The United Kingdom and Ireland from the International Space Station


London at Night – photo credit: NASA/Cmdr Chris Hadfield (wikimedia commons)

As an historian of the modern era, it’s easy for me to get caught up in the details and events of the past that can easily be related to the current day without considering that I am only looking at a tiny slice of human history.  I’ve been thinking about different ways in which to perceive and wrap my mind around the vast scope of the history of humanity, and our current-day place in it.


Dublin from the ISS – photo credit: NASA/Cmdr Chris Hadfield (wikimedia commons)

One way that came to mind was to look at the world from an outside vantage point – from space.  This might be a good way to present the scope of history to students as well, as a means to spark conversation.


Thames Topsoil Flow – photo credit: NASA/Cmdr Chris Hadfield (wikimedia commons)

Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield, who took over 45,000 pictures of Earth in his five months on the International Space Station, writes that seeing the world from a different angle helped him to understand the world better.

Those spectacular, two-thousand-mile views make you a lot more aware of the big picture.

Every landscape, whether man-made or wholly natural, has a backstory.  Going to space forced me to figure some of them out – and doing that has changed, irrevocably, the way I perceive the world.  For instance, I have a much deeper appreciation for the immensity of time.  Today, driving down the highway near my house, I pass a hill and register not just a hump of rocky soil, but also the glacier that clawed and bumped it into existence thousands of years ago.  I recognize the vast lakes and rivers near my home for what they really are: comparatively puny remnants of an enormous inland body of water, whose traces I saw from the ISS.

Being able to perceive the narrative line behind our planet’s shapes, shadows and colors is a bit like having a sixth sense.  It provides a new perspective; we are small, so much smaller even than we may have thought.  To me, that’s not a frightening idea.  It’s a helpful corrective to the frantic self-importance we are prone to as a species – and also a reminder to make the most of our moment on this beautiful, strange, durable yet fragile planet.

– Chris Hadfield, You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes (2014)


Wales from the International Space Station – photo credit: NASA/Cmdr Hadfield (Wikimedia Commons)

Hadfield writes,

Europe’s multiple personalities, apparent even 240 miles above Earth, were shaped by the whims of geology and climate – but also because of millennia of cultivation by different groups of humans with evolving ideas about how to make the most of a relatively small continent.

Seeing the world from afar can help in understanding how geography and geology have influenced human movements and choices (and how humans have impacted the world).   It can highlight interconnections that we might not have noticed before, or barriers.  It illustrates change and continuity over the long scale of history that can be hard to grasp from the modernist perspective.


Postcard from Regent’s Park (featuring the birds of Regent’s Park)


Regent’s Park – photo credit – L. Flewelling

Regent’s Park in London was originally set aside by Henry VIII for use as a hunting ground.  During the Regency, John Nash planned and developed the park.  Along with 12,000 roses of 400 varieties, the park also is home to 100 species of wild birds.

History of Regent’s Park


Regent’s Park – photo credit: L. Flewelling

More Maps: On the 350th Anniversary of the Great Fire of London

There I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side end of the bridge…. So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it begun this morning in the King’d baker’s house in Pudding-lane, and that it hath burned St. Magnus’s Church and most part of Fish-street already.  So I down to the water-side, and there got a boat and through bridge, and there saw a lamentable fire…. Having staid, and in an horu’s time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and leave all to the fire.

-Samuel Pepys


Hollar’s Great Fire of London Maps – source credit: British Library

Three hundred fifty years ago this month, the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the medieval city.  Here we have the panoramic views of London created by Prague-born artist and cartographer Wenceslaus Hollar.  As the British Library describes, Hollar copied a view of London that he had completed in the 1640s to illustrate London before the fire, and used knowledge gained from his official work mapping the damage to create the scene of destruction.  Zooming in on the image, we can see the flattened and destroyed buildings, and St. Paul’s with its roof caved in just as described in Pepys’ famous account of the Great Fire.

Walked thence, and saw all the towne burned, and a miserable sight of Paul’s church, with all the roofs fallen, and the body of the quire fallen into St. Fayth’s; Paul’s school also, Ludgate, and Fleet-street, my father’s house, and the church, and a good part of the Temple the like.

-Samuel Pepys

Interesting, the British Library discusses how the panoramic view of London from the south across the Thames was a traditional depiction by artists and cartographers since the 1540s, lasting until the mid-19th century when aerial views became the more common depiction.


Hollar’s Map of London, 1667 – source credit: wikimedia commons

Hollar also created this overhead view of London.  We can see the footprint of St Paul’s, and the place the fire started on Pudding Lane near London Bridge (where the monument to the Great Fire is now).  Hollar moved to England in 1637 and stayed in London until 1642, when he left for Antwerp.  He returned to England in 1652 and lived there until his death in 1677.  He was extremely productive, creating about 2700 etchings during his life.

Here is a digital collections of Hollar’s works from the University of Toronto and prints by Hollar at the British Museum.  Here is his page on Google Arts and Culture.


Wren’s Plan for Rebuilding London – source credit: British Library

Christopher Wren’s plans for rebuilding the city after the fire, one of the first proposals to be submitted, utilized Hollar’s panoramic views to highlight suggested changes to the medieval city – with buildings plotted in orderly fashion, wide avenues, and open piazzas.  Wren’s plans were never used, but he was of course able to make his mark on the rebuilt cityscape.

Round up of sources on the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London:

We staid till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side of the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it.

-Samuel Pepys

Olympics Retrospective: London as a Host City, Part III

Click here for my post on London 1908, and here for London 1944/1948.

2012_12012 Summer Games

27 July to 12 August

10,568 athletes (5,992 men and 4,776 women) from 204 countries participating in 302 events.

Of course these Olympics are pretty recent in our own memories but I’ll talk about them to be a completist and compare to the two other London games.  Just the basic facts on numbers of athletes and events are in startling contrast to earlier years (not to mention the cost of putting on the games).

The Guardian put together a series of charts and data visualizations to convey different impressions of the 2012 Olympics – here is a particularly interesting article with visualizations on how life in the UK changed from 1908 to 1948 to 2012.

At the 2012 Olympics, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei sent female athletes for the first time.  This was the first Olympics to include women’s boxing, meaning that this was the first time each sport included female athletes.

Michael Phelps (in a down year) won 4 gold and 2 silver to earn the most gold medals and overall medals in Olympic history.  His number of gold medals was matched by US swimmer Missy Franklin (who also won a bronze).  And Usain Bolt won at 100 meters, 200 meters, and the 4×100 relay with his Jamaican teammates for the second Olympics in a row.

Team GB earned 65 total medals, 4th behind the US, China, and Russia.  Charlotte Dujardin won two gold in mixed dressage, and Mo Farah won gold at both 5,000 and 10,000 meters, securing his place as one of the winningest athletes in British history.  Farah’s 10,000 meter gold came in the same hour as Jessica Ennis won in the heptathlon and Greg Rutherford was victorious in the long jump for Team GB’s most successful Olympic day in 104 years.

Jason Kenny and Laura Trott each won two gold at track cycling, along with Chris Hoy, who won two gold in his final Olympic appearance.  Here is a retrospective of Hoy’s 2012 Olympics and his six-gold-medal Olympic career.  He was Team GB’s flag bearer for the 2012 games.

Other big names for Team GB included Bradley Wiggins who won gold in the Individual Time Trial after winning the Tour de France a few days earlier; and Andy Murray securing gold at Wimbledon as an Olympic venue the year before he actually won Wimbledon (plus the silver in mixed doubles with Laura Robson).

Ireland had 64 athletes participating in 54 events, with Katie Taylor winning gold in boxing.  Here’s video and a recap of Taylor’s 2012 Olympics (she was also Ireland’s flag bearer for the opening ceremonies).  Three of Ireland’s other medals were also in boxing, with their other one coming in equestrianism.

Video: Mr. Bean at the Opening Ceremony

Highlight video from the Olympic site


Photo Credit: DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Olympics Retrospective: London as a Host City, Part II

My post from last week covering London 1908 (and the amazing tug-of-war skills of Team GB!) can be found here.


London was selected by the IOC to be the host for the 1944 Summer Games in 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.  As the fighting spread, the Olympics were cancelled for the duration of the war, and were marked only by a small ceremony in Switzerland.  In addition to the 1944 Summer Games, the Olympics have been cancelled four times: the 1916 Berlin Summer Games; 1940 Tokyo Summer Olympics (later reassigned to Helsinki before being cancelled); 1940 Sapporo Winter Games (reassigned to St. Moritz and then Garmisch-Partenkirchen before being cancelled); and 1944 Cortina d’Ampezzo Winter Games.

Here’s an interesting article on London and Tokyo’s “Lost Games.”



Photo Credit: wikimedia commons

29 July to 14 August

4104 athletes (3,714 men and 390 women) from 59 countries participating in 136 events.

In the midst of post-war austerity, London was called upon to host the 1948 Summer Games on short notice, as the IOC had voted to locate the games in London just two years earlier.  The games mainly took place in Empire (Wembley) Stadium and Wembley Park, with no new venues constructed.  Germany, Japan, and the USSR did not participate.  This was the first Olympics to be televised.

Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands earned four gold medals, more than any other athlete.  She won the 100 m, 200 m, 80 m hurdles, and 4×100 relay.  At the time, Blankers-Koen was also the world record holder in the high jump and the long jump, but was only allowed to participate in three individual events.  Blankers-Koen was named the woman athlete of the 20th century by the IAAF in 1999.  Here’s what the Guardian had to say about her in 1948:

Blankers-Koen is easily the outstanding all-round woman athlete of her day.  Off the track she is as feminine as man’s capricious heart could wish.  On it not only is she as expert technically as most men champions but her actual foot and leg movements are straight like a man’s rather than a woman’s a temperamentally she is a lesson to all.  She is cheerful before going to her mark, is as steady as a rock on it and then starts as though she herself had been fired.

Great pictures of Blankers-Koen at the 1948 Olympics here.

Team GB came away with 27 total medals (USA in the lead with 84 total).  Stand out British athletes included David Bond and Stewart Morris in Sailing, Dickie Burnell, Burt Bushnell, Jack Wilson, and Ran Laurie (Hugh Laurie’s dad) in Rowing, and Alfred Thomson in the Art competitions, each of whom won gold.  Thomson was the only Briton to ever win in the art competitions at the Olympics, with his painting portraying boxers at the London Amateur Boxing Championships.  London 1948 was the final Olympic games to include art competitions.

Alfred Thomson’s other paintings can be seen here, and here’s more information about the Olympic arts competition.

61-year-old Briton Archibald Craig was the oldest athlete at the Olympics, on the men’s épée fencing team.

Ireland, which had been competing independently since 1924, had 83 participants in 34 events plus the arts competitions.  Letitia Hamilton won bronze for Ireland in the arts competition, for her painting Meath Hunt Point-to-Point Races.  Hamilton’s paintings can be seen here.

Here’s more information on the 1948 Irish Olympic team.

More good pictures from the 1948 games hereand hereHere is the BBC’s collection of broadcasts from the games.  And here’s a fun video on London 1948 from the Olympics website.


Photo Credit: wikimedia commons

Olympics Retrospective: London as a Host City, Part I


Photo Credit: wikimedia commons

With the Rio Olympics starting tomorrow, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some highlights for British and Irish participation in the Olympics, particularly with London acting as the host city on three separate occasions.

1908 Summer Games

27 April to 31 October

2,008 athletes (1,971 men and 37 women) from 22 countries participating in 110 events

Originally awarded to Rome, the summer games were reassigned to London when it became apparent that Rome would not be ready.  Italy had to divert resources toward disaster relief due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1906.  London was already playing host to a Franco-Britannic Exhibition in 1908, and the exhibition organizers funded and built a 66,000-capacity stadium next to their site at White City.  This was the first Olympics with a stadium specifically built for the games, and to host indoor swimming rather than open-water.  Diving and field hockey made their debuts, and powerboating featured for the first and only time.  The 1908 Olympics were also the longest-ever, running from April to October.

The marathon, capping the games, was one of the most dramatic ever seen.  The course ran from Windsor Castle to White City Stadium, followed by a partial lap of the stadium ending at the royal box.  This was a distance of 42.195 km, which was adopted as the standardized distance for a marathon in the 1920s.  Italian runner/pastry chef Dorando Pietri was leading the race when he entered the stadium, but overcome with fatigue and dehydration he took the wrong path and fell several times.  Umpires helped him up each time.  He ended up finishing the marathon in first place, but was disqualified due to receiving assistance.  In lieu of a gold medal, he was given a gilded silver cup by Queen Alexandra and he became something of an international celebrity.

Pictures of the 1908 marathon can be found here – these are very interesting and fun.

Great Britain won the overall medal count with 146 total medals (USA was second with 47).  Standout athletes for Team GB were Henry Taylor, who won three gold medals in freestyle swimming, and Benjamin Jones, who won two gold and one silver in track cycling.  In addition, Arthur Gore (singles/doubles indoor tennis), George Larner (men’s walking), Paul Radmilovic (waterpolo/freestyle relay), Thomas Thornycroft (motorboating), Bernard Redwood (motorboating), John Field-Richards (motorboating), and Clarrie Kingsbury (track cycling) each won two gold for Team GB.

Olympics website for London 1908

Video highlights of 1908 Olympics – highly recommend watching these, including Olympic tug-of-war (Team GB swept the podium in this event in 1908)!


1908 Gold Medal Tug-of-War Team – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Ham House!


Ham House – photo credit: L. Flewelling

It was a lovely, clear May day when I visited Ham House, a seventeenth-century estate near Richmond in London.  Built in 1610, Ham House was a gift from Charles I to William Murray.  Murray grew up as a close childhood friend of Charles I, as well as holding the position of “whipping boy” – taking punishments for any negative acts committed by Charles.

Murray was related to some of the leading Scottish Covenanters.  He acted as an intermediary during the First Bishops’ War and throughout the remainder of Charles I’s life.  With his position uncertain due to the turmoil of war, Murray transferred his property to his wife and daughters.  His daughter Elizabeth managed to maintain good relations with Oliver Cromwell, while also secretly aiding the Royalists.  Because the estate was only briefly sequestered by the Parliamentarians, the condition of Ham House was not impacted by the Civil War. 

Throughout the course of the war until his death in 1655, Murray himself remained active in trying to rally Scotland behind the Crown.  Upon Murray’s death, his earldom passed to Elizabeth.  Ham House remained under the control of her descendants for the next three hundred years.


Ham House – photo credit: L. Flewelling

The Irish (and Irish Music) in the American Civil War

For the past two Sundays, the History Show on RTE Radio 1 has explored the Irish presence in the American Civil War, particularly looking at the role of Irish music.  I highly recommend listening to the episodes, especially the first one which covers a wide swathe of Irish music from both the Union and Confederacy.  The episodes highlight music as a primary source that can be used to uncover the mood of the country during war, the transmission of ideas, the connections made between people spread out over wide geographical areas, popular culture, and views of Irishness in the United States in this era.

While there had been a long history of Irish immigration to America, Catholics overtook Protestants in overall numbers of immigrants for the first time in the 1830s.  The new immigrants faced rampant anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment in the urban areas in which they settled, particularly in the Know-Nothing, nativist era of the 1850s.  The immigrants often took refuge in the institutions of the Catholic Church and Democratic Party.

Because of their high population presence in northeastern cities, Irish immigrants made up a large part of the audience at vaudeville performances and had close ties to the popular music of the mid-nineteenth century.  I found the segment in the first show on Irish blackface minstrelsy particularly interesting.  Irish immigrants sought opportunities to establish their legitimacy as Americans and pursued blackface minstrelsy as a way to prove their equality to all other white members of United States society.  Blackface minstrelsy was a rationalization of slavery that portrayed slaves leading happy lives on the plantation.  The song “Dixie” came out of the minstrelsy tradition, written by Dan Emmett (an American of Irish ancestry).

It is estimated that about 100,000 Irish-born soldiers fought for the Union, and 20,000 for the Confederacy.  Both sides had Irish Brigades, a term which had roots in Irish history itself with the Wild Geese (Irish soldiers who fought for France and Spain in continental Europe).  Both sides had popular songs written by Irishmen or Irish-Americans, promoting their cause.

The second episode of the show highlights the ways in which songs about war change from early anthems which provide meaning and motivation for the conflict and romanticize the war, to later songs which long for the return home and mourn the pain of separation and loss.  The disillusionment of the Irish over the course of the war, exposed during the New York Draft Riots of July 1863, is also highlighted in song with “Paddy’s Lamentation.”

There are many other elements of Irish involvement in Civil War-era America covered in these two episodes, and it’s worth listening just to hear all of the songs.

An unrelated yet fascinating article from this past week is National Geographic’s portrait of the archaeology of London, a layman’s look at the history of archaeological exploration of the city.  It portrays the layers upon layers of history present in the city, and it goes without saying that many of those layers contain archaeological finds revealing London’s millennia-long connection with the wider world.  As the article notes, “The modern city sits atop a rich archaeological layer cake that’s as much as 30 feet high.”  The Museum of London, a personal favorite of mine, itself does a fine job of portraying those layers of prehistory and history from its perch alongside the Roman Wall.

The Thames is at the heart of archaeology in the city, and when the tide is out it’s particularly revealing.  The article’s author, Roff Smith, observes the river at early morning with a representative from the Museum of London Archaeology.

“Almost everything you see here is archaeology,” says Cohen, who points out a Roman-era roofing tile here, a piece of blue-patterned Victorian porcelain there, as we scramble over the uneven ground.  “With every tide this gets jumbled up again.  It’s never the same twice.  You never know what you’ll find.”

This reminded me of the “Tate Thames Dig” installation at the Tate Modern, a work of art filled with hundreds of random, repeating, and revealing artifacts unearthed from the Thames.

  • Smith, Roff. “London’s Big Dig Reveals Amazing Layers of History.”  National Geographic (February 2016).