In 2002 the BBC ran a poll to determine who the public considered to the the greatest British people of all time. It was broadcast as a TV programme and you can see the full list at 100 Greatest Britons.
It 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.
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
My list is dominated by physicians, scientists and Victorians. That reflects Britain's remarkable influence in Science and the great achievements of the Victorian age.