100 Amazing Historical Facts, Figures and Fascinating Finds | History Hit

100 Amazing Historical Facts, Figures and Fascinating Finds

A delightful assortment of facts from our new book History Hit Miscellany - out now.

Dan Snow

06 Oct 2023

I have been making documentaries, radio shows and podcasts since 2003. During those 20 long years I have been so lucky to visit around 100 countries, to film in fortress-like Maori Pā sites, abandoned Norse churches in Greenland, paddle-boat wrecks on the Yukon, Mayan temples covered in vegetation, and the stunning mosques of Timbuktu. I have met thousands of historians, archaeologists and experts, I have read thousands of books.

What follows is a gigantic and ever growing list of tit-bits, facts, snippets that I have been told, many of which now feature in History Hit’s Miscellany of Facts, Figures and Fascinating Finds, our new book published in September 2023. I have enough weird, wonderful, quirky, vital, tragic, funny stories and facts tucked away in notebooks and phone apps to last a few years yet, and thanks to the huge privilege I have of interviewing the world’s best historians, I hope to fill many more.

Lots of these will be contested, some will be wrong. Research will have moved on, or more likely, I noted them incorrectly. Some were gathered in the pub after filming where mistakes of all kinds are to be expected. Some were relayed to me in shouted conversations on dive boats in the teeth of a gale or the back of a pickup truck, careering over indecipherable roads as the light faded in a place where it was best to be home by dark.

I am grateful for your thoughts and corrections. It will make the list more robust and remarkable. If you have a correction or suggestion, please let us know!

1. Dictators together

In 1913 Stalin, Hitler, Trotsky, Tito all lived in Vienna for a couple of months.

2. Colonial background

The first British officer killed in World War One was an Englishman, born in India, in a Scottish regiment, commanding Senegalese troops in Togoland.

3. Record breaking vaccine

The record for a vaccine to be developed and licensed was four years. The record holder was the mumps vaccine which was licensed in 1967. Following the UK government approval of the Pfizer vaccine for Covid19 in early December 2020, that record is now just under 11 months.

4. Absent monarch

Richard the Lionheart only spent six months of his ten-year reign in England.

5. ‘Day of Fate’

Important events in German history have frequently occurred on 9 November, dubbed Schicksalstag, ‘Day of Fate’. In 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated. In 1923, Adolf Hitler’s Nazis attempted the Munich Putsch, and in 1938 they attacked Jews on Kristallnacht. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell.

6. The biggest shark attack

When the USS Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine on 30 July 1945 survivors were left in the water for four days, during which time around 600 men died of exposure, dehydration, and shark attacks. Experts believe it may be the single greatest concentration of shark attacks on humans in history.

7. Loss of horse power

Napoleon took 187,600 horses with his army as he rode into Russia in 1812, only 1,600 came back.

8. Race at war

In World War One, France’s black soldiers suffered a death rate 3x higher than their white comrades, because they were so often given suicidal tasks.

9. Police state

The Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 criminalised a range of nuisances. Knocking on a door and running away, flying kites, singing obscene ballads, sliding on ice in the street. Technically all of these activities are still offences within the Metropolitan police area of London. You can be given a fine of up to £500.

10. Japanese superstitions

Before battle, Japanese samurai painted their faces, horses and teeth, and left a hole in their helmet through which the soul could escape.

11. Illegal drunkenness

Since 1872 it’s been illegal to be drunk in a pub.

12. Mammoth constructions

When Egypt’s major pyramids were being built, there remained a small population of woolly mammoths on Wrangel island in the Arctic.

13. Mr Loverman

The total number of children fathered by Genghis Khan is unknown, but estimates range from several hundred to over a thousand. DNA evidence has suggested that one in every 200 people in the world today is a descendant of Genghis Khan. That’s around 16 million people.

14. Sheep at the White House

American President Woodrow Wilson and his wife Edith kept sheep at the White House during World War One to keep the lawn neat and reduce gardening costs. The sheep’s wool was also auctioned off to raise money for the Red Cross.

15. Can’t stop laughing

In 1962, a mysterious epidemic of laughter broke out in a girls’ school in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). The laughter quickly spread to other schools and eventually to the surrounding villages, affecting thousands of people. The epidemic lasted for several months and was so severe that many schools were forced to close.

16. Thomas Crapper’s toilet

Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Crapper did not invent the flushing toilet, though his name is often associated with it. Crapper did play a significant role in popularising the flushing toilet and developed related inventions like the ball cock. However, the word ‘crap’ does not come from his name; it has Middle English origins and first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1846.

17. Army on the streets

The last time the British Army deliberately killed anyone in Britain, (as distinct from Northern Ireland which is obviously a very different story), was in August 1911. Two civilians were shot in Liverpool during a rail strike, and a few days later in Llanelli two civilians were shot and killed again during a strike.

18. Commitment to the cause

Colonel Sourd, Napoleon’s 2nd Lancers, fought all day on horseback at Waterloo. He’d had his arm amputated, no pain relief, the day before.

19. Hidden talents

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a medical doctor, bestselling author and Spiritualist advocate. He also played as a football goalkeeper for Portsmouth Association Football Club under the pseudonym A. C. Smith. The club was amateur, and disbanded in 1896. Portsmouth FC, the now professional club, was founded in 1898.

20. For King and Country

The last survivor of the defence of Rorke’s Drift, Frank Bourne, lived to be 91. He died on 8 May 1945 – VE Day.

21. Missed

In 1800 George III survived two assassination attempts in one day. On the morning of 15 May he was shot in Hyde Park, but the bullet narrowly missed and hit a civil servant, who survived. That evening the king was shot at again at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, by a mentally disturbed army veteran, who also missed. George insisted that the play go on. 

22. Smell test

A 17th century King of Arakan chose wives by making women stand in the sun and then doing a blind sniff test on all their sweaty clothes. The ones he didn’t like he sent to lesser nobles.

23. Rodent reprobates

In 1510, rats who destroyed a field of barley were summoned to face trial. Their defence lawyer, Bartholomew Chassenee, argued that attending court would put his clients at risk from local cats and dogs. A reasonable fear of death was a sufficient reason to excuse a human from court. If rats were to be subject to the same laws, surely the same mitigation had to apply? The judge postponed the trial indefinitely.

24. Self-mummification

A 1,000-year-old Chinese Buddha statue was taken to a Dutch hospital for a CT scan in 2017. The scan revealed a mummified monk inside the golden figure with its internal organs missing. The monk was believed to have self-mummified before being encased in the statue.

25. Troops massing

In 1939, the US army numbered 190,000. In 1945, it numbered 8.5 million.

26. Not so golden age

In her later years, Queen Elizabeth I‘s teeth were black from too much sugar.

27. World’s first skyscraper

The story of skyscrapers often begins in New York and Chicago from around 1884 with increasingly tall buildings. However, what is technically the world’s first skyscraper was built in Shropshire in 1796–7.

Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings may not look like a skyscraper, but its Main Mill was the first building in the world to have an iron frame supporting the weight of the structure, the formula for every skyscraper ever built, so that it has been dubbed the ‘Grandparent of Skyscrapers’.

28. Ancient astronomers

Of the eight planets in the Solar System, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were observed by Babylonian astronomers as early as the 2nd millennium BC. The Greek Aristarchus of Samos (310–230 bc) also correctly observed the position of Earth in relation to the planets – known as the heliocentric model.

29. Doggy defence

King Henry VIII of England had a suit of armour made for his dog.

30. What is a quarantine

The word “quarantine” comes from quarantena, meaning “forty days” in 14th century Venetian. The Venetians imposed a 40-day isolation of ships and people arriving in their lagoon during the Black Death.

31. Surrender? Never!

Lt Hiroo Onoda served with Japan’s army in the Philippines during World War Two. He was ordered not to surrender, so he didn’t, until 1974. His wartime boss was sent to get him. He returned home a hero.

32. Ungentlemanly conduct

In 1759 the French besieging Madras strongly complained that the British defenders had fired at their HQ. The British immediately apologised.

33. ‘Blackening the bride’

In rural parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland, a tradition known as ‘blackening the bride’ was practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries. Just before a wedding, friends and family would cover the bride and groom with all sorts of messy substances, such as soot, mud and feathers. This custom was believed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to the couple.

34. Oll Korrect

The origin of the phrase ‘OK’ dates back to a fad for intentionally misspelled abbreviations in 1830s Boston. When witty Bostonians began spelling ‘all correct’ as ‘Oll Korrect’, newspapers picked up on the joke.

In 1840, US President Martin Van Buren, originally from Kinderhook in New York, adopted the phrase for his re-election campaign and his supporters set up ‘Old Kinderhook’, or ‘OK’, clubs across the country. The term quickly made the transition from slang to legitimate use.

35. British invasions and conflicts

According to research, out of the 193 countries that are currently United Nations (UN) member states, Britain invaded or fought conflicts in the territory of 171 countries, which accounts for approximately 90% of the total.

36. The Halifax Gibbet

The Halifax Gibbet was a Yorkshire invention, and was essentially a large axe attached to a wooden block, 200 years ahead of the guillotine’s adoption in Revolutionary France. The town of Halifax adopted it to punish even lowly crimes like petty theft, and it remained in use until the mid-17th century. It inspired another device – the maiden – first used in Scotland during Mary Queen of Scots‘ reign.

37. Soviet perspective

In 50 days on the Eastern Front of World War Two in July and August 1943 the losses suffered by the Germans and the Soviets were greater than those sustained by the USA and Great Britain combined, for the whole of the Second World War.

38. Quick!

In England, in 1800, almost 40% of brides came to the altar pregnant.

39. Prediction of death

Mark Twain kind of predicted his own death. In 1909, he said: ‘I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt, “Now there are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together”.’

He died of a heart attack on 21 April 1910 – one day after the comet had come again and appeared at its brightest. Halley’s comet only passes by Earth approximately every 76 years, and has been the subject of a string of predictions since 1705.

40. Dartmoor delights

The highest concentration of Bronze Age remains in Britain is on Dartmoor, South Devon. In the 400 square miles of national park, every type of monument above can be found, including 18 stone circles and 75 stone rows.

41. An iconic moustache

As a young man Hitler wore a larger, bushier moustache; he trimmed it to its iconic shape so that it could fit under a gas mask during World War One.

42. Surprising the sexists

Suffragist life partners, Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson, both qualified doctors, attempted to join the armed forces medical services on the outbreak of war in 1914 but were not allowed to serve because of their sex. So they set up an independent hospital to treat wounded soldiers, with all-female staff, surgeons, anaesthesiologists and nurses. It rapidly became regarded as the best in the UK.

43. Two significant car crashes

On 13 December 1931, Winston Churchill was struck by a car while crossing Fifth Ave in New York City. He had looked the wrong way before crossing the street and was dragged for several yards, sustaining bruises, sprains and cuts.

In the same year, a 19-year-old British aristocrat named John Scott-Ellis was driving a red Fiat in Munich and almost hit the future Führer, Adolf Hitler. Scott-Ellis jumped out of his car and apologised, and Hitler only suffered minor bruises. They shook hands, and Scott- Ellis later remarked, ‘For a few seconds, perhaps, I held the history of Europe in my rather clumsy hands. . . [Hitler] was only shaken up, but had I killed him, it would have changed the history of the world.’

44. Outcast

DH Lawrence was thrown out of his village during World War One because he was allegedly signalling to German U-boats with laundry on his clothes-Iine!

45. The Cousins’ War

The ‘Wars of the Roses’ was a series of rivalries and disputes that took place between 1455 and 1487 among the English nobility, largely between Lancaster and York, with many switching sides. However, it was not called the ‘Wars of the Roses’ at the time.

Although roses feature in imagery from Tudor times onwards, the moniker first appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Anne of Geierstein in 1829. The name the Cousins’ War was first applied to the conflict in the 20th century.

46. Handy brandy

Rather than bury Nelson’s corpse at sea after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar, it was preserved in a cask of brandy stored in the hold of HMS Victory for a London burial.

47. Havoc!

One of the few known medieval battlefield orders is the cry of ‘Havoc!’. Havoc released the army from any formation and gave freedom to loot, and was an order only ever to be given when it was utterly certain that a battle was won and discipline was no longer required.

It was considered so dangerous that it was expressly forbidden without permission from the army’s commander. A wrongly timed cry of havoc could cost a battle and there were severe punishments for crying havoc without permission – sometimes extending to beheading. 

48. Happy Birthday Queen Vic

On 1 January 1886 the British government gave Queen Victoria an extravagant birthday gift: Burma.

49. A sparse audience

Fewer than ten people witnessed the first powered flight by the Wright Brothers on 17 December 1903.

50. Old McDonald’s

The oldest operating McDonald’s is located in Downey, California, and was opened in 1953. As it was franchised from the McDonald brothers, not Ray Kroc, it did not modernise alongside the McDonald’s Corporation until its acquisition in 1990, when it was the only remaining independent McDonald’s. 

51. Coronation confusion

When William the Conqueror was crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066, his guard mistook a shout of acclamation for a defiant roar and massacred bystanders.

52. To the last man

Pavlov’s House held-out for two months at Stalingrad. The Germans lost more men attacking it than taking Paris.

53. The Churchill myth

Of Winston Churchill’s most famous 1940 speeches: ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat,’ ‘Fight them on the beaches’, ‘Finest Hour,’ ‘The Few,’ only one, ‘Finest Hour’ was actually broadcast on the radio at the time. All of them were delivered to the House of Commons, but only after his ‘Finest Hour’ speech did Churchill record a version later for the BBC. The other speeches he only recorded in 1949.

54. Taking your time

Homosexuality has been legal in Italy since 1870, England 1967, Scotland 1980, Northern Ireland 1982, Isle of Man 1992 and Tasmania since 1997. It has now been legal in 14 US states since 2003.

55. Telephone greeting

Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the first practical telephone in 1876, decided that the correct salutation on answering should be ‘Ahoy.’

56. Repetitive plotting

There were more than 600 plots to kill Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Castro was targeted by a range of foes, including political opponents, criminals and the USA. Tactics included an exploding cigar and a poisoned diving suit. 

57. Dancing mania

In July, 1518, Frau Troffea began dancing in chaotic fervour on the streets of Strasbourg. She danced for a week straight, and soon others joined her. Within a month, the Dancing Plague of 1518 claimed between 50 and 400 victims. Historical sources make it clear the victims danced, but why they did remains unexplained.

Mysterious outbreaks had occurred before: in 1020s Bernburg, Germany, a Christmas Eve service was disturbed when revellers inexplicably danced around the church. In Aachen, 1374, a large-scale outbreak was recorded that spread to Cologne, Flanders, Hainaut, Strasbourg, Utrecht and other towns. In 1428 in Schaffhausen, a monk even danced himself to death.

58. Duelling Prime Minister

On 27 May 1798, Prime Minister William Pitt fought a duel on Putney Common with George Tierney, MP, Treasurer of the Navy, President of the Board of Control. Both men missed.

59. Rare pilots

There have been more astronauts than pilots who have flown the Concorde, which is now out of service.

60. Tallest tsunami

In July 1958 the tallest tsunami ever recorded crashed through the quiet fjord of Lituya Bay in Alaska. At 1,720 feet, the megatsunami was higher than the Empire State Building.

61. Moving statues

The only statue from classical Rome to remain largely unmolested and on public display for nearly 2,000 years is the Equestrian statue of emperor Marcus Aurelius. Erected in the late 2nd century AD, it was finally put inside a museum in the 1980s.

62. Unsinkable stoker

Arthur Priest was a stoker on the Titanic. Stokers were among the unlikeliest crewmen to survive a sinking ship, or even a badly damaged one. Sea water would flood their compartments first, drowning them. The rest of the crew would scramble to shut watertight doors to save the ship, trapping their comrades in the compartments below.

Somehow though, in chronological order Priest survived: a collision on RMS Asturias’ maiden voyage, 1908; a collision on Titanic’s sister ship, RMS Olympic, 1911; the sinking of RMS Titanic, 1912; the First World War sinking of HMS Alcantara, 1916; the First World War sinking of Titanic’s other sister ship, HMHS Britannic, 1916; the SS Donegal First World War sinking, 1917

63. Keeping it in the family

The first time the Roman imperial crown passed from father to son, with the son being born in the Emperor’s lifetime, was when Commodus succeeded his father Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD. The pair had reigned jointly since 177. This was over 200 years after Augustus had first established the role. 

64. Reign of Terror

While the guillotine is commonly associated with the brutality of the French Revolution, the Nazis also used the guillotine during the 12 years they were in power. In October 1936, Hitler secretly ordered 20 guillotines to be distributed to prisons in cities across Germany. According to Nazi records, they were used to execute approximately 16,500 people between 1933 and 1945, including resistance fighters and political protesters – a similar number to the French Reign of Terror.

65. DIY country

In 1820 Gregor MacGregor invented the fictitious country of Poyais in South America. He issued bank notes and sold land for 4 shillings an acre.

66. Accidental invention

The microwave oven, invented in 1945, came about accidentally, after engineer Percy Spencer found radio waves emitted by a radar set he was working on melted a chocolate bar.

67. Bulgaria stands alone

For one day only, on 8 September 1944, Bulgaria found itself at war with all four major belligerents of the Second World War in Europe, the USA, USSR, UK and Germany.

68. Blacked-out roads

More Brits were killed in road accidents on blacked-out UK roads for the first six months of the Second World War than were killed in the armed forces.

69. A chilly year

In 536 AD a series of volcanic eruptions sprayed so much soot into the atmosphere that the temperature of Europe dropped by 2.5 degrees Celsius. This is a drop of halfway to the temperature of the Last Ice Age in one year.

70. Changing metropolis

The world’s biggest city in 1AD was Alexandria; 500: Nanjing; 1000: Cordoba; 1500: Beijing; 2000: Tokyo.

71. Hitler’s half-nephew’s service in the US Navy

The son of Adolf Hitler’s half-brother, Alois, William Patrick Hitler was born in England in 1911 but moved to Germany in the 1930s. He was something of a problem for the German Führer, and in July 1939 he published an article in Look magazine titled ‘Why I hate my uncle. . .’ He moved to America in 1939.

It has been reported that in 1944 he appealed directly to President Roosevelt to join the fight against his uncle and the FBI deemed it sincere. Though he never saw combat, Hitler served until 1947. He changed his name to William Stuart-Houston and died in 1987.

72. Oldest toilets

The Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae (c.3,000 BC) had drainage systems believed to be toilets attached to each interconnected dwelling. The Queen’s Toilet at the Palace of Knossos in Crete (1,700 BC) contained large earthenware pans connected to a flushing water supply. 

73. Bad nominations

Among the nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize are Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini (both 1939) and Joseph Stalin (1945 and 1948). Hitler’s nomination was submitted by a Swedish MP, while Mussolini’s came from an Italian professor. Stalin’s nominations were made by a British MP and a group of Norwegian politicians. 

74. Prohibition myths

It wasn’t illegal to drink alcohol during Prohibition – the 18th Amendment and subsequent Volstead Act prohibited the production, sale and transport of ‘intoxicating liquors’ within America, but their possession and consumption were never outlawed. Any alcohol already stashed away could be enjoyed in people’s own homes. 

75. Stop looking for war dead

The British government halted the search for war dead on the Western Front in September 1921 when they were still finding 500 bodies a week.

76. Britain’s last witch

Scottish medium Helen Duncan was one of the last people to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 – in 1943, on the grounds of fraudulent spiritual activity. 

77. A city for cars?

LA is so sprawling thanks to trains, not cars. A century ago it was served by the largest electric railway ever built: the ‘Red Car’ system.

78. Flatulent flair

The role of a jester in the medieval royal court was to entertain the king. Henry II had a particular fondness for his fool, Roland, who had a special talent for flatulent performance. Each Christmas he performed an act known as ‘One jump and whistle and one fart’. Henry was so delighted with Roland’s farting that he gave him a manor in Suffolk, with 30 acres of land.

79. The Tower’s last prisoner

Having flown to Scotland in May 1941 in an attempt to negotiate peace with Britain, Rudolf Hess, the deputy leader of the German Nazi Party, was briefly interned at the Tower of London in May 1941. He was the last state prisoner to be held there.

80. Out of this world

Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in France, made it illegal to land a flying saucer in the town in 1954. 

81. Cold War reaches boiling point

While the world watched the tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, they didn’t know just how close they came to destruction.

The US Navy dropped harmless depth charges on a submerged Russian submarine off the coast of Cuba to try and force it to surface. The crew, believing that World War Three had begun, argued whether they should launch the nuclear torpedo that they had on board, and came close to a unanimous vote to launch.

Luckily, Senior Officer Vasili Arkhipov cast the one vote needed to stop the impending destruction.

82. God’s gun

The 1718 Puckle Gun was designed to fire round bullets at Christians and square bullets at Heathens to teach the “benefits of Christian civilization”.

83. Covert baguettes

During World War Two, the baguette became a symbol of resistance against the German occupation, with bakers secretly baking baguettes containing messages or supplies to aid partisans.

84. Every little counts

In 1987, American Airlines saved $40,000 by removing one olive from each salad served in first-class.

85. Luckiest man in the world?

Japanese engineer Tsutomu Yamaguchi survived the atomic bombings in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War Two.

Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on a business trip when the first atomic bomb was dropped on 6 August 1945. Despite being only three kilometres away from the blast, Yamaguchi survived, though was seriously burned and temporarily blinded.

The following day, he began the journey back to his hometown of Nagasaki, arriving on 8 August. On 9 August, he was a little over a mile from the epicentre of the second atomic bomb when it dropped on Nagasaki. He survived, but was injured again, along with his wife and infant daughter.

86. An unnatural royal death

Edward II is said to have probably died in captivity, with later, unreliable accounts suggesting he was murdered by having a red-hot poker inserted into his rectum, September 1327. 

87. The oldest prosthetic

In 1997, an excavation near the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes revealed the oldest prosthesis ever discovered: an engraved wooden toe, fitted to the right foot of an Egyptian noblewoman who lived 3,000 years ago. The ‘Cairo toe’ was practical, modified over time to accommodate the woman’s gait. But it was also designed with aesthetics in mind, intended to be worn in open-toe sandals, not concealed.

88. Downfall by chicken

Having adopted the identity of John Palmer and posing as a horse trader in Yorkshire, highwayman Dick Turpin instigated his own demise by murdering hunting associate John Robinson’s game-cock on 2 October 1738. When Robinson angrily responded, Turpin threatened to also kill him, which brought the incident to the attention of three local justices.

89. Shortest war

The shortest war in history is the Anglo-Zanzibar war, on 27 August 1896. It started at 9.02 am and ended at 9.40am. 1 British soldier was injured. It followed the refusal of the Zanzibari Sultan to step down after the British issued an ultimatum. British warships then fired on his position and the Sultan surrendered.

90. ‘Groaning ale’

In early modern Europe and colonial America, a ‘groaning ale’ would be brewed when a woman became pregnant. The ale would mature over the course of the pregnancy, imbibed by mother and midwife as labour began, and then the remnants of the sterile, 8% liquid washed over the newborn.

91. Wrestler president

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, was a skilled wrestler and reportedly won 300 bouts and had only one known defeat.

92. Out with their eyes!

Henry I gave permission for two of his granddaughters to be blinded and have the tips of their noses cut off after their father blinded the son of another baron. Their mother, Juliane, was so enraged she rebelled against Henry and attempted to kill him with a crossbow. She missed, leapt off her castle tower into the moat and made her escape.

93. Extraterrestrial prize

The (dwarf) planet Pluto was named by an 11-year-old schoolgirl who won the naming competition.

94. Stalin’s eldest son died in a German concentration camp

Stalin’s son, Yakov Dzhugashvili, was raised by an aunt and didn’t meet his father until he was 14. During the war, Yakov fought as a Russian soldier and was captured by the Nazis. After he was revealed to be Stalin’s son, the Nazis attempted to use Yakov as leverage, but Stalin refused to negotiate, stating: ‘You have in your hands not only my son Yakov but millions of my sons. Either you free them all or my son will share their fate.’

Yakov died at Sachsenhausen concentration camp while attempting to climb the camp’s electric fence. 

95. A fortunate escape

In 1865, a train carrying Charles Dickens crossed a viaduct which collapsed and fell into the river. He escaped with the manuscript of the novel Our Mutual Friend.

96. Largest palace ever built

In 200 BC, Emperor Gaozu of Han requested the building of Weiyang Palace complex north of modern Xi’an. Weiyang Palace has a claim to being the largest palace ever built on Earth: it covered 4.8 km2 (1,200 acres), which is nearly seven times the size of the current Forbidden City in Beijing or eleven times the size of the Vatican City, though little remains today.

97. Emu war

In 1932 the government of Western Australia declared war on emus, a native bird species that was damaging crops in the region. The government sent soldiers armed with machine guns to hunt the emus, who proved elusive.

Despite firing thousands of rounds of ammunition, the soldiers were able to kill ‘only a few’ emus before the government declared peace after less than a week.

98. Slow down!

On 28 January 1896, Walter Arnold drove his ‘horseless carriage’ through Paddock Wood, Kent, at a reckless 8mph – four times the 2mph speed limit. He also had no man with a red flag preceding him, as required by law. Arnold was chased down by a police officer on a bicycle, and later fined £4 7s, of which 10 shillings was for speeding – the world’s first recorded speeding ticket. 

99. Christmas is cancelled

A Christmas themed one from the brilliant Joanna McCunn on that old chestnut, did Cromwell ban Christmas…

In 1644 the Puritan parliament declared every last Wednesday of the month would be a legally mandated fast day. Christmas Day fell on the last Wednesday of the month so no feasting was to be allowed that year. Time should be spent in even more solemn humiliation, repenting of your sins for making Christmas a time of carnal and sensual delights in the past.

In 1647 they went the whole hog, banning all celebrations of Christmas and Easter for good! (Charles II reversed this when he came to the throne in 1660).

100. Knights and headwear

Never, ever refer to what I now know thanks to over one million social media corrections is OBVIOUSLY a crocheted knights helmet as a ‘knitted knight’s hat.’


Some of these facts plus many more are featured in History Hit’s Miscellany: Facts, Figures and Fascinating Finds, published by Hodder & Stoughton, on sale now.



Dan Snow