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Witness History


History as told by the people who were there.

History as told by the people who were there.


United Kingdom




History as told by the people who were there.




BBC World Service Bush House Strand London WC2B 4PH


The fight for disabled rights in the UK

The UK government passed the landmark Disability Discrimination Act in November 1995. The legislation made it illegal for employers or service providers to discriminate against disabled people. Campaigners brought London to a standstill in the run up to the passing of the Act. Baroness Jane Campbell was at the forefront of that fight for equality and remembers the time when disabled people seized control of their destiny. Photo: A disabled woman on her mobility scooter is carried away by...


Rwanda at the Paralympics

In 2012, the Rwandan sitting volleyball team became the first Paralympians from their country. The sport began in Rwanda after thousands of people were mutilated during the genocide of 1994, and there were emotional scenes in London when the Rwandan side eventually won a match. Bob Nicholson talks to Rwanda’s captain, Emile Vuningabo, and the side’s Dutch coach, Peter Karreman. The programme is a Whistledown Production. PHOTO: The Rwandan team blocking a shot at the 2012 Paralympics (Getty...


India's campaign for disability rights

In December 1995, the first disability rights legislation was passed by India's parliament. An estimated 60 million people, almost six percent of India's population, are affected by physical or mental disabilities. Farhana Haider spoke to Javed Abidi who led the campaign to change the law. Photo: Disability rights campaigners protest in Delhi, December 19th 1995. (Credit: Javed Abidi)


Britain's little blue disability car

For decades disabled people in the UK were offered tiny, three-wheeled, turquoise cars as their main form of transport. They were known as Invacars and they were provided, free of charge, to people who couldn't use ordinary vehicles. They were phased out in the 1970s because they were accident-prone and people were given grants to adapt conventional cars instead. Daniel Gordon has been hearing from Colin Powell, who was issued with his first Invacar at the age of 16. Photo: an Invacar....


Helen Keller

Helen Keller was born in Alabama in the USA in 1880. A childhood illness left her deaf and blind, but she still learned to speak and read and write. She wrote several books, graduated from college, and met 12 US presidents. By the end of her life she was famous around the world. Lucy Burns spoke to her great-niece, Adair Faust for Witness History. This programme is a rebroadcast. (Photo: Helen Adams Keller (1880-1968). Credit: Hulton Archive)


When the Egyptian president went to Israel

In 1977, Anwar Sadat became the first Egyptian president to visit Israel and address the Israeli parliament the Knesset. At the time, Egypt was still formally at war with Israel - a country which no Arab nation then recognised. Sadat's visit led to a formal peace treaty between the two countries. Louise Hidalgo spoke to the Egyptian cameraman, Mohamed Gohar who knew Sadat. PHOTO: Sadat addressing the Knesset (AFP/Getty Images)


Our Bodies, Ourselves

Some have described Our Bodies, Ourselves as “obscene trash” – for others it’s a vital source of information about women’s health and sexuality. First published in 1973, this radical, and sometimes controversial, book has become a best-seller and a global phenomenon. Josephine Casserly talks to one of the authors, Joan Ditzion.


America's WW2 refugee camp

In August 1944 President Franklin D Roosevelt agreed to allow nearly one thousand Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe to come to America. They were allowed entry only as "guests", so as not to breach strict US immigration quotas in place during the whole of WW2. The refugees, who arrived on a troop ship from Italy, were housed in a former military barracks, Fort Ontario, near the city of Oswego in upper state New York. For those who'd recently been imprisoned in Nazi concentration...


The world's first woman premier

Sirimavo Bandaranaike was elected the modern world's first female head of government in 1960 when she became Prime Minister of Sri Lanka or Ceylon as it was known then. She entered politics after the assassination of her husband Solomon Bandrainaike in 1959. Farhana Haider has been speaking to her daughter Sunethra Bandaranaike about her mother's remarkable political achievement. Photo Sirimavo Bandaranaike the Prime Minister of Ceylon (later Sri Lanka), 1960. Credit Keystone/Hulton...


Captured by Somali pirates

In 2008, Captain Colin Darch and his crew were taking a tug boat from Russia to Singapore when they were attacked by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. They were held hostage for 47 days. In the late 2000s, Somali piracy was starting to become a major threat in the Indian Ocean. Over the next few years there were hundreds of attacks a year until naval forces from around the world deployed to the Gulf of Aden to protect shipping. Alex Last has been talking to Captain Colin Darch about his...


The 'good enough' mother

Psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott helped shape childcare in Britain through a series of BBC radio broadcasts in the 1940s and 50s. He suggested mothers did best when they followed their instincts, got to know their babies and ignored prescribed rules. He became most famous for developing the idea of what he called ‘the good-enough mother’. He also introduced the term 'transitional object' to describe the favourite teddy that babies cling to, He suggested it represented an...


When Pluto lost its planet status

An international committee of astronomers agreed Pluto wasn't really a planet in 2006. They reclassified it as a 'dwarf planet' instead. The decision was made after Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology identified a larger body, Eris, in the Kuiper Belt. He has been telling Bethan Head about his discovery and the public outcry that followed. Photo: Dwarf planet Pluto Credit: DottedHippo /Getty Images


World War One in Africa

At the start of World War One, British and German colonial forces went into battle in East Africa. Tens of thousands of African troops and up to a million porters were conscripted to fight and keep the armies supplied. We hear very rare recordings of Kenyan veterans of the King's African Rifles, talking about their experiences of the war. The interviews were made in Kenya in the early 1980s by Gerald Rilling with the help of Paul Kiamba. Photo: Locally recruited troops under German command...


Makaton - the signing system that changes lives

In the 1970s, British speech therapist Margaret Walker invented a revolutionary system of communication for children and adults with special needs. Makaton uses simple signs to reinforce spoken speech and make it easier for people with learning difficulties to understand the meaning. Makaton is now used by millions of people in around 40 countries around the world; it helps everyone from children with Down’s Syndrome to pensioners with dementia. Margaret Walker talks to Simon Watts. PHOTO: A...


The Guerrilla Girls

In 1985, a group of anonymous female artists in New York began dressing up with gorilla masks on their heads and putting up fly-posters around the city's museums and galleries. It was part of a campaign to demand greater representation for women and ethnic minorities in the art world. The guerrilla girls' campaign later went international. Laura Fitzpatrick has been talking to the activists known as "Frida Kahlo" and "Kathe Kollowitz". PHOTO: Some of the Guerrilla Girls in 1990 (Getty Images)


The church that rose from the rubble

In 2005 Dresden’s Lutheran church, the Frauenkirche, opened its doors to the public for the first time in 60 years. The Frauenkirche in the East German city of Dresden was destroyed in 1945 by British and American bombing. The church remained in ruins for over 40 years. Then, in 1993, a painstaking project began to piece the church back together and restore it to its former glory. Josephine Casserly talks to Thomas Gottschlich who was one of the architects leading the reconstruction. Ruins...


The 1945 Pan-African Congress

The 5th Pan-African Congress was held in Manchester in 1945 to shape the post-war struggle against colonialism and racial discrimination. Prominent black activists, intellectuals and trade union leaders from around the world attended the meeting - among them Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, the future leaders of independent Ghana and Kenya. We delve into the archive to hear from one of the delegates, the late ANC activist and writer Peter Abrahams, and we speak to the historian Prof Hakim...


The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin

On November 4th 1995 the Israeli rock star Aviv Geffen sang at a peace rally in Tel Aviv alongside Israel's leader Yitzhak Rabin. Moments later the Prime Minister was shot. Aviv Geffen spoke to Louise Hidalgo about that night, and its effect on his life. This programme was first broadcast in 2010. Photo: Yitzhak Rabin in 1993. Credit: Getty Images.


'I just wanted to be white'

In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, thousands of children were born to white German women and black American soldiers who were stationed in Allied-occupied Germany. The mixed-race infants were viewed with contempt by many Germans and endured constant abuse and racism. Black activist and author Ika Hügel-Marshall was one of the so-called "occupation babies". She tells Mike Lanchin about the painful struggle to discover her own identity as a result of the racism she experienced...


The sex musical that wowed New York and London

In 1969, a theatrical revue called Oh Calcutta opened in New York featuring extensive male and female nudity. Created by renowned critic Kenneth Tynan, a London version followed the next year and the show ran in both cities for thousands of performances. Vincent Dowd talks to Margo Sappington and Linda Marlowe, two members of the original cast. PHOTO: The Oh Calcutta cast from the New York Production in 1981 (Ron Galella/Getty Images)