BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 13:11 GMT, Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Five British heroes overlooked by history

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

The National Lottery has published a list of 50 "unsung heroes" to mark its 15th birthday. Here are five people that history forgot.


William Wilberforce has become the poster boy for the anti-slavery movement, with 20,000 people attending a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of his death, his house turned into a museum and his statue in Westminster Abbey.

Thomas Clarkson
Clarkson was overshadowed by Wilberforce

But the contribution of Thomas Clarkson, from Cambridgeshire, was equally important, says Michael Turner, professor of history at the Wilberforce Institute in Hull.

"He was passionate about the anti-slavery cause, he wrote a prize essay on anti-slavery when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge, but perhaps most important of all he organised a vast petition which he carried around the country to secure names to support the Parliamentary campaign that Wilberforce then presented on numerous occasions to Parliament.

"To that extent the two men, Clarkson and Wilberforce, were indispensable to each other, the former out on the streets so to speak and the latter at Westminster."

Clarkson is well known in academic circles, says Mr Turner, and in his home town of Wisbech, where there is some unhappiness that Wilberforce still hogs the limelight.


The first flush toilet was described by Sir John in 1596, when he published A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax.

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He installed one for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, at Richmond Palace, although she was rather fearful of it and refused to use it. Partly for that reason, it was not adopted in England but was in France.

It's difficult to over-estimate Sir John's contribution to the development of the toilet used today, says Lucinda Lambton, author of a history of the lavatory called On The Throne. She says Sir John never gave it a name, he just called it his "device".

"He designed the first flushing mechanism. The Romans had produced something fantastic many years before but it wasn't mechanised.

"Sir John designed it for his godmother, the Queen, but she was too frightened to use it. She likened it to a thunderstorm. It was never manufactured. Perhaps if she had used it, it would have taken off."


It was only when the distinguished doctor James Barry died of dysentery in 1865 that it was discovered "he" was in fact a woman called Margaret Ann Bulkley.

According to the Science Museum, Bulkley saw very few career choices as a woman, so she hatched a plan in which she would become James Barry. After graduating from medical school in Edinburgh, she worked at St Thomas' Hospital, London, before joining the Army.

A successful career as a surgeon followed, in India and South Africa, and she eventually rose to the rank of Inspector General in charge of military hospitals.

Her methods of nursing sick and wounded soldiers from the Crimea meant she had the highest recovery rate of the whole war, and she also performed one of the first successful Caesarean sections, in 1826.


Yorkshireman Shaw invented the "cat's eyes", which can now be found all over the world to help motorists at night.

Although he made his discovery in the 1930s, it was not until Roads Minister Jim Callaghan ordered their introduction in 1947 that they really took off.

Percy Shaw
Shaw had the idea while driving in fog

Eventually, there were 400 on every mile of motorway, and more than 20 million across the country.

"He probably single-handedly saved more lives than anyone else, almost," says Sir Bernard Ingham, who acclaimed Shaw in his book, Yorkshire Greats.

"Cat's eyes are such a memorable invention, telling drivers where they are on the road. The world has forgotten his contribution, but he's not forgotten in Halifax, because he was a real character."

Shaw got the idea, says Sir Bernard, when he was stopped from going over a cliff on a foggy night, because he caught the light of the eyes of a cat sitting on a wall.


Mary Rand
Rand led the way

The Somerset athlete became the first British female to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field, when she took the long jump title at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, breaking the world record in the process. Six days later, her room-mate Ann Packer won gold in the 800 metres.

"It was an incredible achievement," says Brendan Foster, former Olympic medal-winner. "A whole generation of British female athletes were inspired by Mary Rand and Ann Packer.

"It really set the ball rolling. Without the first, you don't get anywhere, so Mary should rightly be celebrated as the first star of British athletics. If it had happened in the present celebrity age, she would be the ultimate golden girl."

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