham was entered into the minutes as being present, or even voting, are sadly untrue.

The only Novelist to Sentence Someone to Hang

The author of “Tom Jones” and “Joseph Andrews” Henry Fielding worked as a magistrate and in 1750 heorganised the “Bow Street Runners” who become the first modern police force in Britain. As he was going increasingly blind, he was known as “The Blind Beak of Bow Street” by the criminal classes. In 1751 he sentenced the notorious criminal James Field to hang.

Not all Famous Novelists were always Successful

“First Impressions” the original version of “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen written in 1797 was rejected by a publisher in London. In 1803 the original version of Northanger Abbey”, entitled “Susan” was taken on by a publisher but never released.

Thomas Hardy did not have much luck either. His first novel “The Poor Man and the Lady” was rejected by the publishers Chapman and Hall in 1869. “Desperate Remedies”, “The Return of the Native” and “Tess of the D’Urbevilles” were also rejected at first. Hardy had to eke out a living in his early career and in 1865 Arthur Blomfield gave him the task of exhuming bodies from old St Pancras Churchyard in order to prepare the way for the new Midland Railway!

Neither were Scientists that lucky

The great pioneer of vaccination, on which we rely on so much today, Edward Jenner had to have his 1798 book “An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Various Vaccinae” published privately after it was rejected by the scientific periodicals of the day.

Writer’s Unfortunate other Job

The philosopher William Godwin husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and father to Mary Shelley had as part of his duties is to maintain the firefighting equipment for the Houses of Parliament. Sadly in 1834 this equipment proved inadequate when the parliament buildings caught fire during the evening of 16th October causing extensive damage and paving the way for the buildings we see today.

Surprising other Jobs

The novelist William Somerset Maugham worked for military intelligence during the First World War and in 1917 he was moved to Petrograd (modern St. Petersburg) in Russia in an attempt to stop the outbreak of the Russian Revolution.

The film star Richard Burton left university in 1944 as one of twelve prize winning air cadets and became a navigator. He was prevented from becoming a pilot due to poor eyesight.

The novelist Evelyn Waugh of “Brideshead Revisited” was commissioned in the Royal Marines in 1940 and became a special assistant to the commando leader Robert Laycock. In 1944 he served in Yugoslavia with Randolph Churchill, the son of Winston Churchill liaising with Marshall Tito’s Partisans.

Blood and War

In 1642 William Harvey, who was responsible for discovering the circulation of the blood in animals and humans, witnessed the Battle of Edgehill in Warwickshire, the first major battle of the English Civil War, where he tended the wounded. 

In 1808 the author and poet Walter Savage Landor fought as a volunteer in Spain in the war of liberation against Napoleon using his family’s wealth to subsidise his campaign. (Charles Dickens was later to base the character of Boythorn in “bleak House” on Landor).

The early poet of “Le Morte D’Arthur”, Thomas Malory was pardoned by King Henry the Sixth on at least one occasion during the 1460’s but was also excluded from pardon by both King Henry the Sixth and Edward the Fourth for violent deeds. Once the Yorkists gained power he was freed and no charges were brought against him. He repaid King Edward the Fourth by taking part in the Earl of Warwick’s raids against the Northumbrian castles of Alnwick, Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh which had been seized by the Lancastrians.

The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery in 1917 and sent back to France.

Not content with joining the Imperial Indian Police in Burma as Assistant Superintendent in 1924, Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell went on to fight in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. He was a Corporal with the Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista detachment of the Aragon front and was involved in street fighting between anarchists and government troops in Barcelona. He was discharged on medical grounds after being wounded in the throat. In 1940 he joined the Home Guard back in Britain.

Who’s seen Napoleon?

The novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, famous for writing “Vanity Fair” amongst his large output, was sent home to England from India by his mother in 1816 to be educated. His mother stayed in India so she could marry her childhood sweetheart! Thackeray stopped at St. Helena on the voyage back and a servant pointed out the prisoner Napoleon Bonaparte. Thackeray is an interesting character who failed as a lawyer, artist and journalist even allowed his newspaper to go bankrupt.

In 1815 the writer of sea faring tales Captain Thomas Marryat served aboard the sloop HMS Beaver off St Helena to guard against attempts to rescue Napoleon Bonaparte. Due to poor health he leaves the ship in Madeira and goes on to invent the lifeboat which earns him a Gold Medal from the Royal Humane Society. In 1820, now in command of HMS Rosario, he carries the dispatches to England of the death of Napoleon. He makes a sketch of the former Emperor on his death bed which was later published as a lithograph and sold in England as well as France. Much of his other work at the time was trying to thwart smuggling across the English Channel.

Politics and all that

In 1902 the science fiction writer H.G.Wells became a member of the Fabian society which was a forerunner to the Labour Party. Many of the other members tried to veto his acceptance on the Executive Committee as he wished to change the organisation from a debating society to one of direct action for social change. Later however, in 1920, after actually visiting Russia he became disillusioned and published “The Outlines of History” which holds that mankind could only survive by education rather than by revolution.

The playwright Robert Brinsley Sheridan was elected to Parliament in 1780 for the Whig party in Stafford as a friend of Charles James Fox. It is said that he bribed the local burghers with five guineas each with extra promises of dinners and ale. His first act in parliament was to try and defend himself against acts of bribery. 

He opposed the war in America and later in 1812 when he was short of funds the US Congress offered Sheridan £20,000 to pay off his gambling and other debts in recognition of his efforts to prevent the American War of Independence but he refused the money.

In 1798 William Pitt the Younger brought in a new graduated Income Tax based on people’s earnings which was seen as revolutionary for the time.

The First president of the National Council for Civil Liberties in 1934 was the novelist E.M. Forster, famous for “A Room with a View” and “Howard’s End”.

In 1908 the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George introduced the first Old Age Pension. Up to that time many elderly people had become destitute as they were too old to work.

School boards requiring compulsory local education for children was introduced in 1870 by Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone with his revolutionary Education Act.

The speed record king Sir Malcolm Campbell, and father of Donald, stood as a parliamentary candidate for Deptford in 1935 but was unelected.

Hansard Written Records of Parliament

These were originally begun by the writer of “Rural Rides” William Cobbett in 1806 as the “Record of Parliamentary Debate” however they were later taken over by Luke Hansard and have been known as Hansard ever since.

Down and Out(ish)

Not all famous people have an easy start. In 1895 John Masefield, who was later to become Poet Laureate deserted his ship after completing an Atlantic voyage and became a vagrant in the United States of America finally ending up in New York. He worked first as a barman and then in a carpet factory spending much of his spare time reading modern and classical literature.

The radical writer William Hazlitt lost his desire in 1797 to become a Unitarian Preacher and left college. His next idea to become a painter was unsuccessful as he attracted no patrons so he eventually decided on becoming a writer.

The great Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick,who died in 1833, had to have his funeral paid for by a subscription raised by the employees at his Dartford workshop, as he died penniless.

The writer W.S. Gilbert, (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) was originally called to the bar in 1864 but was unsuccessful in landing well paid briefs and had to supplement his income by writing for magazines such as “Punch” and “Fun”. His humorous verse was published under the pseudonym “Bab” to disguise who he was.

Birthday Treats

The composer Thomas Arne wrote “The Masque of Althred” in 1740 which was first performed in front of the Prince of Wales at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire to celebrate the birthday of his daughter Princess Augusta. The work includes the now famous song “Rule Britannia”.

Bitten by a Lion and other Accidents

The famous explorer of Africa David Livingstone was attacked by a lion in 1844. He recovered but his arm was partially disabled for the rest of his life.

The playwright George Bernard Shaw died on the 2nd November 1950 in Hertfordshire after an accident pruning an apple tree.

Not a Colourful Life

The first person to investigate colour blindness was the chemist John Dalton. In 1794 he presented a paper to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical society on colour blindness, an affliction from which he suffered and the condition became known as Daltonism.

Famous Friends

One of the composer Edward Elgar’s most popular works is the Enigma Variations of which Nimrod is a part. This mournful tune, which is often used at Remembrance Day parades for the fallen, was actually composed in 1899 in honour of his best friend, the German publisher August Jaeger.

An Englishman’s Castle needs a Garden

The term “Landscape Gardener” was invented by Humphry Repton in 1788.  He would create his famous “Red Books” for clients which had before and after sketches of the design complete with his own watercolours. In 1808 he introduced the idea of “The Home Lawn” which was to become a feature of gardens grand and small ever since.

There’s Money in Advertising

The Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everitt Millais painted his famous picture “Bubbles” in 1866 for A and F Pears Ltd the soap manufacturers. This went on to be one of the most highly successful advertising pictures of all time. 

First Printed Books in English

William Caxton printed his first book in English “The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye” in great quantities in 1474 but his popularity was sealed later that year when he printed “The Game and Play of the Chesse” which was the first printed book in English to contain woodcuts.

Television is getting old

We assume television has been with us for ever but it was only in 1924 that John Logie Baird first demonstrated his prototype television in Selfridges department store in London.