S is for B F Skinner

B F Skinner and pigeon

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was an inventor, author, social philosopher and poet but is best known for his work as a behavioural scientist. And his pigeon-guided missile.

Skinner was born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, in 1904 and became an atheist at an early age when a Christian teacher tried to explain the concept of hell as described by his grandmother. Read more ›››

R is for Charles à Court Repington

Charles Repington

In the centenary year of the end of the Great War, Charles à Court Repington answers a tricky question – exactly when did we start to refer to the horrors of the 1914-1918 conflict as ‘The First World War’?

There is a false assumption that it could not have been so named until after the start of World War Two, but it was Repington who first popularised the phrase in the title of his book The First World War published in 1920. Read more ›››

Q is for William Quantrill

William Clarke Quantrill

The turmoil of the American Civil War bred bands of guerilla fighters on both sides of the conflict and among the most notorious were Quantrill’s Raiders.

William Clarke Quantrill was born in Canal Dover, Ohio, in 1837, the son of school teacher Thomas Henry Quantrill. However, his father died of TB in 1854, and his mother was forced to open their home as a boarding house to make ends meet. Read more ›››

P is for Harry Pollitt

Pollitt with his Stalin portrait

Harry Pollitt is little known these days, but as General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain and a friend of Russia, he was a significant figure in the turbulent politics of pre- and post-war Britain and achieved a sort of immortality in a song sung by the Grateful Dead among others.

He was born in 1890 in Droylsden on the outskirts of Manchester, not far from where I grew up. Read more ›››

O is for Titus Oates

Titus Oates

Titus Oates was one of the most odious figures from history – a self-serving liar, bully, coward and fantasist whose vindictive conspiracy theories brought death and vilification to countless Catholics.

Oates was born in 1649, the son of a Church of England clergyman and even as a child he was hard to like. He was sickly with a permanently runny nose and dribbling mouth and as he grew he developed an annoying manner of speech, somewhere between a bark and a whine. Read more ›››

N is for John Norton-Griffiths

John Norton-Griffiths

If you watched the tv series Peaky Blinders you’ll know that their story began in World War as miners below the German trenches and although their story is fictional, the truth is not. thanks to John Norton-Griffiths. And it didn’t begin with Brummies.

We all know about the horrors of the stalemate that stretched for 400 miles from the French coast to the Swiss border, but less well-known is the war that took place below the trenches. Read more ›››

M is for Jasper Maskelyne

Jasper Maskelyne

Jasper Maskelyne came from a long line of stage magicians. Born in 1902, he was the son of Nevil Maskelyne and the grandson of John Nevil Maskelyne, perhaps the preeminent magician of the Victorian age and inventor of the pay toilet – but that, as they say, is another story.

While Jasper Maskelyne followed in their footsteps with a successful stage career his greatest contribution to history was as the War Magician of WWII. Read more ›››