20 September: On this day in history

What events happened on 20 September in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

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20 September 1854

Six days after landing in Crimea, the armies of Britain, France and the Ottomans finally launch a serious attack on the defending Russians on the Alma River, not far from Sevastopol. Under punishing British rifle fire, the Russians collapse, fleeing in panic down into the valley.

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20 September 1851

Mary Martha Sherwood died at Twickenham, aged 76. One of the 19th-century’s most prolific children’s authors, Sherwood produced over 400 books, tracts and articles during her life.


20 September 1932

Retired executioner John Ellis dies by suicide, slashing his throat with a razor. Ellis had been involved in over 200 hangings including those of Dr Crippen, Roger Casement and, infamously, Edith Thompson.


20 September 1973: Billie Jean is King in tennis’s ‘Battle of the Sexes’

Female tennis champ defeats a self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig

Competitive sport had never seen anything like it. To great roars from more than 30,000 spectators, and with an estimated 90 million people watching on television, the 29-year-old Billie Jean King was carried by four muscle-bound men into the Houston Astrodome, like Cleopatra on her throne. A few moments later, the 55-year-old Bobby Riggs followed, in a rickshaw drawn by a group of nubile young women. Riggs handed her a lollipop. King gave him a piglet, a fitting gift for a man who prided himself on being a chauvinist pig. And then the slaughter began.

Although it was merely an exhibition, the Battle of the Sexes, which took place on 20 September 1973, was the most watched tennis match of all time. Since hanging up his racquet in 1951, Riggs, the former world No 1, had relentlessly courted publicity, winning lurid headlines with his scathing criticism of the women’s game. Women, he said contemptuously, were no good at tennis; even in his fifties, he could beat any of the top female players. King’s rival Margaret Court promptly accepted the challenge; unfortunately, Riggs beat her, 6-2, 6-1.

As one of America’s best-known champions of women’s rights, Billie Jean King picked up the gauntlet. “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” she said later. “It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.” And she was as good as her word. That day in the Astrodome, she hammered Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. “For women everywhere,” said The New York Times, “she convinced sceptics that a female athlete can survive pressure- filled situations and that men are as susceptible to nerves as women.”


20 September 1976

The first episode of the 12-part historical drama I, Claudius aired. Adapted from two novels by Robert Graves – I, Claudius and Claudius the God, it depicted decadent imperial Roman life and was a ratings success.

Derek Jacobi’s portrayal of Claudius was matched by an outstanding performance from Sian Phillips as Livia, his scheming grandmother. Both actors had to age through the series, and required hours in the make-up chair.

I, Claudius proved that historical drama did not have to be staid. The popularity of the programme led to a repeat the following year, and inspired other historical dramas not to shy away from adult themes.

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I, Claudius won BAFTA awards for Jacobi and Phillips, as well as one for designer Tim Harvey. The title sequence featuring a snake slithering across a mosaic portrait of Claudius was parodied in the second series of popular BBC comedy Blackadder.

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