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26 January: On this day in history

What events happened on 26 January in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

Published: January 26, 2022 at 5:04 am
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26 January 1885: General Gordon is killed at Khartoum

The revolt in Sudan sparks patriotic fervour in Britain


British political conversation in the first months of 1885 was dominated by one subject: where was Gordon? Was he still alive? Could he be rescued, before the Mahdi overwhelmed Khartoum?

Charles George Gordon was perhaps the most celebrated British officer of the Victorian age. At the beginning of 1884 he had accepted a commission from Gladstone’s government to organise the evacuation of Sudan. The country was nominally controlled by Britain’s client state, Egypt, but had been consumed by an Islamic nationalist revolution led by Muhammad Ahmad, the self-proclaimed Mahdi (messianic Islamic redeemer). But within months Gordon became trapped at Khartoum, surrounded by a vast force of dervish warriors. Rescuing him became a national obsession.

On 26 January 1885, even as a British relief force was trudging south, the Mahdi ordered the final assault on Khartoum. Starving, exhausted and demoralised, the garrison offered scant resistance. Accounts of Gordon’s last moments differ widely. One onlooker claimed that he was cornered in the palace by four dervishes, who ran him through with their spears. But Gordon’s own bodyguard insisted that his master fought to the bitter end, a loaded revolver in one hand, “a drawn sword in the other, and a grim look on his face”. At last, he sank to his knees, and the dervishes cut off his head.


At home, the news of Gordon’s death sparked a wave of national hysteria. Gladstone’s government fell only months later, while statues were erected across the British empire. Above all, an enormously popular painting by George W Joy turned Gordon into a patriotic martyr. He is pictured standing at the top of the palace stairs, gazing calmly down at the mob of dervish warriors below. To the Victorians, there was no more compelling image of British heroism. | Read more about the Victorians and the British Empire

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

26 January  1679
A serious fire in London's Middle Temple destroys the library of Elias Ashmole together with a large collection of coins and medals that he planned to donate to Oxford University for display in the Museum that nears his name.
26 January 1808
William Bligh of Bounty fame is faced with a second mutiny as he is deposed as Governor of New South Wales by the local military force.
26 January 1823 
Edward Jenner, physician and pioneer of smallpox vaccine, died aged 73 at his home in Berkeley, Gloucestershire.
26 January 1871
The Rugby Football Union was founded at the Pall Mall Restaurant on Regent Street. Twenty one clubs were represented at the meeting. The London club Wasps were not present – although invited, they turned up at the wrong pub on the wrong day.
26 January 1942
Some 4,000 soldiers from the US 34th Infantry Division became the first American ground troops to land in the European theatre of operations in WW2, at Belfast docks.

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Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine


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