19 September: On this day in history

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19 September AD 634: The Arabs capture Damascus

At the beginning of the seventh century, Damascus was one of the most important cities in the Roman world. But then everything began to go wrong. War between the Romans and the Persians swept across the Levant, and in AD 613 the city fell to the Persians. Fifteen years later, the emperor Heraclius recaptured vast swathes of territory, and Damascus was a Roman city once again. But the sense of rupture never disappeared, reflected in the heresies and cults that flourished on Syrian soil.

And then came the Arabs. Storming out of the desert beneath the banners of a new faith, Islam, they reached Damascus in mid-August 634. Their commander, the wily Khalid ibn al-Walid, had no siege engines, so he installed his men outside the city’s gates and established his headquarters in a nearby monastery. His captains’ orders were simple: they must repel any attempt to break out, but there was no need to risk everything on an all-out attack. With time, in the baking summer, they would starve the defenders out.

When news reached Heraclius of the Arab invasion, he sent a relief force of at least 10,000 soldiers. But at the pass of Uqab, Khalid’s men fell on the Romans and utterly routed them. In desperation, the city’s commander, the emperor’s son-in-law Thomas, made two efforts to break out. But he lost thousands of men and was wounded himself in the eye. Day by day, morale was crumbling.

The endgame began on the evening of 18 September, when a Syrian monk called Jonah – one of many monks accused of heresy by the Roman authorities – told Khalid that the defenders were about to celebrate a major religious festival, which meant the walls would be lightly defended. Now Khalid saw his chance. Leading his men in person, he climbed the wall of the East Gate, dropped into the city and opened the gates. By the following morning, Damascus had surrendered. From this day on, the city would belong to Islam.

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19 September 1356: The Black Prince smashes his enemies at Poitiers

Edward, Prince of Wales, captures the French king and emerges victorious

The summer of 1356 found Edward, Prince of Wales, in typically warlike form. At the age of 26, the Black Prince was in his prime, adored by his fellow Englishmen, but dreaded by his French enemies.

A year earlier, Edward had ravaged much of modern-day Languedoc. Now he set out once again, burning and pillaging, with the vague intention of reaching Normandy, where he hoped to rendezvous with another English army. By early September, his offensive had ground to a halt and he had decided to turn back to Bordeaux. Then, not far from Poitiers, he heard the news that the French king, John II, was just a few miles away with an army of his own, hot on his heels.

Historians still disagree as to whether Edward always meant to confront the French army head-on. In any case, after various manoeuvrings, he drew up his men (numbering, by some estimates, as many as 12,000) behind a long, thick hedge. The French army, which was at least twice as large, planned to attack in three waves, confident that their superior numbers would win the day. But they hadn’t accounted for the English bowmen, whose arrows rained down mercilessly from the sky. The first French division was soon routed; the second, which fought fiercely, was pushed back after two hours of brutal fighting. At that, the third division turned and fled. Once again, the Black Prince had carried the day.

Amid the chaos, at least one Frenchman meant to fight on. This was John II himself, surrounded by his royal bodyguard. At last, seeing all was lost, he surrendered to a French-born knight, who promised to lead him to the Black Prince. Edward treated his royal prisoner with great gallantry. “The prince made lowly reverence to the king and caused wine and spices to be brought forth,” wrote the chronicler Jean Froissart, “and himself served the king in sign of great love.”


19 September 1879  Crowds dazzled by Blackpool’s new illuminations

100,000 bask in “artificial sunshine”

The Victorian age was good to Blackpool. Every summer, the railway brought thousands of visitors and by the late 1870s the Lancashire seaside town was one of the most famous resorts in the country. But as its city fathers knew very well, it still needed something special to stand out from the crowd. And on 19 September 1879, they found it.

For some time, Blackpool’s streets had been lit by gas. But a few weeks earlier, the council had dug deep and found some £5,000 for an experiment with electric lighting. On the evening of the 19th, eight giant arc lamps, powered by 16 Robey steam engines and spaced 320 yards apart on the town’s promenade, bathed the street in dazzling electric light – or “artificial sunshine”, as the council proudly called it. They had, of course, advertised the event heavily in the national press, and reports claimed that as many as 100,000 visitors travelled to Blackpool to bask in the unearthly light. A month before Edison got a light bulb to glow overnight for the first time, the Blackpool Illuminations had sparked into life.

Today the Blackpool Illuminations have a slightly tacky reputation, being best known for the succession of celebrities who turn them on each year, from George Formby, Jayne Mansfield and Red Rum to Frank Bruno, Kermit the Frog and, bizarrely, Johannes Rau, the Minister- President of North Rhine-Westphalia. Yet it is easy to forget what a marvel they were in their early years, when people would watch open-mouthed from boats bobbing in the Irish Sea. Alas, they no longer have quite the same appeal. Even the official tourist website, Visit Blackpool, has a slightly elegiac tone. “Gone are the days,” it laments, “when the lights went out as the tide came in because water leaked into the cast iron wiring pipes on the seafront”.


19 September 1882

Birth of Christopher Reynolds Stone MC. He became London editor of The Gramophone and in July 1927 he became Britain’s first disc jockey when he began playing records on air for the BBC.


19 September 1893: New Zealand makes suffrage history

Twenty years of campaigning sees New Zealand women given the right to vote, to the dismay of many men

For the women of New Zealand, and indeed the world, 19 September 1893 was a day never to be forgotten. For two decades, suffrage campaigners, with Christian and temperance activists in the vanguard, had been demanding the right to vote. And that July, some 32,000 women – a quarter of the country’s adult female European population – signed a number of petitions calling for reform.

For New Zealand’s Liberal prime minister, Richard Seddon, the suffrage issue presented a dilemma. Many of his own MPs were for it, but Seddon knew that women’s suffrage might also mean victory for the temperance movement, which called for the prohibition of all alcohol.

Seddon played a double game, pretending to accept the case for women’s votes, but secretly lobbying the upper house – the Legislative Council – to block the suffrage bill. But his plan backfired. When two independent councillors found out, they changed their votes, allowing the bill to pass.

Still the anti-suffrage group did not give up, lobbying New Zealand’s governor, the Earl of Glasgow, to refuse Royal Assent. But on 19 September, Glasgow gave his approval and New Zealand became the first self-governing nation to allow women to vote.

Not everyone rejoiced at the outcome. For some men at least, the prospect of such activists influencing politics was ‘an evil day’ indeed. “Our only chance of preventing New Zealand from playing the fool before high heaven,” one man wrote to the Christchurch Press, “is to call in the aid of the women who would prefer to leave the game of politics to men.”


19 September 1941

German forces entered Kiev. Ten days later the Germans murdered over 30,000 of the city’s Jewish inhabitants in the Babi Yar ravine just outside the city.


19 September 1970

The first Glastonbury festival is held in Somerset, organised by farmer Michael Eavis and headlined by Tyrannosaurus Rex. Tickets cost £1 and include free milk from the farm

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Journal of Human Hypertension

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