What was happening the last time we had a December election?

The last time the UK interrupted their Christmas shopping to cast their vote in December was almost 100 years ago, on 6 December 1923.

The country’s news was full of political to-ing and fro-ing in the run up to the election (much like today), but what else was happening around the world?

The Boy King

In November 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter stood in awe at the door of the crypt he’d been searching for his entire career: that of the Ancient Egyptian boy king, Tutankhamun.

Carter first arrived in Egypt in 1891, and spent the next 30-odd years searching for King Tut’s elusive tomb, but the discovery (that he apparently almost missed) was only the beginning.

Howard Carter in Egypt March 1923

In the days before the UK’s 1923 general election, The Times reported that Howard Carter and the team were starting to remove statues and shrines to be brought to labs and studied. They also successfully, and very, very delicately, removed partitions between the different rooms to make them more accessible to archaeologists. No word on whether he used a proxy or postal vote, though.

The King of Bootleggers

December 1923 saw another king hit the headlines - the so called King of Bootlegging in New York. From 1920 to 1933, in America, there was nationwide ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol, known as Prohibition. Because alcohol had been legal before the law, and was very popular, it was a very difficult ban to enforce, and led to a lot of organised crime.

Emanuel Kessler was someone who got involved in such criminal activities. He was convicted for multiple offences along with ten other accomplices, and received a 10-year prison sentence and $10,000 fine. At the time this was a big surprise, as not many people were successfully sent to jail after breaking prohibition laws. Kessler and the rest of the gang had made a concerted effort to avoid the ruling too - the government lawyer who prosecuted them, Major John Holley Clark Jr, was reported in the New York Times as having been offered a $100,000 bribe from “a lawyer friend” to throw the case. Clearly, he did not accept it.

Despite this landmark conviction, the US government faced a huge amount of difficulties as a result of the prohibition laws, and they were eventually repealed in 1933.

Mount Vesuvius erupts

Mount Vesuvius, which looms over the southern Italian city of Naples, is consistently described as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. And no wonder - in AD 79, an eruption from it buried the ancient city of Pompeii, and everyone who lived there.

Vesuvius as seen from Sorrento

And it’s still active to this day. Between 1913 and 1944 in fact, the volcano was erupting on and off, and on 3 December 1923, right before the election in the UK, one of these eruptions was recorded in The Times.

The lava stream from the central cone of the volcano, which was “enveloped in thick mist”, was estimated to be 30-feet deep, and apparently “a bright glow was visible for miles around”. Fortunately, as far as The Times correspondent reported, no one was hurt, nor was there any damage.

President Calvin Coolidge

The Union on the airwaves

The State of the Union is an annual tradition in the USA, where the President will typically deliver a speech on the shape of things like the economy in the country. On the same day as the UK was going to the polls, the US experienced a particularly special State of the Union - it was the first time it had ever been broadcast on the radio.

President Coolidge’s landmark speech had actually been delayed by a couple of days. The two houses of American government couldn’t decide on a speaker, and because the speaker has to formally invite the President to make the speech, it couldn’t take place until someone was in position.

John Reith, the BBC’s Director General in 1923

Is there anybody out there?

And it wasn’t the only big moment in radio history that took place that month. A big test took place to establish international radio connections between the UK and the USA. Whilst the state of the union delivery was a huge success, this test… wasn’t.

An attempt was made by the BBC (when it was still the British Broadcasting Company) and American broadcasters to try and have a conversation over the radio. The British could be heard in New York and Boston, but the American messages were far from clear. The reception was reportedly due to bad weather or “atmospherics” as The Times put it, and “should in no way be attributed either to American or British engineers”.

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