Top 21 British Icons: Ranking of the Greatest Britons of All Time

Top 21 British Icons: Ranking of the Greatest Britons of All Time

Paul Sloane 20/10/2023
Top 21 British Icons: Ranking of the Greatest Britons of All Time

Winston Churchill is the greatest Briton of all time, ahead of Darwin, Shakespeare, Diana, Elizabeth I, Newton, and Nightingale.

Many British icons, including Stephen Hawking and Horatio Nelson, have earned international acclaim for their remarkable accomplishments. From the Beatles to Charlie Chaplin, British icons in the world of entertainment have garnered global recognition. The works of British icons like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens continue to be celebrated for their literary brilliance.

In 2002 the BBC ran a poll to determine who the public considered to be the greatest British people of all time. It was broadcast as a TV programme.

Each of these British icons has left an indelible mark on history and contributed to the cultural, scientific, and social tapestry of the world. Their legacies continue to inspire and shape our understanding of the past and present.

The list includes some odd nominations including the engineer Brunel at #2 (voted for by the students at Brunel University), Diana, Princess of Wales at #3 and the actor Michael Crawford at #17. British icons like Sir Winston Churchill and William Shakespeare have made enduring contributions to history and culture.

Here is my list of the top 21 Britons based on their contributions to the world. Feel free to disagree.

1. Sir Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965). Few people realise how close the UK came in 1940 to agreeing terms with Nazi Germany - it would have been a form of surrender. The personal intervention and actions of Churchill led Parliament to vote to continue the fight. Britain stood alone. Russia was allied with the Germans and the USA was a determined isolationist. Churchill led the fight against overwhelming odds and Britain survived. Eventually the Allies won. If not for Churchill it is very likely that Hitler would have triumphed and a very different and malevolent world would have been the result. 

2. Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882). Naturalist and scientist who introduced the theory of evolution by natural selection. It revolutionised our understanding of the world.

3. Sir Isaac Newton (1642 - 1727). Mathematician and scientist who originated the law of gravitational attraction and the laws of motion which were the basis for understanding of physics and mechanics. His laws together with his mathematical discoveries laid the foundation for the development of technology and the industrial revolution.

4. Edward Jenner (1749 - 1823). English country doctor who pioneered the smallpox vaccine and led the campaign for mass vaccination. As a result smallpox was eradicated. It is said that his work saved the lives of more people than the work of any other human.

5. William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616). He is recognised as the greatest and most creative writer in the English language and one of the most influential poets and playwrights worldwide.

6. Sir Alexander Fleming (1881 - 1955). The Scottish bacteriologist who discovered penicillin and ushered in antibiotics which saved millions of lives.

7. James Clerk Maxwell (1831 - 18759). Physicist and mathematician whose ground-breaking equations defined and unified magnetism, electricity and light.

8. William Wilberforce (1759 -1833). Politician, philanthropist and activist who was the leader of the movement to end slavery. His actions led Britain to become the first major power to abolish slavery in 1833.

9. Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (1769 - 1852). Statesman and Britain's greatest general. He fought a brilliant campaign in the Peninsular War and then led the Allied forces which defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 and brought an era of peace and stability to Europe.

10. Thomas Paine (1737 -1809). Philosopher, revolutionary and the author of Common Sense and the Rights of Man. His ideas and pamphlets were highly influential in the American and French Revolutions and in the concepts of human rights and democracy.

Ranks 11 to 21 for me would be:

11. Joseph Lister

12. Florence Nightingale

13. Alexander Graham Bell

14. James Watt

15. Stephen Hawking

16. John Lennon

17. Horatio Nelson

18. Charles Dickens

19. George Stephenson

20. Jane Austen

21. Charlie Chaplin

This list is dominated by physicians, scientists and Victorians, which reflects Britain's remarkable influence in science and the great achievements of the Victorian age.

British icons are celebrated not only for their individual achievements but also for their collective impact on society. The legacies of British icons serve as a source of inspiration and pride for people around the world.

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Paul Sloane

Innovation Expert

Paul is a professional keynote conference speaker and expert facilitator on innovation and lateral thinking. He helps companies improve idea generation and creative leadership. His workshops transform innovation leadership skills and generate great ideas for business issues. His recent clients include Airbus, Microsoft, Unilever, Nike, Novartis and Swarovski. He has published 30 books on lateral thinking puzzles, innovation, leadership and problem solving (with over 2 million copies sold). He also acts as link presenter at conferences and facilitator at high level meetings such as a corporate advisory board. He has acted as host or MC at Awards Dinners. Previously, he was CEO of Monactive, VP International of MathSoft and UK MD of Ashton-Tate. He recently launched a series of podcast interviews entitled Insights from Successful People.

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