Six trivial decisions that changed British history

From a misguided act of chivalry on an Essex field to the rescheduling of a television programme during a general election, sometimes it’s a small moment that changes the course of history. Here, Dixe Wills, author of Tiny Histories: Trivial Events and Trifling Decisions that Changed British History, uncovers six split-second decisions that helped make Britain what it is today…

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Alexander Fleming, the Scottish bacteriologist who inadvertently discovered the world’s first antibiotic after leaving a petri dish unwashed while he went on holiday. (Bettman via Getty Images)

It might be difficult to credit when watching the news, but Britain is not entirely shaped by the decisions made by government ministers or by the daily battering of global events. Very often it is apparently insignificant moments that make the nation the way it is. The wars the country has fought, the great advances made in science, the food we eat, the music we listen to and even the politics that shape our daily lives – all of these have been moulded to a certain extent by incidents that might appear completely inconsequential.

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1) A foolhardy act of chivalry proved a costly mistake for the Anglo-Saxons, and changed the language we speak today…

Take, for instance, a misguided act of chivalry by a Saxon village leader in 991 AD. That year, a fleet of 93 ships led by the Norwegian Olaf Tryggvason sailed up the River Blackwater in Essex and landed on the 300-acre Northey Island. Warned of the Viking invasion, a small militia was hastily assembled by a Saxon ealdor [a type of local leader] called Byrhtnoth. The Vikings were surprised to find that the extreme narrowness of the causeway meant that a mere three of Byrhtnoth’s soldiers – Wulfstan, Aelfere and Maccus – were able to hold back their 3,000-strong army (or so the tale goes). Tryggvason soon tired of this and complained to Byrhtnoth that having his troops cooped up in this manner was not ‘playing the game’. The Saxon ealdor, chivalrous to a fault, agreed. He allowed the Vikings to come across the causeway unmolested so that the opposing forces might fight on equal terms. The Vikings thanked their hosts, before taking great care to butcher them almost to a man. So began an inglorious chapter of Anglo-Saxon history that saw the country bled dry by the payment of the so-called Danegeld (a tax paid to Norse invaders to convince them to leave). It’s estimated that in total the Anglo-Saxons gave over more than six million silver coins, collectively weighing in at over 100 tonnes.

However, it needn’t have been that way at all. Had Byrhtnoth simply kept Tryggvason’s forces on Northey until an army large enough to defeat it had been assembled, England might not have needed to buy its way out of trouble. The nation would almost certainly not have found itself visited 75 years later by Harald Hardrada, who understandably saw the Saxons as something of a soft touch. He landed his army on the Yorkshire coast in 1066, forcing King Harold II of England to march his soldiers from the south to defeat the invaders at Stamford Bridge, where they met on 25 September. Exhausted and depleted in numbers after their 480-mile-round journey, Harold’s army was narrowly defeated by William of Normandy near Hastings just 19 days after the victory over Hardrada. Even under these circumstances, Harold’s forces came close to winning the battle, so it’s not stretching credibility to claim that had they been at full strength – both physically and numerically – they would indeed have done so.

Once crowned, William swiftly set about the Normanisation of his new territory – including the introduction of Norman French as the official tongue. Thus, the English language experienced a revolution as its Germanic Saxon words started to be eased out in favour of the more sensuous-sounding Norman French vocabulary. And all this may have occurred because of a single rash decision made by an obscure local leader on the banks of a minor Essex river over a thousand years ago.

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A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Invasion of 1066. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

2) A bacteriologist put off doing his washing up and inadvertently created a life-saving medicine…

Perhaps the most famous ‘tiny’ moment in the world of medicine is Alexander Fleming’s decision to leave some petri dishes in a sink rather than washing them up before he left for a month’s holiday. On returning to his laboratory, he found something peculiar growing in one of the dishes. The mould, which had blown in through an open window, showed antibiotic properties – and so penicillin came into being. The drug was used by the Allies in the second half of the Second World War to ward against gangrene and septicaemia. The Axis forces were unable to produce a sufficient amount of the drug and, as a consequence, the survival and recovery rates of the latter’s injured troops was markedly lower.

3) A young artist moved into a derelict lighthouse and changed the path of global conservation forever…

Other history-shaping incidents might be rather less well known, such as the decision taken in 1933 by a talented 24-year-old artist named Peter Scott, son of explorer Robert Falcon Scott, to move into a remote and dilapidated building once used as a beacon three miles out on a tidal marsh on the Wash, where Norfolk meets Lincolnshire. The isolation of this so-called lighthouse and the abundant avian life around it combined to make the painter realise what he really wanted to do with his life: become a conservationist. 

In time, Scott co-founded both the organisation now known as the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and the World Wildlife Fund (now the World Wide Fund for Nature). He also helped establish a moratorium on commercial whaling, created what is now known as the Red List of Threatened Species, wrote more than 20 books, and for 26 years hosted the popular nature programme Look on British television, making him arguably the most influential conservationist who ever lived. His experience at the lighthouse was transformative to such a degree that a sign posted outside it today proclaims it to be “the most important building in the history of global conservation”.

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Peter Scott, pictured here with a young Elizabeth II and a woman holding a badger, decided to become a conservationist after moving to a lighthouse on the east coast of England when he was 24, says Dixe Wills. (Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

4) A woman misjudged the path of a horse and gave the Suffragette movement a boost…

Some brief moments that shaped British history are somewhat more tragic in nature. Such was the case in June 1913 when a 40-year-old activist miscalculated the path of a horse. When Emily Wilding Davison ran out onto the Epsom racecourse, it appears that she planned to fasten a sash in the colours of the women’s suffrage movement onto one of the horses competing in the Derby. She had a return rail ticket in her pocket and had made plans to go on holiday with her sister, so it is unlikely that she had been intent on martyrdom. Furthermore, she had been seen with other suffragettes in a park practising at grabbing moving horses. Unfortunately, she was struck at great speed by her chosen target, Anmer – a racehorse owned by King George V – and died four days later.

Whilst attempting to attach a sash to the king’s horse would certainly have caused a stir, the death of such a prominent suffragette this dramatic and tragic manner did much to help to stimulate support for votes for women. This was particularly true among men who, with notable exceptions, had been slow to warm to the cause. Davison’s death also led directly to the formation of the Northern Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage. Five years after she was killed, the 1918 Representation of the People Act was passed, giving votes to certain groups of women for the first time. Ten years later, in 1928, the playing field was levelled and women in Britain were granted the same voting rights as men.

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Suffragettes attend the funeral of Emily Davison, who died after she was struck by a horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images) 

5) In 1888, a veterinary surgeon cut up a hose and revolutionised transport…

On the other side of the Irish Sea, it was a young boy’s valiant attempts to negotiate the cobblestone streets of 19th-century Belfast on his tricycle that led to a game-changing breakthrough in the world of transport. The boy’s father, who was not an engineer or inventor but a veterinary surgeon, was stirred by his son’s travails and set about remedying the situation. The man, a Scotsman called John Dunlop, cut a length from an old garden hose, looped it around to form a continuous tube, pumped it up and fitted it around a wooden disc. After a few tests, he fitted similar tubes to the rear wheels of his son’s tricycle. The effect was immediate and dramatic – the ride over the cobblestones was suddenly a lot less bone-shaking than it had been. Dunlop had invented the pneumatic tyre. It quickly became a standard feature on all bicycles, enabling people to cover much greater distances in comfort, and cycling boomed. A decade or so later, a thicker more durable pneumatic tyre was developed and soon all new cars were provided with them. Dunlop never made a great deal of money from his invention, but his fatherly concern over his son’s discomfort resulted in the revolutionising of not just the bicycle, but the motorcar as well.

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The son of Scotsman John Boyd Dunlop sat on top of a bicycle. Dunlop, a veterinary surgeon, invented the pneumatic tyre after hearing of his son’s difficulties riding along cobbled streets. (Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

 

6) The rescheduling of a television programme influenced the outcome of a British election…

In the 20th century, the moving of a television programme by a single hour changed Britain’s political landscape. In October 1964, Labour Party leader Harold Wilson was perusing the television schedules for the evening of the general election when he noticed something that filled him with dread – at 8pm, the BBC was showing an episode of Steptoe and Son. The tale of two impoverished rag-and-bone men frequently drew 14 million viewers and sometimes as many as 20 million. Back in 1964 the polls closed an hour earlier than they do today and Wilson feared that Labour voters might be tempted not to turn out to cast their vote if the alternative was half an hour in the company of the nation’s favourite scrap collectors. He duly called at the home of Sir Hugh Greene, the director-general of the BBC, to discuss the matter over a cup of tea. Greene then talked to the controller of BBC One and Steptoe and Son was pushed to 9pm. 

In an incredibly tight election with handfuls of marginal constituencies, Harold Wilson calculated that the rescheduling of Steptoe and Son to 9pm secured Labour 20 seats it might have lost. In total, the party won 317 of the House of Commons’ 630 seats – an extremely narrow victory that gave Wilson the smallest parliamentary majority since 1847.

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People counting votes for the 1964 General Election at Walthamstow Assembly Hall in London. The election was won by the Labour Party with an overall majority of just four seats. (Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It should be noted that, to a great extent, Harold Wilson’s undoing in the 1970 general election can be laid at the door of another BBC television show. When the leader of the Conservative Party, Edward Heath, won the Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race in December 1969, he was interviewed by David Coleman on a programme called Sportsnight. His dashing new image as a successful sportsman lent his party a more appealing veneer, and as a result they swept to power six months later. 

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Dixe Wills is an author, travel journalist and radio performer. His latest book Tiny Histories was published by Quadrille in October 2017 (priced £16.99).