7 Unsung British Heroes

Traditional British history lessons follow a well-worn pattern.

You should also read…

It goes like this: Romans, Vikings, Tudors, Industrial Revolution, war, more war, end. What the Stuarts, the Hanoverians, or most of the Middle Ages did wrong in order to be so thoroughly missed out is a mystery. This caricature doesn’t necessarily reflect how history is taught in all modern Britain schools, however it is the case that many more British people can rattle through the Tudors (and even all of Henry VIII’s six wives) than remember how many Henrys were involved in the Wars of the Roses, let alone who else was involved and what order they came in.

"Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived..."
“Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived…”

And that means that British history has a lot of forgotten or unsung heroes. Some are from the periods that get the most attention, but are ignored all the same; others are from time periods that a traditional British education focuses on less. All are people who certainly deserve to be remembered with statues or their images on banknotes just as much as their better-known counterparts.

1. Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1752)

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was an English aristocrat, writer and saver of lives from one of history’s deadliest diseases. Even as a teenager she went against the grain, hiding in the library from her governess in order to teach herself Latin in secret. At the age of 23, when her parents denied her the right to marry the man she loved, she eloped with him instead.

Portrait of Lady Mary.
Portrait of Lady Mary.

The marriage was to Edward Wortley Montagu, who later became British Ambassador in Istanbul. Lady Mary travelled with him, and there embarked on a study of the Ottoman Empire that benefited considerably from her then-unusual perspective as a woman. Her letters about Turkey were collected and published as Turkish Embassy Letters, and she clarified many mistakes and assumptions that previous writers had made, particularly about the lives of Turkish women.
But the most significant aspect of Lady Mary’s time in Turkey was her exposure to the custom of variolation – a form of basic inoculation against smallpox that was widely practised in the Ottoman Empire, but largely unknown in England. Lady Mary herself had survived smallpox, but the disease had killed her brother. Variolation wasn’t safe, as it involved taking smallpox pus from an infected blister and introducing it to the scratched skin of someone who had not yet contracted the disease, thereby giving them a milder version of smallpox and allowing them to develop immunity for the future – but this was still an improvement on what existed in Britain at the time. Lady Mary introduced the concept to British society, despite considerable resistance to Eastern medicine. When there was a smallpox outbreak on her return to Britain, she had her daughter inoculated on a publicised occasion, and ultimately persuaded the Princess of Wales of its merits.
Edward Jenner (1749-1823) is rightly celebrated for developing vaccination, the process that led to the ultimate eradication of smallpox, saving 122 million lives (roughly the population of Japan) to date that might otherwise have been lost to the disease. But Mary Wortley Montagu also deserves a share of the credit for paving the way.

Image is a button that reads, "Browse all History & Classics articles."


2. Chad Varah (1911-2007)

Suicide had been a crime under English law since the mid-13th century. It was believed to be a sin, described as ‘self-murder’, and therefore a violation of the Commandment not to kill. In the 1950s, it was still a crime, and treated as such – of around 5,000 cases of attempted suicide that the police were aware of in 1956, 613 people were prosecuted, and 33 of those were sent to prison. One man who attempted suicide was told by a judge on being discharged, “Your life has been given back to you, and turn it to good use in atonement.” Suicide or attempted suicide would not be decriminalised until 1961. The effects of criminalisation still linger in our language – we refer to people “committing” suicide, as if it were still a crime.

Varah initially set up phones in his own crypt.

So it was in a difficult climate that Chad Varah first became concerned about the lack of assistance for the suicidal. As an Anglican priest, he officiated at the funeral of a 14-year-old girl who had committed suicide when she started to menstruate and didn’t know what was happening. This was in 1935.
In 1953, he came up with the idea of the Samaritans, an organisation to “befriend the suicidal and despairing”. He placed an advertisement in a newspaper asking people to come and volunteer at his church. In the crypt, they set up a telephone hotline that people in distress could call. Within 10 years, 40 branches had been established, aided by a Daily Mirror article that publicised the charity and also gave it its name. Now, there are Samaritans hotline numbers posted at locations where people might consider suicide (for instance, on railway bridges), and someone calls the organisation every six seconds – adding up to thousands and thousands of lives that Varah has helped to save.

3. Henry Whitehead (1825-1896)

Another Anglican priest, Henry Whitehead was the assistant curate of St Luke’s Church in Soho, London, in 1854. Soho at that time was known for its criminals and slums. Sanitation was poor. But this was also a time before the germ theory of disease had been developed, and people generally believed that disease was spread through miasma, or polluted air. Henry Whitehead agreed with this theory.
In 1854, a cholera epidemic broke out in Soho near St Luke’s. At that time, there was no cure, and the mortality rate was around 60%. A physician, John Snow, believed – correctly – that the miasma theory was baseless and that cholera was waterborne. His investigation took him to St Luke’s, which was where he encountered Whitehead – who was determined to prove him wrong.

Whitehead and Snow traced the outbreak back to a single tap.
Whitehead and Snow traced the outbreak back to a single tap.

This meeting turned out to have huge significance. Snow’s work was pioneering in the field of epidemiology, but he lacked local knowledge to trace the spread of cholera through the community. Whitehead, as priest, was deeply embedded in the community, and his parishioners came to him for aid. Despite their opposing viewpoints, the men agreed to collaborate, and between them traced all of the outbreaks of cholera back to a single water pump, which turned out to have been contaminated by sewage. This contributed to changes in London’s water system, the foundation of epidemiology, and the eradication of cholera in the developed world. And while Snow got to have his theory proven right and has been widely honoured, Whitebread simply continued to be a parish priest.

4. Walter Tull (1888-1918)

Had Walter Tull achieved what he did today, he would probably still be a hero. But to have done it at the turn of the 20th century was truly remarkable.
Tull’s father was from Barbados, where his grandfather had been a slave, and his mother was from England, making him mixed race at a time when British society was deeply racist. From the age of 9, Walter and his brother Edward were orphaned, and raised in an orphanage in Bethnal Green. Edward became the first mixed-race person to qualify as a dentist in the UK. Walter, meanwhile, became a professional footballer, despite facing racist abuse from opposing fans. Football Star newspaper praised his performance in somewhat awkward terms, saying, “he is Hotspur’s most brainy forward … so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football.”

Section from Tull's memorial at Sixfields Stadium.
Section from Tull’s memorial at Sixfields Stadium.

But not long into Tull’s football career, the First World War broke out. He joined the Footballers’ Battalion and in 1917 was promoted to Second Lieutenant. At this point, soldiers who were not ‘of pure European descent’ were excluded from becoming commissioned officers, but this was ignored in Tull’s case, making him the first mixed-heritage infantry officer in a regular British Army regiment. He was recommended for a Military Cross, but never received the honour – he was killed in battle in 1918, and the medal was not awarded posthumously.

5. Mary Anning (1799-1847)

Mary Anning remains relatively unknown, but it seems that knowledge of her work is increasing. She was a remarkably talented fossil collector and palaeontologist, despite her limited education and status as a poor woman from a non-Anglican family. Fossil-collecting was her family’s business, selling lower-quality fossils as souvenirs to tourists, and more noteworthy finds to museums.

Contemporary portrait of Anning by Henry de la Beche.
Contemporary portrait of Anning by Henry De la Beche.

As Anning grew up, she increasingly took over the family business, and by her late twenties was an acknowledged expert in the field. She often risked her life to find fossils when they were newly revealed during landslides; one such landslide killed her dog and only narrowly missed her. Yet as a working-class woman, she wasn’t allowed to join the Geological Society of London, and others took credit for her work. She wrote in one letter, “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.”
Yet her work was crucial in the development of palaeontology, particularly the understanding of extinction, as her finds demonstrated that animals had once lived that were unlike anything alive at the time. One hundred and sixty-five years after her death, a plesiosaur genus was named after her – Anningasaura.

6. Alice Seeley Harris (1870-1970)

Alice Seeley Harris arrived in what was then the Congo Free State in August 1898 as newlywed and a member of the Region Beyond Missionary Union. She had been trying for seven years to be posted there, and was horrified by what greeted her when she arrived.
The Congo was at that time ruled directly by Belgian King Leopold II. It was a key producer of rubber, which was increasingly in demand following the invention of the pneumatic tyre. But in order to maintain levels of rubber production, Leopold’s forces enslaved the local population and committed atrocities when quotas for rubber production were not met. One tactic they favoured was to cut off the hands of the wives and children of men who failed to reach the designated quota. Whippings, hostages, murder and the burning of homes and gardens were also among the punitive measures visited upon the Congolese by Leopold’s troops.

Seeley Harris' photographs proved instrumental in confronting the Belgian regime.
Seeley Harris’ photographs proved instrumental in confronting the Belgian regime.

Seeley Harris was a keen photographer, and alongside her missionary work of teaching English to local children, she also took photographs that documented the activities of Leopold’s soldiers. Shared around the world, these photographs proved crucial in agitating for change internationally, and contributed to Leopold ceding administrative control of the Congo to the Belgian government in 1908. Though the use of forced labour continued, conditions improved considerably and the extremes of violence seen under King Leopold II were brought to an end.

7. Robert Smallbones (1884-1976)

Robert Smallbones, a graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, was a diplomat who used his position to advance humanitarian causes. One of his early postings was as Vice-Consul in what is now Angola, but which was then Portuguese West Africa. There, he contributed to ending the local slave trade. By 1922, he was Consul for Slovakia and Ruthenia – both then part of Czechoslovakia – and was highly critical of the treatment of non-Czechs by the dominant Czech majority, which he saw as steps on the road to fascism.

Smallbones helped 48,000 Jews to escape Nazi persecution.
Smallbones helped 48,000 Jews to escape Nazi persecution.

But Smallbones’ most significant posting was to Frankfurt as Consul-General in 1932, shortly before the July 1932 elections made the Nazi Party the largest party in the German parliament. Aware of the growing persecution facing Jewish people in Germany, Smallbones began issuing travel visas to German Jews in vast numbers, using every avenue open to him, some of which were not officially sanctioned. He provided sanctuary for hundreds of Jewish people in his official residence, and let his daughter use her horsewhip on Gestapo agents trying to arrest them. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he was evacuated from Germany along with all other British diplomatic personnel, but it’s been estimated that by then he had issued visas to more than 48,000 Jews, in all likelihood saving their lives, and was in the process of preparing visas for 50,000 more.

Which unsung British heroes do you think we should celebrate? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!
Image credits: henry viii; lady mary montagu; chad varah; water tap; memorial; mary anning; seeley harris visiting a group of congolese people; vandalised jewish shop in nazi germany; clock; cogs   


Your email will not be shared and you can unsubscribe whenever you want with a simple click.