On this day in 1868 the Smithfield Meat Market building was opened. A live meat market had operated on the site since at least 1174, and its Royal Charter was granted in 1327. It originally operated outside the City walls, but by the mid-nineteenth century London had expanded to surround the market, and around a quarter of a million cows and one and a half million sheep were being driven through the streets of London on their way to Smithfield each year. In 1852 the live meat market was relocated to Islington - what would become the Caledonian Market; the 1860 Metropolitan Meat and Poultry Market Act granted permission to construct a 'dead meat market' on the former site. The market building was designed by Sir Horace Jones, the man who also designed Tower Bridge, and was built on top of railway lines that brought the meat into Smithfield.
The opening banquet at Smithfield Meat Market
On this day in 1783 the first public executions took place outside Newgate Prison (now the Old Bailey), with the hanging of nine men and one woman. Until this time hangings had generally taken place at Tyburn (now Marble Arch), with the prisoners being transported on the back of an ox-cart along a two-and-a-half-mile direct route down Holborn and Oxford Street. The crowds attending the execution would be vast and unruly, which would sometimes result in death for the spectators: in 1807 dozens died during a crush of the forty-thousand spectators. The last public execution outside Newgate - which was also the last public execution in the country - took place on 26th May 1868, when Irish Fenian Michael Barrett was hanged for murdering twelve people whilst trying to blow up the walls of the Clerkenwell House of Detention using gunpowder. After this date, the executions took place in private behind the walls of Newgate Prison.
A mass hanging outside Newgate Prison
On this day in 1868 the world's first traffic lights were installed in London. The lights operated at the junction of Parliament Street and Bridge Street, opposite the Houses of Parliament, as the traffic over Westminster Bridge had become chaotic - resulting in the injury of two MPs and the death of a traffic policeman a few months earlier. The lights were manually operated by a police officer: during the daytime semaphore arms would be raised horizontally to stop the traffic, and then lowered to a forty-five degree angle for 'go'; at night, gas-lit red and green lights were also used. Just a month later however, in January 1869, the gas feed exploded and injured the policeman operating the lights; after several more months of breakdowns and repairs they were permanently removed. It wasn't until 1926 that traffic lights would return to London, with manually operated electric-lit lights installed on Piccadilly.
London's first traffic lights, 1868
On this day in 1920 Britain's first fatal commercial airliner crash occurred at Golders Green. A Handley Page O/400 departed Cricklewood Aerodrome - now the Golders Green Estate - at around midday on a flight to Paris, carrying six passengers and two crew; the weather was misty and the plane was flying close to the ground. Within half a mile the aircraft crashed into a tree, falling into the back garden of 6 Basing Hill. Four passengers escaped, two suffering only minor injuries; the remaining two passengers and two crew died in the ensuing fire. The reason why the plane was flying so low was never determined.
On this day in 1843 the world's first Christmas card was commissioned. Sir Henry Cole - an inventor and co-founder of the Penny Post - commissioned the artist John Callcott Horsley to design a festive message that he could send in response to the vast number of Christmas letters he had received. Cole's diary entry for 17th December reads “In the Evg Horsley came & brought his design for Christmas Cards”. The picture that Horsley had sketched featured three generations of a family - possibly Cole's - sitting around a table, toasting the recipient with glasses of wine (the card caused a bit of an uproar however, as one of the children is also shown to be drinking). On either side of the family are depicted charitable acts: on the left is feeding the hungry, on the right clothing the naked. At the top was a space to write the name of the recipient, with the sender scribing their name on the bottom right. The bottom left of the card gives the return address as “Summerly’s Home Treasury Office, 12 Old Bond Street”: Cole’s pseudonym and publishing address. A total of 2050 of Cole's Christmas cards were printed, but at a cost of a shilling a card they were too expensive for the average worker; it wasn't until the 1860s when improved printing techniques lowered the production costs that Christmas cards became a staple of the season.
Sir Henry Cole's Christmas Card
On this day in 1846 Europe's first operation using modern anaesthesia was performed. Surgeon Robert Liston - known as 'the fastest knife in the West End' due to the speed with which he could amputate a limb - was operating to remove the leg of a patient at University College Hospital. The patient awoke from the effects of the ether several minutes later and is said to have asked “When are you going to begin?”, which was met with howls of laughter from the audience in the operating theatre. It was only when his amputated leg was held aloft did the patient accept that it had indeed been removed. Liston later declared “This Yankee dodge beats mesmerism hollow”, ether having been used for the first time in the US earlier that year.
Robert Liston performing the first operation using anaesthesia
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