I have been making documentaries, radio shows and podcasts since 2003. During those 18 long years I have been so lucky to visit nearly 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. I started it around the start of the year and I intend to add to it, one a day, perhaps as long as I live. 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. 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.
2. Dictators together
In 1913 Stalin, Hitler, Trotsky, Tito all lived in Vienna for a couple of months.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Loss of horse power
Napoleon took 187,600 horses with his army as he rode into Russia in 1812, only 1,600 came back.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. Not so golden age
In her later years, Queen Elizabeth I’s teeth were black from too much sugar.
14. 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.
15. 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.
16. Ungentlemanly conduct
In 1759 the French besieging Madras strongly complained that the British defenders had fired at their HQ. The British immediately apologised.
17. 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.
In England, in 1800, almost 40% of brides came to the altar pregnant.
19. 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.
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!
21. Happy Birthday Queen Vic
On 1 January 1886 the British government gave Queen Victoria an extravagant birthday gift: Burma.
22. To the last man
Pavlov’s House held-out for two months at Stalingrad. The Germans lost more men attacking it than taking Paris.
23. 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.
I visited parliament to learn more about the speeches that turned the tide of the Second World War:
24. Taking your time
Homosexuality has been legal in Italy since 1870, England 1967, Scotland 1980, N Ireland 1982, Isle of Man 1992 and Tasmania since 1997. It has now been legal in 14 US states since 2003.
25. 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.
26. Changing metropolis
The world’s biggest city in 1AD was Alexandria; 500: Nanjing; 1000: Cordoba; 1500: Beijing; 2000: Tokyo.
27. 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.
28. 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.
29. 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”.
30. 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.
31. 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).
32. Knights and headwear
Never, ever refer to what I now know thanks to one million social media corrections is OBVIOUSLY a crocheted knights helmet as a ‘knitted knight’s hat.’