BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 11:55 GMT, Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The heroes Britain accidentally forgot


By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

The National Lottery has published a list of 50 "unsung heroes" to mark its 15th birthday. So why does history remember some figures but forget others?

Can a man who has appeared on the £20 note really be classed as an "unsung" hero?

Plenty of people will have heard of Michael Faraday, even if they are not too familiar with his pioneering work in the field of electromagnetism.

The Victorian physicist tops a list of 50 Britons whose contributions to history should be better celebrated, according to the National Lottery.

Who are the British unsung heroes you think are worthy of greater recognition?
Tell us, using the form at the bottom of the article
We will publish a selection next week

While the names of Shakespeare, Nelson and Churchill are inextricably woven into the fabric of British history, the people behind other contributions to the national story have been forgotten.

Some others on the list, chosen by nearly 2,000 people online, hardly fall into this category. In second place is author JM Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan and the subject of a biopic, Finding Neverland, in which he was played by Johnny Depp. Others on the list include Baldrick of Blackadder, singer Midge Ure and worldwide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee.

All quite well known, you may think, but there are a few others in there whose achievements are far more significant than their names.

Percy Shaw , Sir John Harington , Mary Rand , Thomas Clarkson and Margaret Ann Bulkley are hardly heralded names, but maybe they should be.

1: Michael Faraday, physicist
2: JM Barrie, author
3: Edward Jenner, smallpox vaccine pioneer
4: John Peel, broadcaster
5: Alan Turing, mathematician
6: Baldrick, Blackadder character
7: Midge Ure, singer
8: Percy Shaw, cat's eyes inventor
9: Tim Berners-Lee, worldwide web inventor
10: Fred Scott, BBC cameraman
Source: National Lottery

Thomas Clarkson, for instance, contributed hugely to the abolition of the slave trade, yet William Wilberforce MP is the man most closely linked to the movement, and still honoured to this day.

So why does the hand of history pluck some from the past while others get left on the cutting room floor?

"We have to accept that who we choose as heroes says more about us than the people themselves," says historian and broadcaster Dan Snow.

In the late Victorian age, for example, Britain's imperial past was celebrated and taught in schools, so the young Winston Churchill would have looked up to figures like James Wolfe, who defended Britain against French forces in Canada.

"Everyone knew who Wolfe was, because it was all about Empire and Britain's imperialistic past. Now no-one has a clue who he is, because in schools and in museums and galleries, we celebrate anti-slave traders and engineers like Kingdom Brunel. It's about modernity, science and progress."

If society was to feel under threat again, then maybe Nelson would become fashionable again, he says.

Dan Snow
The only reason we know anything about her [Boudicca] is that two Roman historians wrote about her"
Dan Snow

Another important factor, says Snow, is publicity. "You have to get your PR exactly right. It doesn't matter what you do if no-one's around to record your deeds, write about it and immortalise your acts."

All the great heroes - Lord Nelson, Lawrence of Arabia, Francis Drake, General Patton - made sure they had journalists around them, he says. And even in the Iron Age, warlords had poets to make an oral record of their military victories.

"We see Boudicca as one of the great forces of resistance to Roman rule but the only reason we know anything about her is that two Roman historians wrote about her."

'Fickle public'

Timing is very important and tastes are changing all the time, depending on the preoccupation of the age, says Margaret Macmillan, professor of history at Oxford University. So feminist heroines like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu were not discovered until there was an appetite for them.

"When Brunel was celebrated, there was an enthusiasm for science but with global warming that has now lessened and it's more likely people who have warned about damaging the planet, like James Lovelock."

Forgotten heroes

Public attention is fickle and sometimes one memoir catches our attention and another one doesn't, she says. And then there's personality.

"Some people are noticed because they are flamboyant. Rupert Brooke was a wonderful poet and died tragically. Sometimes dying in a particular way can help. There are heroic deaths which you do remember."

This year, another name burst into the ranks of recognition. Mathematician Alan Turing, ranked fifth in the National Lottery's list, had been quite well known, the subject of a BBC drama in 1997, but in September he made national headlines.

This hugely influential computer scientist earned a public apology from Prime Minister Gordon Brown for his prosecution in 1952 for gross indecency after admitting a homosexual relationship.

Despite helping to change the course of World War II as a codebreaker, the conviction prevented him from continuing his intelligence work and he committed suicide two years later.

Not only does his honouring reflect changing social attitudes but it is also a recognition of the power of the web in harnessing grassroots support for figures overlooked by history. Mr Brown's apology followed an online campaign from Turing's supporters, who signed a petition on the Downing Street website.

Boudicca statue in London
Boudicca's feats were noted by historians at the time

"More and more people are finding less traditional heroes, through democratic means like Wikipedia," says Mr Snow.

"Members of the public can start a campaign to emphasise their role and that's really positive."

And as the UK has become more diverse, so the figures from history that we pick out have reflected the way society has changed, he says.

As well as Turing, there is the case of Mary Seacole, the Jamaican-born nurse who cared for soldiers in the Crimean War. This year, she emerged from the shadow of Florence Nightingale when designs for a statue of her to be erected in the grounds of St Thomas' Hospital in London were unveiled.

Mr Snow's personal choice for unsung hero is "utter legend" Walter Tull, the first black officer in the British Army who inspired unwavering loyalty from his soldiers, and was only the second black player in the top division of the Football League.

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