Miss Rabbage encouraged research: a history project was to be written on things that had happened on one’s birthday. Fifty years later, the three items found in the the junior classroom book that listed anniversaries are still memorable.
On 16th October 1555, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, Church of England bishops who refused to renounce their Reformed faith, were burned at the stake in Oxford.
On 16th October 1793, during the rule of the Committee of Public Safety, Marie Antoinette, the former queen of France, was guillotined.
On 16th October 1939, RAF Spitfires claimed their first enemy aircraft, shooting down Junker 88s over the Firth of Forth.
It wasn’t much material for a project. The only thing that appealed to a primary school boy was the story of the Spitfire, though there would have to be mention of the other two events to show that an effort had been made. Miss Rabbage probably had to read through tortuous details of the development of the Spitfire, copied verbatim from the history books.
The names of the three executed were to reappear in later years. Marie Antoinette was to feature in studies of European History at Sixth Form College and university, Edmund Burke’s description of her having a captivating poetic quality:
It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely there never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in, glittering like a morning star full of life and splendour and joy.
Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley featured in theological studies, their death was witnessed by Thomas Cranmer, the writer of the Book of Common Prayer who was to share their fate the following year. Latimer’s words to his companion as they approached their deaths might have appealed to a schoolboy’s notions of heroism:
Be of good courage master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England, as I trust shall never be put out.
In later years, I discovered three 16th October birthdays: David Ben Gurion, first prime minister of Israel, was born in 1886; Michael Collins, the Irish Republican Army leader, in 1890; and Oscar Wilde, the writer, in 1846.
If the first day of action of the Spitfire, a more recent event was worthy of inclusion in the book of anniversaries, why not the birth of three major figures?
Had there been politics at work in the editorial policy of the book’s compilers?
Ben Gurion and Collins had both led campaigns of independence against British rule. In the 1960s, there would still have been rawness over Britain’s loss of its international status. Oscar Wilde had been a homosexual, the laws on which had only changed in England in 1967. Burnings and beheadings were much easier topics than the birthdays of troublesome men.
Were Miss Rabbage setting the project fifty years later, the web would ensure there were no omissions. But then Miss Rabbage, being the thorough teacher she was, would have left nothing out.