The Unsung Heroes of Yorkshire

unsung heroes of yorkshire

For every Amy Johnson, there’s a Jessica Blackburn. For every Joseph Priestley, there’s a Clifford Allbutt. And for every Geoff Boycott there’s… well, there’s only one Geoff Boycott, of course. Mick McCann doffs his flat cap to the White Rose heroes that you may not have heard about…

There’s not much info on Thomas Nettleton (1683–1742) but he attended Bradford Grammar School and was a ‘physician’ in Halifax. In a time when medicine was closer to witchcraft than the fine science we know today, he carried out some of the Western world’s earliest smallpox vaccinations. Crucially he measured the effects and found that around a fifth of those not vaccinated died, whereas out of the 61 vaccinated around Halifax ‘not one’ died. The James Lind Library, who know about this sort of stuff, say he ‘was one of the first, possibly the first, to use quantitative assessments of the effects of medical interventions.’

Mary Gawthorpe was a prominent, working class, suffragette from Leeds who was force-fed and repeatedly beaten (suffering serious internal damage) for heckling a young Winston Churchill. The ‘merry militant saint’ was a powerful and hugely influential public speaker, noted for her cutting humour. She travelled the UK and beyond to address crowds often way bigger than at any football match today (100,000-200,000). She was also co-editor of the radical periodical The Freewoman: A Weekly Feminist Review.

unsung heroes of yorkshire

“Still in use today”

Sir Hans Adolf Krebs was a German who did a runner from the Nazis and landed in Sheffield in 1935 where he was appointed Lecturer in Pharmacology at the University of Sheffield. He was the first person in the world to identify a metabolic cycle (the urea cycle, 1932). In Sheffield he discovered the citric acid cycle (1937), the key sequence of metabolic chemical reactions that produces energy in cells, also known as the Krebs cycle, which earned him a share of the Nobel Prize in 1953.

John Harrison (1693–1776) was born in Foulby, near Wakefield. His most famous invention was the marine chronometer. It solved the age-old problem of being able to accurately position yourself at sea. Radio 4 reckons ‘this object… is considerably more important than the landing on the moon’. Neil Armstrong thanked the British nation for this invention which set mankind on the journey to the moon. He wasn’t a one trick pony though; two of his other inventions from around three centuries ago are still in use today. Bi-metallic spring/strips in thermostats, thermometers, time-delay relays and as miniature circuit breakers in all sorts of electrical appliances and his roller bearings are in use all over the place from roller skates to the technology that has taken us into space.

“First TV talent competition”

Russ Litten is a newly published writer from Hull and his exciting first novel Scream if you Want to Go Faster is a cracker. It was extremely well received by critics. Word magazine said: ‘What Last Exit To Brooklyn did for the New York borough, so ‘Scream’ threatens to do for this little corner of the East Riding, in an exhilarating, horribly funny and fundamentally honest ride through urban Britain.’

Barney Colehan was born Bernard Colehan in Calverley, Leeds and went on to have a major influence on popular culture. Barney was a pioneer of TV and radio. He produced the first programme when television production arrived in the north of England in 1951. He’s probably best known for developing Top Of The Pops, The Good Old Days and It’s a Knockout. But he also brought Britain its first TV talent competition, Top Town. I like the earlier role he played in normalising the regional accent across the Received Pronunciation dominated airwaves. See those painfully accurate Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse sketches. His radio show Have A Go (1946 to 1967) introduced, for the first time, a cross-section of regional accents to the nation’s airwaves.

unsung heroes of yorkshire

“First pilot to fly from London to Moscow in one day”

Sir Edward Victor Appleton was born in Bradford (1892) and received the 1947 Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to the knowledge of the ionosphere, which also led to the development of radar. He proved the existence of the layer in the upper atmosphere using ‘frequency-modulation radar’, shooting radio waves at the layer and showing that they were reflected and returned. The ionosphere was thus the first thing detected by radiolocation. As we all know, Radar was crucial in winning the Second World War.

Jessica Blackburn was the business and marketing brain behind Leeds’ Blackburn Aeroplane & Motor Company, responsible for Britain’s first working planes and first scheduled passenger flights. She was one of the first women to fly in a British monoplane. She flew competitively against men in the King’s Cup air races. A regular visitor to the Blackburn’s house was a young Amy Johnson, a famous daughter of Hull and graduate of the University of Sheffield. Amy went on to be the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia. With her co-pilot she became the first pilot to fly from London to Moscow in one day. She also set a record time for flying from England to Japan.

“Chief engineer for the famous Forth Railway Bridge”

Son of Wadsley, Sheffield, Sir John Fowler was the youngest president of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He is one of the greats of Victorian engineering. Fowler was engineer for the world’s first underground railway (London’s Metropolitan Railway) and the Pimlico Bridge, which carried the first railway across the Thames. He was also a consultant on London’s first tube railways, and chief engineer for the famous Forth Railway Bridge. John was also involved in the design of locomotives and many of the great railway stations of the period. He produced maps of the Upper Nile valley – the period’s most accurate survey of the area. Fowler also travelled the world working on engineering projects, many of which survive to this day.

Dewsbury born Sir (Thomas) Clifford Allbutt, (1836–1925) was the inventor of the clinical thermometer. Before his 1867 invention it took 20 minutes to get an accurate reading. Patients had to hold the foot-long thermometer in their hands. He was a new type of doctor emerging from the surgeon apothecary – the forerunner of today’s GP. Allbutt introduced various ‘advancements’ to the LGI. He is also generally regarded as the model for George Eliot’s Dr Lydgate in Middlemarch.

“A skilled mechanic”

James W. Longley made Leeds the first place in the world to have coin operated ticket dispensing machines. Longley was a skilful mechanic. He helped Louis Le Prince produce cameras and projectors for the world’s first moving pictures. Longley adapted the technology to produce an extremely early example of a vending machine. The machines (patented 1885) were used at the Leamington athletic ground (Leeds). So next time you pay for parking, or get an automated train ticket, remember where it all started.

Mick McCann is author of ‘How Leeds Changed The World’, an encyclopaedia of the city’s people and achievements. The book is available from Yorkshire Waterstones branches, The Grove Bookshop Ilkley, Browse Time Otley, Leeds: Tourist Info, Philip Howard Books, Radish Books,Central Museum, Harewood House, HMV & priced £9.99.


Leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.