27 April 1612

An enquiry held before Lancashire JPs Roger Nowell and Nicholas Banner to investigate the purpose of a meeting held at Malkin Tower near Pendle led to eight people joining the four already accused of witchcraft and committed for trial.


27 April 1759

Writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft is born in Spitalfields, London. She will die in 1797, shortly after giving birth to the future Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

27 April 1805

In what is modern-day Libya, US Marines and Arab mercenaries attack the port of Derna, hoping to crush the power of the Barbary corsairs.

27 April 1810

Pioneering road builder John Metcalf died near Wetherby, aged 92. Popularly known as Blind Jack of Knaresborough, he constructed about 180 miles of turnpike road, mainly in the north of England.

27 April 1813

Toronto (then known as York) was captured, looted and burned by invading American forces which had defeated a small force of British regulars, Canadian militia and native American warriors under Sir Roger Sheaffe. The British blew up their powder magazine to prevent it from falling into the hands of their enemies. A large number of Americans were killed and wounded in the explosion, including their operational commander Zebulon Pike. The burning of the town led to Canadian calls for revenge and the burning of Washington DC by the British in the following year.

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27 April 1828

London Zoo opens as a centre for scientific study for Fellows of the Zoological Society of London, which had been founded two years earlier by Sir Stamford Raffles. The zoo will not be open to the public until 1847.

27 April 1865: The Sultana explodes on the Mississippi

The worst waterway disaster in US history claims 1,700 lives

On a late April day in 1865, the steamship Sultana was puffing up the Mississippi river. It was returning from a journey south to New Orleans on which it had carried a pivotal piece of information: news of the death of President Abraham Lincoln on 15 April, following his shooting by Confederate sympathiser John Wilkes Booth the previous day. Coming hard on the heels of the surrender by Confederate General Lee, marking the effective end of the American Civil War, the Sultana’s captain, James Cass Mason, had been eager to get the news to the southern states as fast as possible.

Having delivered the tidings, he turned north once more. Calling at Vicksburg, Mississippi, he took a tempting money-making opportunity. Thousands of newly released Union prisoners of war needed transportation home to the north, at a tidy per-man fee. So Mason packed the Sultana with just under 2,000 troops – but the ship was designed to carry fewer than 400 passengers.

As the overladen vessel juddered out of Vicksburg towards Memphis, Tennessee, it battled strong currents. Seven miles after reaching Memphis, in the middle of the night, three of the ship’s boilers exploded, killing some sleeping soldiers instantly and sending burning debris crashing through the vessel. The mostly wooden Sultana rapidly went up in flames as its screaming passengers leapt from its deck into the chilly river.

Most of the men on board were killed. Of the survivors, one floated on the carcass of a mule while others clung to trees and roots. Several died of hypothermia. The final death toll has been estimated at more than 1,700.

The Sultana is still at the bottom of the river, and the incident remains the worst waterway disaster in US history. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

27 April 1937

King George VI opens the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

27 April 1961

Sierra Leone gained independence from Britain. Its first prime minister was Sir Milton Margai who led the country until his death almost exactly three years later, on 28 April 1964.


27 April 1992

After more than 700 years of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd becomes the first female Speaker of the House.

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