3 July 1842

John William Bean, a mentally unstable youth described as “a stunted young man barely four feet tall” fired a pistol at Queen Victoria while she travelled down the Mall in an open carriage with her uncle King Leopold of the Belgians. The pistol was found to be loaded with paper and tobacco and Bean was eventually sentenced to 18 months in prison for “high misdemeanour”. Former prime minister Melbourne described the incident as “evidence of the ease with which persons of the lower orders can incite themselves or be incited by others”.


3 July 1871

Welsh poet and writer William Henry Davies was born in Newport, Monmouthshire. The time he spent as a vagrant in the United States and Britain inspired his best-known work, The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp.

3 July 1883

Writer Franz Kafka was born in Prague to a German-speaking Jewish family. After studying law he worked for an insurance company, and went on to produce a number of short stories and three novels: The Trial, The Castle and Amerika.

3 July 1940

Nearly 1,300 French sailors lost their lives when a British naval force under Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville attacked a French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in order to prevent it from falling into German hands.

3 July 1863: Lee’s gamble fails at Gettysburg

Confederate general urges his troops into suicidal charge that becomes a retreat

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On 3 July 1863, the little town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania trembled beneath the hammer-blows of battle. For two days the Confederate commander, Robert E Lee, had urged his huge army to smash through the ranks of their Union adversaries, hoping to drive towards Philadelphia and force the northern states to abandon the American Civil War. So far, however, the Union forces had held out, despite a casualty list running into the tens of thousands.

Now, on the third and crucial day, Lee ordered his men to renew the assault. After a punishing artillery barrage, he instructed Lieutenant General James Longstreet to send nine infantry brigades across open fields directly towards the Union position. Longstreet thought the plan was madness. “General, I have been a soldier all my life,” he told Lee. “It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.” But Lee was adamant.

“Up, men, and to your posts!” yelled Major General George Pickett (after whom the assault would come to be named). “Don’t forget today that you are from old Virginia!” At about 2pm, the fateful charge began. The Confederates fought manfully, but as Union fire poured down, the attackers’ momentum slackened. With a casualty rate of a staggering 50 per cent, they began to fall back, and after barely an hour their assault had become a retreat. The Union forces were too exhausted to mount a counterattack, yet it was clear that Lee’s Confederates had gambled and lost.

Later, historians saw Pickett’s Charge as the “high-water mark of the Confederacy” – the moment when Gettysburg and the war might have taken another course. And every 14-year-old southern boy, wrote the novelist William Faulkner 85 years later, would still replay the charge in his mind and dream of “Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble”. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

3 July 1996: The government promises to return the Stone of Scone

John Major announces that the sacred artefact is going home

On a stuffy summer’s day in the House of Commons, British prime minister John Major told assembled MPs that the Stone of Scone – a potent symbol of the Scottish monarchy – would be leaving English soil and returning north of the border.

”The Stone of Destiny,” Major told parliament, “holds a special place in the hearts of Scots... [and] it is appropriate to return it to its historic homeland.”

Future PM Tony Blair – then the Labour leader of the opposition – immediately supported Major’s statement, calling the move “a welcome recognition of how we can celebrate the unity of the UK while being distinct and proud nations with differing traditions, histories and cultures”.

This historic announcement had been a long time coming – 700 years, in fact. The block of sandstone – which, according to legend, had been the coronation stone for all of Scotland’s kings since the early Middle Ages – was seized by England’s King Edward I during the First War of Scottish Independence. Then, in 1296, it was taken to Westminster Abbey, where it was wedged within the wooden royal throne.

Prizing the stone from its setting in 1996 was a herculean task, involving a team of conservation experts who spent six agonis- ing hours inching it out from beneath the seat. Once safely extracted, the stone travelled 400 miles up to Edinburgh Castle, accompanied by a police escort. And in November 1996 the Stone of Scone returned home, to be met with a great patriotic fanfare.


Though the stone’s return was considered a just move, it did throw up questions about other cultural treasures stolen from their homes by the British during the imperial years. We are still debating these questions today. | Written by Helen Carr

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