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First Distress Signal Sent at Sea

1909

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The first ever distress signal at sea was sent by John (Jack) Robinson Binns. Early Life: Jack was born in Brigg Union Workhouse, Lincolnshire, in 1884, but moved to Peterborough in 1885 to live with his uncle, William. He left school when he was aged 14 and gained employment as a Telegraph Clerk with the Great Eastern Railway. Unfortunately for Jack, not long after he started work he sustained serious injuries to his legs in a railway accident and spent six months recuperating in Peterborough Infirmary. He continued working for the GER but eventually left to attend the Marconi Radio Company Training School and ‘graduated’ as a ‘Marconi Man’ in the merchant marine. Heroism at Sea: After serving on board various German ships and doing a spell of shore duty in Ireland Jack joined the White Star Line as a Telegraphist (Wireless Operator). Jack was on duty on the RMS Republic in January 1909 when the liner was in collision with the Italian liner Florida in the North Atlantic. The Republic sustained serious damage but John was able to transmit a Morse code distress signal, 'CQD' (CQ being a call for any ships or land-based radio operators, and the 'D' being the all-important signal for distress), which was picked up by the Marconi Radio shore station on Nantucket Island. This signal is acknowledged to be the first ever distress signal sent at sea. The signal was re-transmitted to the SS Baltic which, together with other vessels, was able to steam to the assistance of the stricken ships, guided by the radio signals sent out by Jack who stayed at his post for nineteen hours, in the biting cold (part of the radio cabin had been ripped away in the collision leaving it open to the elements) working with crude equipment running on emergency back-up batteries. Six people died in the accident; all surviving passengers and crew from the Republic were transferred to the Florida which made it safely into port. The RMS Republic, however, was too badly damaged and sank in 40 fathoms south of Nantucket. Life After the Sinking: Jack was welcomed as a hero when he returned to New York where he was subjected to much unwanted publicity and inducements to profit financially from his experiences but these were rejected and Jack returned to England. He arrived back in Peterborough, which he considered to be his home, on Feb. 9th, where he was greeted by the Mayor and presented with a scroll of honour. Marconi presented Jack with a gold watch in recognition of his heroism.  He had suggested after the 1909 collision that every merchant ship should carry two wireless operators and this principle was incorporated into the US 1912 Radio Act. In 1939 he received a medal from the ‘Veteran Wireless Operators Association'. Jack continued his employment with the White Star Line and, in 1912, was offered a job on the company's newest liner, the Titanic. By this time, however, the young 'Marconiman' was engaged, and his American fiancee didn't want him to return to sea.  He resigned his position and went to work as a journalist in New York. Ironically, his first journalistic assignment was to report on the loss of the Titanic! Jack died of a stroke in New York in 1959. He bequeathed his gold watch, medals and scroll to the citizens of Peterborough and they are now in the possession of Peterborough Museum. References: Peterborough Archives





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Award Winning Violin Maker

1884

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Mr Jeffrey James Gilbert was the son of Jeffrey and Eliza Gilbert from New Romney in Kent. Jeffrey senior was a watchmaker who played the Cello and was an amateur Cello maker. By 1871 Jeffrey junior was an assistant for Whatley Paviour, a watchmaker, along Narrow Street in Peterborough. As a young man Jeffrey studied the fiddle and decided that if his father could make a Cello, he should be able to make a fiddle. Jeffrey’s father did not encourage him, as being an amateur Cello maker he knew the pitfalls. Jeffrey, however, persevered; he located the finest sycamore from Czechoslovakia and began to make his first instrument. Jeffrey continued creating violins and gradually improved until, in 1884, at the International Exhibition at Crystal Palace he was awarded a silver medal for his first exhibit. Five years later he was awarded a gold medal at the International Exhibition in Edinburgh. Jeffrey Gilbert believed that to produce a beautiful violin, firstly, you required handsome wood; secondly artistic carving of the plates and scroll; thirdly a beautiful varnish and lastly, the tone of the instrument had to be good. He became a maker of national importance, many well-known musicians owned one of his instruments and praised the fine workmanship and beauty of the tone. Jeffrey was particularly proud of the beautiful varnish and continually experimented on improving it. Mr Gilbert is described in the Directory of Beds, Hunts and Northants, 1890, as a ‘Violin maker & repairer, unequalled for brilliancy of tone & artistic finish of Bridge-street Peterborough’. By 1901 he and his family were living at 2 New Priestgate where Jeffrey had his own business, this was nationally known as the ‘Gilbert Violin Studio’.

References: -

Peterborough Standard 24 August 1928. Posh Folk: Notable Personalities (and a Donkey) Associated with Peterborough by Mary Liquorice, 1991.





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Olympic Gold Medal

1908

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Arthur James (Archie) Robertson won a gold medal at the 1908 London Olympic Games. Archie was born on 19 April 1879, in Harthill, Yorkshire, the son of a  Scottish doctor. The family moved to Peterborough when Archie was fourteen and he attended The King's School. He was a brilliant all round sportsman, though his original love was cycling. At the age of 25, following a cycling accident, he took up serious athletics and in 1906 he joined the Birchfield Harriers of Birmingham. In March 1908 he won the English and International Cross-Country titles and in July 1908 he came second in the 4 mile race at the AAA championship, these performances winning him a place on the Olympic team. At the 1908 Summer Olympics held in London he won a gold medal in the 3 man 3 mile team race, silver in the 3200 metres steeplechase and came fifth in the five miles event. His brother David was a member of the British cycling team at the same Olympics. Archie set the seal on his triumphant year by setting a world record for the 5000 metres in September in Stockholm. Archie retired from athletics after the 1909 season and returned to his first love, cycling. He opened a cycling and sports shop in Peterborough, which he later passed on to his son, Duncan. He died in Peterborough on 18 April 1957. Though he spent most of his life in Peterborough, his Scottish father meant he could be posthumously inducted into the Scottish Sporting Hall of Fame in 2004. References: Golden Scots: Arthur Robertson, the accidental athlete. BBC. 3 July 2012. The Peterborough Book of Days, Jones, Brian, The History Press, 2014.  





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An Olympic Gymnast (and Dancer!) Born

1989

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Louis Smith was born in Peterborough on 22 April 1989 and was educated at Arthur Mellows Village College. He is an artistic gymnast and won a bronze medal on the pommel horse at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It was the first time a British gymnast had placed in an Olympic event since 1928.  There was disappointment at the London Olympics in 2012 where he fell just short of gold. He tied with Kristian Berki, but took silver for a lower execution score. At the 2016 Rio Olympics he again won a silver medal, this time finishing behind his teammate, Max Whitlock. Smith was also part of the Great Britain team that took the bronze in the men's artistic team all-around at the 2012 London Olympics. He is the only British gymnast to win Olympic medals in three separate Games, and only the second gymnast to win three successive Olympic pommel horse medals. As well as his talents in the gym he showed his versatility by winning the 2012 series of  Strictly Come Dancing.





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Edward Thurlow Leeds and the Ashmolean Museum

1877

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Edward Thurlow Leeds was born in 1877 at Eyebury Grange near Peterborough. His father was the geologist Alfred Nicholson Leeds who had also been born at Eyebury. Born in Peterborough, he was educated at Uppingham School before heading to Cambridge. He had started his career in China, but returned to England following ill health. Whilst recovering he returned to Eyebury where his interest in archaeology was ignited by digging in the archaeologically rich area. He accepted a position at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1908 and quickly found himself progressing to the role of Assistant Keeper of the Department of Antiquities. There he remained until his retirement, becoming head Keeper in 1928. Edward Thurlow Leeds left a legacy of not only papers but also artefacts at the museum. His work on the Anglo Saxon period is one of his best known achievements. He was honoured with a gold medal by the Society of Antiquaries in 1946. During his life he published many works including The Archaeology of the Anglo Saxon Settlements in 1913. He died in 1955 at the age of 78. His works can be viewed at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Photo credit: © N Chadwick (cc-by-sa/2.0)