50 things Bri­tain gave the world

Through­out the cen­turies, Bri­tain has led the world in all that is civilised, from cul­ture to condi­ments and fast horses to the herba­ceous bor­der. Kate Green and Giles Kime make the case for our na­tion’s pre-emi­nent place on the world stage

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Kate Green and Giles Kime ar­gue that Bri­tain has, for cen­turies, led the world in all that is civilised

The Down­ton Abbey ef­fect

We not only in­vented the tele­vi­sion it­self, but, from Up­stairs, Down­stairs and The Pal­lis­ers to Pride and Prej­u­dice and Poldark, we love it when pro­duc­ers raid the dress­ing-up box for breeches, tail­coats and peri­wigs. So, it seems, does the rest of the world; with a host of brood­ingly hand­some ac­tors (Messrs Firth, Turner and Red­mayne) and ac­tresses happy to strap them­selves into cir­cu­la­tion-con­strict­ing corsetry (Mes­dames Thomp­son, Dench, Smith and Bon­ham Carter), we beat Hol­ly­wood hands down, not only with the clas­sics, but also with pas­tiche that is ham­mier than a side of ba­con.

Down­ton Abbey’s creator Ju­lian Fel­lowes ad­mit­ted he’s been star­tled at its in­cred­i­ble reach—it’s been sold to more than 200 ter­ri­to­ries world­wide (the Chi­nese au­di­ence was about 120 mil­lion) and over­seas vis­i­tors pour into High­clere Cas­tle (left), where it was filmed.

Ched­dar cheese

The de­fault cheese of the plough­man’s lunch, the 1970s drinks party (on a stick with pineap­ple) and the cheese-and-pickle sand­wich is a ma­jor UK ex­port (up 4% to 75,212 tons in 2016). Strangely, we im­port it as well (more than 4,000 tons) and the Ir­ish are said to be pan­ick­ing about Brexit be­cause they can’t sell the stuff to any other coun­try. The su­pe­rior thing, how­ever, is not the ubiq­ui­tous, sweaty, plas­tic-en­cased block, but West Coun­try Farm­house Ched­dar, which has Pro­tected Des­ig­na­tion of Ori­gin (PDO) sta­tus from the EU. This must be made on dairy farms in Dorset, Corn­wall, Som­er­set or Devon by ‘Ched­dar­ing’—the stack­ing and turn­ing, by hand, of slabs of curd—and left to stand for nine months to de­velop sub­tle flavours.

Here­ford cat­tle

These conker-coloured cows have trav­elled thou­sands of miles from their pas­toral county of ori­gin dur­ing the past 200 years. There are more than five mil­lion pedi­gree cat­tle in 50-plus coun­tries, from South Amer­ica to the Rus­sian Steppes, Is­rael and Ja­pan. It’s re­mark­able how an­i­mals that orig­i­nated in such pre­cise re­gions— Welsh Moun­tain ponies, Suf­folk sheep —have gone global.

Sav­ile Row tai­lor­ing

Our con­ti­nen­tal neigh­bours might favour a sim­pler, less struc­tured look and lighter cloths, but, in chill­ier climes, we pre­fer some­thing that em­braces the con­tours of our physique and irons out any fail­ings. Like al­most ev­ery as­pect of Bri­tish life, our tai­lor­ing is a tan­gled knot of nu­ance: our choice of tai­lors, lin­ing, cloth and but­tons says far more about us than a Linkedin pro­file ever could. A beau­ti­fully cut Hunts­man suit—like Cole­fax & Fowler chintz and Trumper’s Bay Rum—waves the flag far more ef­fec­tively than any earnest trade del­e­ga­tion could.


Dame He­len Mir­ren’s 2015 Tony for play­ing The Queen in The Au­di­ence (above) on Broad­way el­e­vated her to the elite group that can boast act­ing’s ‘triple crown’ (of an Os­car, an Emmy and a Tony). The only other Bri­tish ac­tresses to achieve the trio are Vanessa Red­grave and Mag­gie Smith (see Down­ton Abbey), but the ac­co­lade re­flects Amer­i­can de­mand for beau­ti­fully spo­ken English roses, from Vivien Leigh and Julie An­drews to He­lena Bon­ham Carter. Kate Winslet, of whom an Amer­i­can critic wrote ‘Is Winslet the best English­s­peak­ing film ac­tress of her gen­er­a­tion?’ only has the Tony to bag.

Sloane Ranger style

The term might have been coined more than 30 years ago, but the sar­to­rial spirit is alive and well. It’s a look that’s widely em­u­lated: you’re as likely to spot the com­bi­na­tion of waxed cot­ton, brown suede, quilted jacket, mole­skin, cash­mere, sticky-up col­lar, brogues, mid-calf skirt, Lib­erty-print shirt and stud­ied in­sou­ciance on the Via Con­dotti or Boule­vard St Ger­main as on the Ful­ham Road. Its sur­vival is down to a ca­pac­ity to swing with the pre­vail­ing sar­to­rial mood, be it rock-star chic, hip­ster cool or the care­fully plucked look of the Made in Chelsea gen­er­a­tion.

The Bent­ley

If we’d wanted to swan around in low-slung lux­ury cars that look more at home at Le Mans than in Leam­ing­ton Spa, we’d have cre­ated our own ri­poste to the Lam­borgh­ini. In­stead, we made the Bent­ley, a di­rect de­scen­dent of the palan­quin, which al­lows its cos­seted oc­cu­pants to step down from big, com­fort­able seats, un­ruf­fled by the va­garies of travel and, in the case of women, with mod­esty in­tact. Last year, UK car pro­duc­tion was on a high—the third big­gest in Europe—and some 85% of Bent­leys made were ex­ported; China and the USA, in par­tic­u­lar, love them. In fact, we’re good at strik­ing cars all round, giv­ing the world the Mini and Land Rover be­fore any­one else tin­kered with them.

Agatha Christie

Wilkie Collins’s The Moon­stone (1868) is con­sid­ered to have launched the de­tec­tive genre and Arthur Co­nan-doyle’s tor­tured brain­box, Sher­lock Holmes, en­tered our lives in 1898, but it’s Christie who is syn­ony­mous with the coun­try-house mur­ders, vicarage poi­son­ings, cot­tage psy­chopaths, nosy spin­sters and finicky de­tec­tives that peo­ple can’t get enough of. The world’s best-sell­ing au­thor—about a bil­lion books trans­lated —sparked our un­quench­able de­mand for (fic­tional) coun­try­side crime and ec­cen­tric de­tec­tives: an­other film adap­ta­tion of

Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press, with Ken­neth Branagh fol­low­ing in Al­bert Fin­ney’s cel­lu­loid foot­steps (right) as Her­cule Poirot (he’s also di­rect­ing), will be re­leased in Novem­ber.

The 6 o’clock drink

‘The sun’s over the yardarm some­where in the world’ has long been a very Bri­tish ex­cuse (orig­i­nally at 11am on naval ships in the north At­lantic) for hav­ing a nog­gin/ tip­ple/tinc­ture/snifter/just a quick one af­ter work. We in­vented the per­fect 6pm drinks, the gin and tonic (taken at 6pm ev­ery day, qui­nine was pre­scribed to pre­vent malaria in In­dia and the gin made the bit­ter flavour of the ‘tonic’ more bear­able) and the whisky and soda as well as, leg­end has it, the no­tion of gulp­ing al­co­hol to give us ‘Dutch courage’, when Bri­tish sol­diers stead­ied their nerves with gen­ever in the Thirty Years’ War. In 2016, Bri­tish gin ex­ports to­talled £474 mil­lion and those of sin­gle-malt Scotch whisky £4 bil­lion-plus.


It’s been ar­gued that the world’s most widely read and stud­ied play­wright is more ap­pre­ci­ated by other cul­tures (see Michael Billing­ton, page 156). Bol­ly­wood turned A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream into a chaotic Pun­jabi wed­ding in one of nu­mer­ous film adap­ta­tions; Nel­son Man­dela read him in prison; the long­est-run­ning mod­ern pro­duc­tion of Ham­let (the most adapted play) was in Lithua­nia; Ja­pan built a replica Globe theatre in Tokyo 10 years be­fore Lon­don did; and the Fol­ger Li­brary in Wash­ing­ton DC, USA, has the largest col­lec­tion of his fo­lios. Most poignant was the 2014 per­for­mance of King Lear by chil­dren in a refugee camp on the Syr­ian bor­der.


Some­how, one small coun­try has be­come re­spon­si­ble for the world’s third most com­mon lan­guage (af­ter Man­darin and Span­ish) and the one that’s most stud­ied by for­eign­ers. The vo­cab­u­lary is in­flu­enced by Ger­man, French and Latin—and has be­sides gath­ered words from across the globe—but English has eas­ily over­taken them to be the of­fi­cial lan­guage of nearly 60 sovereign states, of the United Na­tions, of sport and, some­what iron­i­cally, of the EU. The less pos­i­tive as­pect is that it’s made us hope­less, lazy lin­guists, giv­ing us a loutish rep­u­ta­tion for bark­ing re­quests loudly and slowly.

The Queen

In 64 years on the throne, Her Majesty has re­tained a mys­tique no mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tion medium can crack. Chil­dren ev­ery­where grow up in the knowl­edge that, some­where, there is a real queen who wears a crown, trav­els in a gilded coach, lives in a cas­tle, gives lit­tle away and doesn’t post on Face­book. Her ca­pac­ity to ful­fill the role of favourite monarch with such lack of fuss is ex­tra­or­di­nary and pre­cious. Long may she reign!


We’re ter­ri­bly good at in­vent­ing them— cricket, foot­ball, rugby, golf, cro­quet, bad­minton, lawn ten­nis (prob­a­bly lawns, too), to name a few—and now we’re ac­com­plished at tak­ing it on the chin when reg­u­larly thrashed at our own games. We’ve just got to take it as a com­pli­ment.

Coun­try-house style

We no longer ram­page around the world ap­pro­pri­at­ing the cul­tural trea­sures of oth­ers, but we’re still bril­liant at ab­sorb­ing the ideas of oth­ers. This in­nate abil­ity crys­talised in English coun­try-house style: blue-and-white china, chintz and pais­ley were all art­fully repack­aged and ped­dled back around the globe, with the re­sult that you’re as likely to see the dis­tinc­tive mix in the Hamp­tons as in the Cotswolds.

Guns and rods

We in­vented driven shoot­ing—the pi­o­neer­ing 1st Earl of Le­ices­ter was re­puted to be able to drive birds into his bil­liard room at Holkham Hall—and re­main the most de­sir­able coun­try in which to shoot driven grouse, pheas­ant or par­tridge, but what we ac­tu­ally ex­port is fine gun-mak­ing. Once gun-mak­ing com­pa­nies had per­fected the ham­mer­less, breech-load­ing side-by-side shot­gun in the 1860s, the de­sign couldn’t be bet­tered—the boxlock and side­lock ac­tions they de­vel­oped are still used in al­most all dou­ble guns. Purdey & Sons, West­ley Richards, Hol­land & Hol­land and Boss & Co still top many game shots’ wish lists and Bri­tish-made fish­ing rods and reels— such as those crafted by Hardy in Al­nwick, Northum­ber­land, since 1872—are pretty pop­u­lar abroad, too.


It’s been said, rudely, that we in­vented condi­ments be­cause our food was so bor­ing. ‘This ex­plains the sauces, the jel­lies and pre­pared ex­tracts, the bot­tled sauces, the chut­neys, the ketchups which pop­u­late the ta­bles of this un­for­tu­nate peo­ple,’ wrote Al­berto Denti in The Ed­u­cated Gas­tronome

(1950). Still, such gas­tro­nomic na­tions as Italy, France, Ja­pan and Switzer­land are big im­porters of life’s ne­ces­si­ties—col­man’s Mus­tard and Lea & Per­rins’ Worces­ter­shire Sauce—and only a philis­tine would turn their nose up at horse­rad­ish with roast beef or mint sauce with Welsh lamb.

An­i­mal char­ity

Two years af­ter what is thought to be the first an­i­mal-wel­fare law—re­lat­ing to cat­tle wel­fare and, later, bear-bait­ing and cock­fight­ing—was passed, a group of men sit­ting in a Lon­don cof­fee shop in 1824 founded the RSPCA to help pit ponies and cab horses. It helped es­tab­lish Bri­tain’s rep­u­ta­tion as a na­tion of an­i­mal lovers and spawned an im­i­ta­tion society in Amer­ica. Many more in­ter­na­tional char­i­ties were started by Bri­tons, such as the Born Free Foun­da­tion, the RSPB, the Brooke, SPANA, the WWF, Grey­hounds in Need and World Horse Wel­fare. We’d like to think we still lead the world in an­i­mal wel­fare, but it’s a sad in­dict­ment that we’re so far in front of many coun­tries (partly be­cause we ac­tu­ally fol­low es­tab­lished EU laws) and, in terms of agri­cul­tural trade, that’s con­sid­ered to make us un­com­pet­i­tive.

The English gar­den

Our Re­nais­sance and ear­lier gar­dens shared with our Con­ti­nen­tal cousins a for­mal ap­proach to gar­den de­sign and a fond­ness for top­i­ary and for­mal­ity that goes back to the Ro­mans. But, from the early 18th-cen­tury, a seis­mic shift oc­curred: English gar­dens moved into a more freespir­ited realm. The English Land­scape Gar­den (which reached its zenith with Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown) be­came—and re­mains—our lead­ing cul­tural gift to the world. Der Englis­cher Garten and Le Jardin Anglais are terms ev­ery­one on the Con­ti­nent un­der­stood (and many Con­ti­nen­tal landown­ers adopted, cre­at­ing ‘nat­u­ral’ parks of their own). Later, our en­thu­si­asm for the hun­dreds of new plant species brought back by 19th-cen­tury ex­plor­ers in­spired levels of flo­ral cre­ativ­ity that led to an­other kind of English gar­den ex­port: the herba­ceous bor­der, epit­o­mised by those at Bramdean House in Hamp­shire, where sum­mer flow­ers are amassed in care­fully planned scenes of abun­dance and beauty.

The grace­ful apol­ogy

Far from re­quir­ing hu­mil­ity, the abil­ity to apol­o­gise re­quires heaps of self-con­fi­dence (viz. Boris John­son, above). Given the many lapses in our ju­di­cial sys­tem and colo­nial past, we need suf­fi­cient blus­ter to apol­o­gise for vir­tu­ally any­thing, with­out turn­ing a hair (and sound­ing as if we mean it). We know that, when you eat hum­ble pie, it’s best not to ex­plain, as demon­strated by Hugh Grant af­ter his in­fa­mous trip down Sun­set Boule­vard in 1995, when he coolly pro­claimed on tele­vi­sion: ‘You know in life what’s a good thing to do and what’s a bad thing. I did a bad thing and there you have it.’ Enough said.

David At­ten­bor­ough

His dis­creet, mur­mur­ing tones make ev­ery­thing seem all right with the world, even if his sub­lim­i­nal mes­sage is of­ten that, in the nat­u­ral world, it isn’t. At 91, Sir David re­mains the ul­ti­mate wildlife pre­sen­ter— who can for­get him throw­ing away the script as he un­ex­pect­edly eye­balled a large fe­male go­rilla?—one of few peo­ple who can truly be de­scribed as ir­re­place­able. His films are made us­ing ground­break­ing tech­niques and in­fi­nite pa­tience—in Life on Earth (1979), watched by 500 mil­lion peo­ple, one cam­era­man lost days of his life wait­ing for a frog to spit out the young it was in­cu­bat­ing in its mouth. The first Planet Earth (2006) series was sold to 130 coun­tries.

The Jack Rus­sell

The small, sturdy ter­rier with the big per­son­al­ity has ex­ploded out of its orig­i­nal strong­hold in north Devon—where it was bred by the epony­mous 19th­cen­tury hunt­ing par­son—to take over the world. There are now ir­re­press­ible, short-legged brown-and-white dogs tak­ing over house­holds and sta­ble yards and cap­tur­ing hearts all over Europe, Aus­trala­sia and North Amer­ica—two were re­cently spot­ted skit­ter­ing in­quis­i­tively over the mar­ble floor of an up­mar­ket del­i­catessen in Lugano, Switzer­land. The Jack Rus­sell fi­nally gained of­fi­cial Ken­nel Club recog­ni­tion in 2015.

Real ale

The tav­ern was a Ro­man im­port, even if we de­vel­oped the pub’s egal­i­tar­ian at­mos­phere, and beer—in the generic sense— has its roots in an­cient Me­sopotamia, but real ale is some­thing that we’ve made our own, con­coct­ing it lov­ingly in casks from malted bar­ley, hops and yeast and re­fus­ing to serve it at teeth-shat­ter­ing tem­per­a­tures. Cask-con­di­tioned ale is pop­ping up around the USA and the South­ern Hemi­sphere, even though it must be said that warm, hand-pumped real ale is as rare on for­eign shores as a man in a linen suit car­ry­ing a copy of Wis­den.

The English fox­hound

This an­i­mal, a speed­ier ver­sion of the Gas­con hound given by Henry IV of France to James I and thence to the 1st Duke of Beau­fort, has been as care­fully bred and recorded as any, with blood­lines ex­pand­ing into North Amer­ica, Europe, Aus­tralia and New Zealand as em­i­grat­ing field sports­men took packs of hounds with them. In 1650, one Robert Brooke, who had been ap­pointed a mem­ber of the Privy Coun­cil of Mary­land, sailed his hounds across the At­lantic; their de­scen­dants were used by Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton to breed the Amer­i­can fox­hound. Hitler banned fox­hunt­ing in Ger­many and the Nether­lands fol­lowed suit, but, in other coun­tries, this very Bri­tish tra­di­tion con­tin­ues un­fet­tered by pol­i­tics.

The time

‘World time starts here’ pro­nounces the of­fi­cial web­site for Green­wich Mean Time (GMT). In other words, the time of day any­where in the world re­lates to Bri­tish time. GMT (the av­er­age time the sun crosses the Green­wich merid­ian and is at its high­est point) was put into prac­tice here in 1847 to avoid chaotic and an­noy­ing dis­par­i­ties in train timeta­bles; it was adopted in­ter­na­tion­ally in 1884.

The BBC World Ser­vice

When it be­gan, in 1932, Ge­orge V said it was for ‘men and women, so cut off by the snow, the desert, or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them’. Terry Waite, taken hostage in Beirut in 1987, said it was what kept him ‘men­tally and spir­i­tu­ally alive’ dur­ing five years in cap­tiv­ity. The world’s largest ser­vice broad­casts, from cen­tral Lon­don, an eclec­tic range of sub­jects in 28 lan­guages, in­clud­ing Pid­gin and Pun­jabi, and is lis­tened to by more than 200 mil­lion peo­ple a day.

The jig­saw

In 1767, an en­graver and map­maker called John Spils­bury in­vented the jig­saw. The pic­ture on it was a map of the world and it was used for ge­og­ra­phy lessons. Puz­zles may have once been a gen­tle pas­time for con­va­les­cents and fam­i­lies on rainy Sun­day af­ter­noons be­fore the in­ven­tion of the Plays­ta­tion, but they’re still pop­u­lar. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the vir­tual jig­saw puz­zle, which can be solved on a smart­phone, has ar­rived; online com­pany jig­saw­puz­zle.co.uk claims to be the big­gest sup­plier in Europe, keep­ing more than 10,000 de­signs in stock. Now, who’s got the cor­ner pieces?


Sir Ed­win Lu­tyens’s su­per­nat­u­ral abil­ity to dis­till all that is best about ar­chi­tec­tural styles, from me­dieval to mughal, meant that his work trav­elled well: to Madrid, Saskatchewan, Delhi and be­yond, demon­strat­ing that there’s no rea­son why cre­ativ­ity should be hide­bound by tra­di­tion or location. Lu­tyens’s for­tunes were in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to those of COUN­TRY LIFE— founder Ed­ward Hud­son, Lu­tyens’s cham­pion-in-chief, com­mis­sioned him to de­sign our for­mer of­fices in Covent Gar­den.

The his­tor­i­cal novel

Sir Wal­ter Scott was coy about Waver­ley, a love story set in the Ja­co­bite ris­ing, and pub­lished it anony­mously in 1814. The novel wasn’t con­sid­ered a se­ri­ous genre and Scott was ner­vous of pub­lic re­ac­tion, but the first edition of what is said to be the first his­tor­i­cal novel in English sold out in two days. A dis­grun­tled Jane Austen said he should stick to poetry, writ­ing: ‘Wal­ter Scott has no busi­ness to write nov­els, es­pe­cially good ones.’ Ma­te­rial for au­thors is in­fi­nite, as ex­em­pli­fied by Dame Hi­lary Man­tel’s global dom­i­na­tion fol­low­ing two bril­liant books on Thomas Cromwell—the TV rights for Wolf Hall have been sold to France, Ger­many, Swe­den, Den­mark, Fin-land, Aus­tralia and the USA, among other coun­tries, and Sir Mark Ry­lance, the mes­meris­ing ac­tor who played him, cat­a­pulted to star­dom.

The Six­teen

In 1979, Harry Christo­phers (sixth from

left), a for­mer lay vicar at Westminster Abbey, founded The Six­teen (with 16 friends), and, since then, his en­sem­ble has be­come a by­word for exquisite stan­dards of mag­i­cally blended, tech­ni­cally dex­ter­ous and emo­tive choral singing. The group has sung all over the world—it per­forms in a Bene­dic­tine abbey by the Danube this week—has made 140-plus record­ings, won nu­mer­ous awards and sup­ports young singers. It not only keeps our litur­gi­cal tra­di­tion and the works of Bri­tish com­posers, from Byrd to Brit­ten, alive over­seas, but also through an an­nual choral pil­grim­age of churches and cathe­drals at home.


It isn’t only ge­nius and per­sis­tence that are re­quired to take a gi­ant leap in the world of sci­ence—you also need self-pro­mo­tion. Peni­cillin is the revo­lu­tion­ary life­saver that al­most never was. Alexan­der Flem­ing (right) was no show­man and, ini­tially, his dis­cov­ery was ig­nored by his peers. It wasn’t un­til the Sec­ond World War that Amer­i­can sci­en­tists dis­cov­ered a means of mass-pro­duc­ing the drug, dra­mat­i­cally im­prov­ing sur­vival rates among mil­i­tary ca­su­al­ties.

The ski­ing hol­i­day

Ob­vi­ously, we didn’t in­vent ski­ing—it’s be­lieved that China beat Scan­di­navia on that one—but we were the first to get the hang of do­ing it as a win­ter hol­i­day, when Jo­hannes Badrutt, owner of the Kulm Ho­tel in St Moritz, Switzer­land, chal­lenged a group of English climbers to re­turn in the win­ter of 1864, per­suad­ing them the val­ley would be just as beau­ti­ful in snow. In 1903, Sir Henry Lunn sold the first ski pack­age hol­i­day, to Adel­bo­den in Switzer­land. Even though alpine slopes now echo with Rus­sian and South African ac­cents, and coun­tries from Ja­pan to Bul­garia mar­ket ski­ing trips, the idea of the chalet hol­i­day, in which hearty gap-year girls (and, some­times, boys) boil eggs, bake cakes and make your bed, has re­mained pe­cu­liarly Bri­tish.

The in­ter­net

What have we done? With­out an in­ter­net to search, Sergey Brin and Larry Page couldn’t have in­vented Google, the smart­phone wouldn’t have been smart (don’t for­get, we in­vented the real phone as well) and Mark Zucker­berg wouldn’t have had rea­son to drop out of Har­vard to start Face­book. How­ever, Sir Tim Bern­ers-lee, the self-ef­fac­ing English­man who cre­ated the World Wide Web, isn’t to be found strut­ting his stuff in Palo Alto or join­ing the gold rush for driver­less tech­nol­ogy: he’s en­gaged in work with the World Wide Web Foun­da­tion, which co-or­di­nates ef­forts to fur­ther his in­ven­tion’s po­ten­tial to ben­e­fit hu­man­ity—be­yond In­sta­gram, or­der­ing piz­zas and gen­eral show­ing-off.


It would be more ac­cu­rate to say that we started the fash­ion­able amuse­ment of whist (also known as tri­umph, trump, ruff, slam, ruff and hon­ours, whisk and swab­bers), a civilised Society pas­time ac­com­pa­nied by po­lite re­fresh­ment that even­tu­ally evolved into bridge. The Turks have been cred­ited with ac­tu­ally in­vent­ing bridge and it was Amer­i­can Henry Van­der­bilt who de­vel­oped the con­tract-bridge game we know to­day.

The stamp

In 1680, Wil­liam Dock­wra and Robert Mur­ray es­tab­lished the Lon­don Penny Post, a ‘stamped’, pre-paid mail-de­liv­ery sys­tem within the City of Lon­don. It must have been some­thing of a lux­ury—when the Penny Black was launched in 1840, it cov­ered de­liv­ery any­where in the Bri­tish Isles. The idea spread quickly; early adopters in­cluded the Swiss can­ton of Zurich and Brazil; seven years later, the first of­fi­cial Amer­i­can stamps were is­sued.

Af­ter­noon tea

Anna, Duchess of Bed­ford, a life­long friend of Queen Vic­to­ria, iden­ti­fied the yawn­ing gap be­tween lun­cheon and din­ner, com­plain­ing that it gave her a ‘sink­ing feel­ing’. His­tory doesn’t re­late whether this was pre­cip­i­tated by hunger or bore­dom, but her so­lu­tion was a soli­tary cup of Dar­jeel­ing and a light snack. She in­vited friends to join her and the phe­nom­e­non was born. Cor­nish clot­ted cream, an es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent of a sat­is­fy­ing tea and one of our great ex­ports, cur­rently has EU PDO sta­tus.

The flush­ing loo

El­iz­a­bethan courtier and poet Sir John Har­ring­ton in­stalled the first flush­ing WC at his house in Kel­ston, Som­er­set, but Bri­tish reluc­tance to ac­knowl­edge the ex­is­tence of bod­ily func­tions meant that it wasn’t un­til 250 years later—by which stage, Sir Joseph Bazal­gette had hand­ily de­signed Lon­don’s sewage sys­tem—that Thomas Crap­per, the son of a Chelsea plumber, pro­moted san­i­tary plumbing as an al­ter­na­tive to cham­ber pots. He was granted a Royal War­rant in the 1880s, when his firm in­stalled 30 flush­ing loos for Prince Ed­ward (later Ed­ward VII) at San­dring­ham. With his im­pri­matur came huge com­mer­cial success—a royal flush, you could say.

The sand­wich

Wher­ever you stand on the orig­i­na­tor of the sand­wich—some claim it was an an­cient Jewish sage, Hil­lel the El­der—there’s no doubt that John Mon­tagu, 4th Earl of Sand­wich did as much for this sim­ple gas­tro­nomic in­no­va­tion as the 1st Duke of Welling­ton did for wa­ter­proof footwear. Jug­gling his role as First Lord of the Ad­mi­ralty with wom­an­is­ing and gam­bling meant the Earl had to multi-task: eat­ing a piece of meat be­tween two slices of bread al­lowed him to re­fuel while play­ing cards and the habit took off.

The train

When the Bri­tish quelled their fears about high-speed travel, they recog­nised its in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties, not only as an op­por­tu­nity to whis­tle from Liver­pool to Manch­ester at the break­neck speed of 15 miles an hour, but as a work­horse of the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion. Over­seas, rail­ways brought pre­vi­ously in­ac­ces­si­ble ar­eas of Africa and In­dia within reach. More than two cen­turies af­ter Ge­orge Stephen­son de­signed his first Blucher, in 1814, the prin­ci­ple of glo­ri­ously un­tram­meled travel re­mains as at­trac­tive as ever. Some­what hu­mil­i­at­ingly, how­ever, it tends to work bet­ter in other coun­tries.

The Pony Club

It was started in 1929 as a branch of the In­sti­tute of the Horse, ‘for the pur­pose of in­ter­est­ing young peo­ple in rid­ing and sport’—good, clean, whole­some fun—the idea be­ing that each hunt had a branch. The an­nual Pony Club camp, of­ten with cav­alry of­fi­cers as in­struc­tors, was a mix of deadly se­ri­ous prepa­ra­tion for tests and op­por­tu­ni­ties for lark­ing around un­fet­tered by health and safety. Bri­tish mem­ber­ship peaked at 43,000 in the early 1980s (it’s now about 30,000) and there are some 15 clubs in Europe, plus more in Dubai, Canada, Hong Kong, Mex­ico, sev­eral East African coun­tries and Aus­tralia, which boasts some 55,000 mem­bers.

Board­ing schools

We might pride our­selves on cre­at­ing these aca­demic and sport­ing pow­er­houses, but, re­ally, they’re just an­other ex­am­ple of in­ven­tion borne out of ne­ces­sity. Ini­tially es­tab­lished to ed­u­cate pau­pers (Eton) and cho­ris­ters (King’s Rochester), they pro­lif­er­ated in the 19th cen­tury as handy repos­i­to­ries for chil­dren whose fa­thers had been posted to the four cor­ners of the Em­pire. De­spite left-wing re­sent­ment and the de­nun­ci­a­tion of those who loathed their school­days, their renown is spread­ing like the mar­garine pupils no longer have to eat; streams of for­eign cus­tomers are pre­pared to swap sky-high fees for ex­cel­lent ed­u­ca­tion. The Bri­tish pub­lic school has gone global: there’s a Har­row in Bangkok, a Hai­ley­bury in Kaza­khstan, a Marl­bor­ough in Malaysia and a Welling­ton Col­lege in Shang­hai.

Classy, fast horses

Rac­ing horses is noth­ing new—the An­cient Greeks en­joyed a day out the char­iot races —but it was Henry VIII and Charles I who ini­ti­ated dis­cern­ing horse breed­ing, James I who spot­ted New­mar­ket’s po­ten­tial, Charles II who over­turned Oliver Cromwell’s joy­less ban on the sport and Queen Anne who thought As­cot Heath suit­able for a race­course. Of course, the UK blood­stock in­dus­try now faces stiff com­pe­ti­tion, yet its legacy is as­tound­ing: DNA from the Dar­ley Ara­bian, one of three foun­da­tion Thor­ough­bred sires im­ported in the 18th cen­tury, can be found in 95% of race­horses to­day via the un­de­feated Eclipse (painted by Stubbs, left); the Grand Na­tional is watched by more than 600 mil­lion peo­ple; and 14 mil­lion-plus guineas, mainly from Qatari or Lux­em­bourg, cov­ered the three top lots alone at Tat­ter­salls’s Craven Breeze Up sale in April.

The tooth­brush

This sim­ple yet es­sen­tial item was cre­ated by a con­vict. Wil­liam Ad­dis, a rag trader, was in jail in the 1770s when, to re­lieve the te­dium—and, pre­sum­ably, the re­volt­ing­ness of his fel­low prison­ers’ breath—he saved a bone from a meal and wove bris­tles through it. On his re­lease, he set up what be­came Wis­dom Tooth­brushes Ltd; the com­pany, which re­mained in his fam­ily un­til 1996, is the UK’S largest tooth­brush man­u­fac­turer and ex­ports about one-third of its prod­ucts.

The white wed­ding

Wed­ding dresses could be red, blue, yel­low or even black be­fore Queen Vic­to­ria pre­cip­i­tated an al­most overnight change, fol­low­ing her mar­riage to Prince Al­bert on Fe­bru­ary 10, 1840 (right). The new nup­tial fash­ion wasn’t only about look­ing de­mure—be­fore the ad­vent of dry clean­ing, high-main­te­nance colours such as white were a sta­tus sym­bol, in­di­cat­ing that you could af­ford to pay some­one to scrub them.

The Scout move­ment

This year, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the world’s scout­ing fra­ter­nity will de­scend on Baku in Azer­bai­jan for the 41st World Scout Con­fer­ence. The move­ment was a global phe­nom­e­non from the word go; within months of Robert Baden­pow­ell pen­ning Scout­ing for

Boys in 1908 (sales of 150 mil­lion to date), troops spread around the world like wild­fire—or per­haps that should be camp­fire.

The lawn­mower

As the cra­dle of cricket, ten­nis par­ties and the fête, it was only nat­u­ral that we should cre­ate a ma­chine to pro­duce car­pet-like green swards on which ev­ery blade of grass is trimmed to within an inch of its life and ev­ery un­for­tu­nate daisy done away with. How­ever, it was the Amer­i­cans who re­ally ran with the idea—or, rather, sat on it: they cre­ated the hy­brid with a trac­tor on which you can rest your pos­te­rior while en­joy­ing a beer from the thought­fully po­si­tioned drinks holder. Un­til 1847, choco­late was only con­sumed in liq­uid form. Then, J. S. Fry & Sons de­cided to mix co­coa pow­der with co­coa but­ter and su­gar and the rest is his­tory. Apart from the very ex­pen­sive Swiss or Bel­gian stuff, no­body does it bet­ter than us, still.


The French in­vented the but­ler, the Amer­i­cans mod­ernised him and the Swiss claim to have the best ones, but the im­age of the but­ler as an un­ruf­fled, if slightly smug, PA who al­ways knows the an­swer and smoothly ex­tracts his hap­less em­ployer from scrapes is down to P. G. Wode­house’s cre­ation. Why else would an in­ter­na­tional prob­lem-solv­ing web­site be known as Ask Jeeves?

The bar of choco­late


You’d think that tweed, which was orig­i­nally in­tended to pro­tect crofters against in­clement High­land weather, might be a tad warm for Mediter­ranean climes, how­ever, not only did Coco Chanel, who had bor­rowed a jacket from her ad­mirer, the Duke of Westminster, re­alise its po­ten­tial for chic, but less hairy ver­sions are prov­ing ex­tremely pop­u­lar with aris­to­cratic South­ern Euro­peans, the sort of peo­ple who, an­noy­ingly, never seem to per­spire. Only this spring, Har­ris Tweed He­brides, which ex­ports two-thirds of its prod­ucts into 66 coun­tries, has an­nounced plans to ex­pand into Spain, where the el­e­gant King has been a great ad­ver­tise­ment for the ma­te­rial.

The Bea­tles

It’s a strange phe­nom­e­non that, wher­ever you are in the world, the mu­sic blar­ing from the taxi ra­dio will have English lyrics. The Fab Four were a firm fix­ture in Ham­burg’s In­dra and Kais­erkeller clubs long be­fore they ap­peared at the Cav­ern Club in Liver­pool, their reach un­hin­dered by the fact that the lyrics to Love Me Do and She

Loves You would have been lost on many of the fans flock­ing to gigs in Tokyo and the Philip­pines (where the lads caused a furore by snub­bing Imelda Mar­cos). With record sales of 600 mil­lion, they be­came the first rock band to achieve world­wide ap­peal. Their se­cret? Do­ing what the Bri­tish do so well: art­fully ab­sorb­ing in­flu­ences from other cul­tures.

The de­part­ment store

As a na­tion of shop­keep­ers, it’s per­haps in­evitable that we should have given birth to what is be­lieved to be the world’s first de­part­ment store: Ben­netts, a in­sti­tu­tion in Derby that opened its doors in 1734 and which still trades to­day. With the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, bazaars and de­part­ment stores be­came a way of life. And when we aren’t fill­ing our bas­kets, we like noth­ing bet­ter than to in­dulge our re­tail fan­tasies on tele­vi­sion, from Are You Be­ing Served? to Open All Hours.

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