Captain Webb, intrepid swimmer

‘Captain Webb took a draught of coffee during his channel swim in the nude’. The Illustrated London News’s reporter added: ‘The intrepid young English sailor rode bravely over the waves, treading water while he took refreshment, and pluckily swam for six hours and forty-nine minutes in his unsuccessful attempt to swim across the English Channel … our readers will be doubtless interested in the sketch furnished by our Artist [this is the illustration you can find in the Victorian Picture Library] who was on board the lugger that accompanied Captain Webb’.

The Abbots Ripton Railway Disaster

TRain DisasterSignal failure! This has been the cause of many railway accidents, and a prime example is the frozen semaphore signals that caused the disaster on the Great Northern Railway line at Abbots Ripton, Huntingdonshire (now Cambridgeshire) in 1876.

It was January, and snow was falling heavily as a coal train headed south from Peterborough on the up line. Behind it, also heading south, was the Special Scotch Express (known to the railwaymen of that time as ‘the Scotchman’, and after 1923 renamed the Flying Scotsman). The coal train was instructed to shunt into a siding at Abbots Ripton so that the express could overtake it, and the signals should have warned the faster train to stop if necessary.

However, because the signals were frozen or weighed down by snow, the signal arms did not move to the ‘danger’ position, and in the snowstorm the signalmen could not see what had happened. The Scotchman continued on its way, running through the signals, which were showing ‘clear’. It was going at full speed, about 45mph, when it struck the back of the coal train, which had not yet got into the siding.

The engine of the express jumped the rails and fell on its side. (The Victorian Picture Library has an illustration showing it being lifted by cranes following the accident). The tender, guard’s van and three carriages fell across the northbound rails, the down line. Here they were in a very dangerous position. The fireman of the coal train therefore laid warning detonators on the down line. The Abbots Ripton signalman set his signals in both directions to ‘danger’, but because of the snow and ice they did not operate properly. Badly shaken by events, he did not immediately send a warning bell signal to Stukeley, the nearest signal box southwards, and his telegraph message to Huntingdon, further south still, was not answered.

At last he did send a warning to Stukeley, but too late – the Leeds express, with 13 carriages, altogether weighing over 200 tons, had passed through seconds before, heading north to Abbots Ripton at full speed.

The engine driver of the Leeds express told the subsequent inquiry what happened next: ‘I found a white light [clear signal] at Abbots Ripton. After passing that signal post, I was alarmed by passing over two fog signals which exploded; I at once shut off steam and told my mate to put on the tender brake. I was then going at 40 or 50 miles an hour … I reversed my engine, and reapplied my steam, and as soon as that was done the collision occurred.’ The Leeds express ploughed straight into the tender and carriages of the Scotchman.

According to the Illustrated London News, ‘the effect of this second collision was most calamitous. The engine literally cut its way through the massive tender of the Scotch train lying across the down rails, glancing off on to the bank with its tender. The leading carriages of the train mounted the wreck of the Scotch express and added further ruin to the already terrible disaster. Here, it is evident, occurred the great sacrifice of life among the passengers of the Scotch express, while no deaths took place among the travellers of the Leeds express.’

In this severe accident, 13 people were killed, and 53 passengers and 6 railwaymen were injured. Among the dead was the son of Dion Boucicault, one of the most celebrated actors and dramatists of the Victorian age, author of The Colleen Bawn.

Following the disaster, an official inquiry took place to find out the causes of the accident, and recommendations were made to prevent such an accident happening again. In consequence, the Great Northern Railway adopted a different design of signal which would not be affected by snow or ice, and ruled that the default position of signals should be ‘danger’, so that if they did stick they would not show a false ‘clear’. They also fitted a continuous braking system in their trains – brakes in each carriage – which much improved stopping time and distance. 

Jubilee bongs from Elizabeth Tower

The clock tower known as Big Ben, which soars over London’s Houses of Parliament, is perhaps Britain’s most famous landmark. It is to be renamed Elizabeth Tower to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s 60th year on the throne. ‘I think it is a fitting tribute to the Queen and the service she has given to our country in this jubilee year’, Prime Minister David Cameron has said.

There have been celebrations all over the country to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, only the second to be achieved by a British monarch; Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was celebrated in 1897.

This is not the first time that one of the Palace of Westminster’s towers has been renamed in honour of a queen: in 1860 the west tower was renamed the Victoria Tower after Queen Victoria.

Big Ben holds the largest four-faced chiming clock in the world. The tower was nicknamed Big Ben from the giant 13.5 tonne bell inside, which chimes the famous ‘bongs’ heard around London - and all over the country, thanks to the BBC. The The Victorian Picture Library has a picture of workmen testing the vast bell in 1856 before winching it up to the top of the tower. The clock and its four gilded dials were designed by the architect Augustus Pugin. Each dial bears the Latin inscription ‘Domine salvam fac reginam nostram Victoriam primam’, meaning ‘O Lord, keep safe our queen, Victoria the First’.

The pendulum is 3.9 metres long and beats every 2 seconds. On top of the pendulum is a stack of old penny coins - these can be used to adjust the time of the clock. Adding or removing a coin will change the clock’s speed by 0.4 seconds a day.

The old Palace of Westminster was burnt down in 1834, and the architect Charles Barry was engaged to design the new building. He asked Augustus Pugin to design the clock tower, which he did in his characteristic Gothic Revival style. Pugin was to write: ‘I never worked so hard in my life for Mr Barry for tomorrow I render all the designs for finishing his bell tower & it is beautiful.’ The tower is over 96 metres high; anyone lucky enough to explore the inside of the tower will have to climb 334 stone stairs to reach the top!

Big Ben

Tiny, the world's smallest dog

Back in 1886, the world’s smallest dog was a black and tan terrier called Tiny - you can see a picture of him in the Victorian Picture Library. This is how a Victorian children’s Christmas annual described him:

‘Tiny was less than four inches long, and could comfortably curl up and take a nap in a glass tumbler. An ordinary finger-ring was large enough for his collar; and when he sat up, a baby’s hand would almost have made a broad and safe resting-place for him.

‘Of course Tiny was of no account against a rat. Indeed, a hearty self-respecting mouse would have stood its ground against the little fellow. But if Tiny had not strength, he did have courage, and would bark as lustily as his little lungs would let him at the biggest rat that ever lived - when the rat was dead.

‘To tell the whole truth, Tiny was remarkable and he was famous, but he was not very happy. He shivered most of the time, even though he was usually hidden in warm wraps. Of course he caught cold easily, and then, oh dear! how pitifully he did sneeze!’

Tiny was an exceptionally small member of the breed which we call today the English Toy Terrier (Black and Tan). This breed was developed from the Old English Black and Tan Terrier, which in its turn is descended from the ratting terriers which were so popular from the 18th century onwards, both as working and sporting dogs. Some ratting terriers became famous as champions of the rat pits - a terrier called Billy was probably the most famous for his speed in killing rats. You can see a picture of him, too, in the Victorian Picture Library.

What about more recent small dogs? Record-holder candidates in the 21st century include two chihuahuas: Lulu, four inches long, and Heaven Sent Brandy, 6 inches. A minute Maltese Terrier called Scooter was only 3 inches high when he died aged six months. But so far no dog appears to have been smaller than Sylvia, a Teacup Yorkshire Terrier, who was measured in 1945: she was just 2.5 inches tall and 3.5 inches long.

Tiny, the world's smallest dog

Book of the BBC TV Series 'Britain's First Photo Album'

We've just supplied the period line illustrations for the 320-page book for the BBC based on the TV series 'Britain's First Photo Album', presented by John Sergeant, and being broadcast in March. The 10-programme series was created for The Francis Frith Collection and charts the achievements of the Victorian photographer Francis Frith, as he travelled round the country photographing its cities, towns and villages.Find out more by visiting

s first photo album cover.jpg

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