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Looking back on looking back: history’s people of 2012

By Philip Carter

2012 — What a year to be British!

A year of street parties and river processions for the Jubilee; of officially the best Olympics ever; of opening and closing ceremonies; of Britons winning every medal on offer; of the (admittedly, not British) Tour de France, of David Hockney’s Yorkshire; and of a new James Bond film. Even a first tennis Grand Slam since the days when shorts were trousers and players answered to ‘Bunny’. If asked for the people of 2012 you’d obviously opt for Wiggins, Boyle, Farah, Ennis, Craig, Murray and, of course, Her Majesty the Queen, complete with parachute.

At the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography we too have delighted in these achievements. But, as our remit demands, we’ve also spent this year looking further back at some of the historical Britons celebrated or commemorated during 2012. As the year comes to a close, here are a few highlights — a look back, if you will, on looking back.

It’s been a strong year for anniversaries. We began in February with what’s proved the biggest and longest-running of these celebrations: the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens about whom so much has been said and done in 2012. Other bicentenaries are available, however. In addition to the mighty ‘Boz’, the Oxford DNB includes a further 242 men and women born in 1812. A few did gain some recognition, notably the poets Robert Browning (born 7 May 1812) and Edward Lear, whose birthday fell a week later, but neither could compete with the Our Mutual Friend.

Any smaller and you were submerged in a Dickensian backwash. Thus only a handful of parties for the great Gothic architect Augustus Pugin (1 March) or the Russian-born radical and Anglophile, Alexander Herzen (6 April [New Style]), and probably nothing at all for these two gems from the ODNB list. First, Samuel Isaac (1812-1886) who, despite having ‘no engineering experience’, accepted an invitation to undertake and underwrite the building of the Mersey Tunnel — what’s more successfully (it opened in February 1885). Then there’s Henry James Jones (1812-1891), Bristol baker and ‘the inventor of self-raising flour’ — surely a man deserving a little more recognition in the year of Boz. No Henry James Jones (or yeast) means no fluffy loaf, however Great your Expectations.

Popular anniversaries often highlight artistic or cultural, rather than science-related, episodes from our past. 2012 was a bit different in that it saw celebrations (in June) for the centenary of the mathematician, Alan Turing (1912-1954). Turing’s appeal is due in part to the near universal reach of his work — even if the details of The Turing Machine, and later developments in computer science, leave most of us baffled. There’s also his wartime association with Bletchley Park where he spearheaded the breaking of the German Enigma and Fish codes. But Turing also catches the imagination for his (then) unusual openness towards his sexuality, his arrest and controversial punishment for indecency, his curious death, and the ongoing campaign to have him granted a posthumous pardon.

Turing was rightly deserving of the anniversary events held in 2012, though — as the Oxford DNB again shows — he wasn’t alone among scientific centenarians. In fact, the dictionary offers a further 29 men and women born in 1912 and now remembered for their contributions to scientific and medical fields. They include some remarkable lives: among them the astronomer George Alcock (born 28 August) — who discovered five comets (a British record) and boasted a photographic memory of 30,000 stars — and cardiologist Bill Cleland (30 May), the pioneer of open heart surgery in Britain in the early 1950s. Centenary science (albeit of a much less robust kind) is also marked this month, indeed this week, with the 100th anniversary of the public unveiling of Piltdown Man. Discovered in Sussex, these bone fragments were dated by their finder, Charles Dawson, to 4 million BC and identified as the ‘missing link’ between apes and man. The announcement, made on 18 December 1912, caused a sensation. For four decades Piltdown Man — or Eoanthropus dawsoni, Dawson’s Dawn Man — enjoyed the status of Europe’s oldest known human. Then, in the 1950s, Piltdown was revealed for what he really was: parts of a relatively recent human skull mingled with bones from a small orangutan. In December, therefore, we remember a 100 year-old hoax.

2012 was also a year for looking back at some dramatic, indeed shocking, events. Charles Dickens was just three months old when, on 11 May 1812, the prime minister Spencer Perceval was shot and killed in the Commons lobby — the first and only British premier to suffer this fate. His assailant was John Bellingham, a bankrupt commercial agent who was arrested, tried, and hanged within the week.

On 18 May 1912, exactly 100 years after Bellingham’s execution, 30,000 people gathered in Colne, Lancashire, for the funeral of a local man, Wallace Hartley, a former ship’s musician. So many gathered because that ship was the RMS Titanic, captained by Edward Smith who with Hartley, and more than 1500 others, lost their lives on 15 April 1912. The Titanic disaster — undoubtedly the anniversary event of the year — came within weeks of an equally celebrated episode in popular histories of Britishness. On 19 March 1912 Captain Robert Scott and his two surviving companions pitched their tent for the final time. It was three months since their ‘defeat’ at the South Pole, and three days since their fellow explorer Captain Oates had walked to his death. The men got no further, with Scott the last to die on about 29 March. Looking back from 2012 the tragedies of ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ and the Titanic come in quick succession, a severe blow to Edwardian self-confidence seemingly delivered in the spring of 1912. A centenary ago the chronology was, of course, a little different: not until November 1912 did a search team confirm the deaths of Scott and his party, and it took a further three months for news of this disaster to reach London.

In the coming decades, delays of this kind would become a thing of the past. And last month the BBC marked the 90th anniversary of the reason why: the institution’s first radio broadcast, an event that would soon bring new sounds, voices, opinions, and information into millions of homes. At the helm on 14 November 1922 was the imperious John Reith, manager of what was then the British Broadcasting Company. At the microphone, Arthur Burrows, who announced the results of the general election: Mr Bonar Law 332, David Lloyd George 127.

If you missed Dickens, Turing, Perceval, and Piltdown Man, and would like to get involved there is still time. Between now and the year end why not hold a do-it-yourself celebration for the author of Self-Help, Samuel Smiles (born 23 December 1812)? Or throw a ‘happening’ for the centenary of Birmingham surrealist, Conroy Maddox (27 December)? In a striking coming together of dates, 12 December is also the 150th anniversary of J. Bruce Ismay’s birth. The owner of the White Star shipping line, Ismay is now remembered for his controversial escape from his greatest ship — the RMS Titanic.

And the future? A quick search of the Oxford DNB reveals many reasons to celebrate and commemorate in 2013. Take, for instance, the quatercentenary of library founder Thomas Bodley; the bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice; the 150th anniversary of the London Underground; 100 years of British film censorship; 50 years since Kim Philby’s flight to Russia; Britain’s 40 years in the European Union; or 20 years since the death of Audrey Hepburn. And that’s just January.

Philip Carter is Publication Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The Oxford DNB online is freely available via public libraries across the UK. Libraries offer ‘remote access’ allowing members to log-on to the complete dictionary, for free, from home (or any other computer) twenty-four hours a day. In addition to 58,000 life stories, the ODNB offers a free, twice monthly biography podcast with over 165 life stories now available (including the lives of Alan Turing, Piltdown Man, Wallace Hartley, and Captain Scott). You can also sign up for Life of the Day, a topical biography delivered to your inbox, or follow @ODNB on Twitter for people in the news.

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