BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 14:32 GMT, Thursday, 30 July 2009 15:32 UK

The day the oldest man was born

Harbo and Samuelson
Harbo and Samuelson in their record-breaking boat

By Laura Schocker

British World War I veteran Henry Allingham, until recently the world's oldest man, was buried on Thursday. The headlines about the day he was born, 113 years ago, give a fascinating insight into life in the late 19th Century.

On the day Henry Allingham's death was announced, swine flu, Moon landings and Michael Jackson were among the topics that ranked highly among readers of the BBC News website. They are subjects which could hardly have been imagined 113 years earlier, when Henry William Allingham emerged into the world.

Mr Allingham had lived through momentous events that many of us associate more with history books than breaking news stories - the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titantic, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which triggered World War I.

Henry Allingham
Born on 6 June, 1896 - Henry Allingham

By comparison, the news on the day he was born, 6 June, 1896, was unremarkable. Yet looking back at the newspapers helps shed light on a world which, in many ways, has changed out of all recognition.

As Mr Allingham set out on his life long journey, fisherman George Harbo and merchant seaman Frank Samuelson were embarking on a more literal expedition. The two men left from New York on 6 June, 1896, with the hopes of becoming the first people to cross the Atlantic - in a rowboat, according to an article in the New York Times.

Just over a month later, though, their boat "upset" and Mr Harbo and Mr Samuelson lost most of the canned foods and 60 gallons of water they had brought on board. A bit of help from a flagged-down Norwegian ship eventually set them on their way again and, 55 days after their embarkation, they made their first post-Atlantic stop at the Scilly Islands.

On the opposite side of the Atlantic, Mr Allingham was being born in Clapton, east London. But the talk was most likely of a more tragic nature, as a body was discovered in the nearby River Lea. The corpse, which had been in the water for about 24 hours, was that of a "respectively dressed woman, name unknown," according to an article the next day in Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper in London.

Bundle out window

The woman, who was estimated to be about 40 years old and 5ft, 2ins (1.57m) tall, was wearing a cotton skirt with violets and a wedding ring when she was found - along with a satin bodice, stays and a bonnet. The mystery surrounding the incident sparked enough curiosity for the paper to dub the incident the "River Lea Mystery".

Lloyd's Weekly Paper
Tragedy in east London

Meanwhile, two men were being charged with trying to represent a fake brass medal as a sovereign. The story may have gone unnoticed, but after the arrest, one of the men was found with a collection of fake coins.

Earlier that morning in a different part of east London, a disastrous fire raged in the Whitechapel area. Today, Whitechapel is home to a large Bangladeshi community, but in the late 19th Century it was populated mostly by Jewish immigrants.

Following the Friday night start to the Sabbath, the fire began in the one-room home of the Polak family, who had five children aged between 19 years and just a few months. The blaze was attributed to an explosion in the oil-stove, which was being used to heat food for the baby, according to Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper.

The details of what happened next, though, are a little fuzzier. The paper offered the "gist" or what a neighbour reported - Mrs Polak had caught fire and was calling for help.

Eventually her family saw a "bundle" being hurled out the window - that bundle turned out to be Mrs Polak leaping to her death. The father and children were rescued, but, according to the newspaper, Sarah Polak was killed on the spot.

Lloyd's Weekly Paper
Summary of those injured and killed around London

The paper also offered a summary ofinjuries and other deaths around London on 6 June.

Among the list? A four-year-old boy was severely injured after being run over by a cart in Bethnal Green. A dock labourer fractured his right leg while unloading a barge in the Surrey Commercial docks. A man was hospitalised after a passing horse knocked him down during a fire escape practice. And a 53-year-old man required a leg amputation after a "pipe of wine" fell on and fractured his leg in a wine cellar.

But some subjects never go out of fashion, such as fretting about the parlous British summer weather. According to the Times, that Saturday (6, June) would continue a trend toward a wet summer: "The tendency for an increase of showery weather and thunder locally continues."

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