When I was young my dad gave me a book called ‘The Boys’ Book of Heroes’. It was one of his own that he had had as a young lad, it was printed during the second world war sometime between 1941 and 1945 and was reproduced on thick low quality yellowing paper and the reason that I can date it reasonably accurately is because the chapter on Douglas Bader states that that at the time he was in a prisoner of war camp in Germany.
Dad loved history and always had books and stories to share with me the tales of the past and I know that he passed down his interest to me and this led directly to me developing my own interest and ultimately to studying and gaining a degree in history at Cardiff University in 1975.
I think that few would argue that Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was probably the greatest Briton of all time. I know that I can say this with some confidence because in 2002 the BBC conducted a nationwide poll to identify who the public thought this was. The result was a foregone conclusion of course and Churchill topped the poll with 28% of the votes. The BBC project first identified the top one hundred candidates and the final vote was between the top ten. Second in the poll was the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel who received nearly 25% of the votes.
There were eleven Kings and Queens and eleven politicians, ten military heroes, eight inventors and seven scientists. This is what I would expect but then there were eight pop musicians including Boy George! Now, surely there must be dozens of people who could be more appropriately included on the list than that. Even if you do accept that pop stars are great Britons what is even more unbelievable is that Boy George beat Sir Cliff Richard by seven places! John, Paul and George were included in the eight but there was no place for Ringo, which doesn’t seem very fair. Enoch Powell was one of the politicians and he was an obnoxious racist. Richard III, who some say murdered the Princes in the Tower, is in but not Henry VII who defeated him at the Battle of Bosworth and founded the Tudor dynasty.
There is a huge issue of equality because of the one hundred only thirteen were women and I can’t help feeling that there must be more than that with a good claim for inclusion. Here are some suggestions of mine; the prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry, the philanthroprist Octavia Hill, the pioneering aviator, Amy Johnson, the nineteenth century gardener, Gertrude Jeckyl and the very embodiment of Britishness, Britannia herself. Interestingly this inequality isn’t something new because in the ‘The Boy’s Book of Heroes’ all of the fifty-five people included were men but inside the book it did make reference to a companion volume called ‘The Girl’s Book of Heroines’, which was nice but I can’t help wondering why they had to be kept apart like this?
I have still got the book and hope to pass it on one day to someone who will appreciate its value just as much as I do. All of the pictures here are from the book.