5 December 1661

Birth of statesman Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford. As first lord of the Treasury between 1711 and 1714 Harley was, in effect, Queen Anne's first minister but fell from favour following the accession of George I.


5 December 1745: Bonnie Prince Charlie turns back at Derby

The pretender to the throne suffers a major blow

When dawn broke over Derby on 5 December 1745, it found a city in shock. The day before, Charles Edward Stuart (also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie) had marched into town. At a local inn, Charles’s treasurer was already collecting taxes. Hundreds of miles to the south, London was reportedly in tumult. To the Young Pretender’s Jacobite supporters, the restoration of the Stuart dynasty was now just a matter of time.

Among Charles’s generals, however, doubts had begun to set in. They were a long way from their native Scotland, and many English towns remained fearful and hostile. When Charles held a council of war that morning, his senior com- mander, Lord George Murray, told him that “they had marched into the heart of England ready to join with any party that would declare for him, that none had, and the Counties through which the Army had pass’d had Seemed much more Enemies than friends to his Cause, that there was no French Landed in England, and that if there was any party in England for him, it was very odd that they had never so much as either sent him money or intelligence or the least advice what to do”.

Charles insisted that they must continue south. But even at that first meeting, he was losing ground. When they met again that evening, one Dudley Bradstreet – actually a government agent – falsely reported that a Hanoverian army was blocking the road to London. That was the decisive moment. “That fellow will do me more harm than all the Elector’s army,” Charles murmured – rightly, as it turned out. He made one last effort to win over his generals. “You ruin, abandon and betray me if you do not march on,” he begged. But it was no good. The next morning, they began the long march back to Scotland. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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5 December 1757

Frederick the Great of Prussia defeats the Austrians at Leuthen in Silesia.

5 December 1791: Mozart meets an untimely end

The composer dies before finishing his last masterpiece

It is one of the most famous scenes in musical history. The brilliant composer, perhaps the greatest who ever lived, sits huddled in a coach in Vienna, talking to his wife about his unfinished Requiem. He is writing it, he says tearfully, for himself. “I feel definitely, that I will not last much longer; I am sure I have been poisoned. I cannot rid myself of this idea.”

As anyone who has seen the film Amadeus knows, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died on 5 December 1791 after months of agonising illness, carried off amid a raging storm. Or did he?

In fact, most biographers believe Mozart was in good spirits before his death. The composer had indeed been ill, but he was feeling better and enjoying the challenge of writing his Requiem. The story that his rival, Antonio Salieri, had secretly commissioned it to drive him to his death is entirely false. So too is the myth that he died of syphilis. Probably he died of an infectious fever sweeping Vienna in the last weeks of 1791, the same disease that killed hundreds of others.

Two days later, Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave. The gale howled, and all day, rain hammered down in the sepulchral darkness. The heavens themselves were weeping – or were they? Actually, contemporary accounts suggest it was a mild, misty day, with only a moderate wind. Even the pauper’s grave is a fiction. Mozart was buried in an ordinary unmarked grave, like the overwhelming majority of middle-class Viennese. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

5 December 1830

Birth of the poet Christina Georgina Rossetti in Charlotte Street, London. Author of In the Bleak Midwinter, the Christmas poem that was later set to music by Gustave Holst, Christina was the younger sister of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

5 December 1859

Birth in Southampton of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe. As commander of the British Grand Fleet he directed operations at the battle of Jutland in May 1916. In 1920 he was appointed governor general of New Zealand.

5 December 1933

The ratification of the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution brings the national prohibition of alcohol to an end. Some states maintain their own temperance laws and Mississippi will not end Prohibition until 1966.

5 December 1952: The Great Smog smothers London

Chaos reigns as the city is cloaked in impenetrable fog

It began as just a curious weather story. The previous morning, reported The Daily Telegraph on 6 December 1952, a “thick fog covered almost the whole of south-west London”, creating “almost a complete blackout”. So far it had claimed only one victim: “A mallard, presumably blinded by the fog, crashed into Mr John Maclean as he was walking home in Ifield Road, Fulham. Both were slightly injured. Mr Maclean handed the bird to the RSPCA.”

So began the Great Smog of 1952. Like most major cities, the capital had suffered from air pollution for decades, but this was different. An anticyclone hung over London, trapping the soot and smoke released from the coal fires on which millions of people relied. This created a noxious smog that lasted for five days and killed between 4,000 and 12,000 people.

At first there was no sense of panic. Londoners lived beneath a low-level smog anyway; why should this be worse? But by Monday the headlines were increasingly alarming. “London’s 40-Mile Fog Blackout,” read the front page of The Daily Telegraph, warning that the smog had “blacked out central London and a band 40 miles across... All buses had stopped by 10pm. Hundreds of cars were abandoned.”

Flights were rerouted, concerts cancelled and ambulance services reported that routine journeys took five times longer than usual. At Liverpool Street station, a judge was so confused that he walked straight off the station platform. “Some think well of frost or snow, and rain is an undoubted necessity,” thundered one columnist. “But there is no decent use for fog… Fog is a dirty and stifling cloud without any silver lining at all.”


The only winners, in fact, were London’s thieves, for whom the smog was a gift. But it did not last: by Tuesday the fog was clearing. And thanks to the Clean Air Act that came into effect four years later, it never returned on such a scale. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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