Posts about topics of interest to me, including reviews of other writing, and occasional contributions from guests.

Fake News

In recent times, fake news has been a headline grabber, but questions about the accuracy of any item of news go back many decades. The Victorians had their own way of dealing with people who tried to profit from falsehood.

On 8th February 1886,The Times reported that a mass meeting of the unemployed had been organised by the East London Labour Union and held at Hackney Downs. Although life was hard for workers and unrest was often in the news, no other paper mentioned this gathering.

The Times received its report from 22 year-old Charles William Oldham. He made a living as a 'liner', supplying stories to the many newspapers that would pay a small fee for original copy. It seems to have been normal practice amongst freelance journalists to use multiple names. This would have helped a contributor to supply more than one paper with the same story. Oldham called himself Hill, Lynch and Darrell when it suited him, writing pieces about unemployment, railways and the unrest in Ireland.

Although the telegraph system was well-established by 1886, it was not straightforward for an editor to corroborate tip-offs and they had to take freelance submissions on trust. Usually they only paid the liner several days after publication, to enable anyone who wanted to dispute a report to do so. No-one challenged the account of the meeting at Hackney Downs and Oldham received 4s 2d (approx 22p) for it.

The Times only realised that it had been duped into printing fictitious news a month later. It is not clear why the fraud came to light, other than perhaps that Oldham had been emboldened by success and tried the trick too often. In the first week of July, the young man made headlines in a less welcome manner when he was tried at the Old Bailey for obtaining money by false pretences and attempting to obtain other sums. Although the jury convicted him, they recommended mercy because of his youth, but to no avail. He was sentenced to six months in prison with hard labour.

The previous defendant in the dock was Charles Fowler, a 34 year-old journalist who was accused of trying to defraud to The Press Association. Its role was to receive news stories and tip-offs and pass on interesting ones to the newspapers. Fowler had been regarded with suspicion by The Press Association for some time for submitting copy that was incorrect, highly coloured or fictitious, and the association was unwilling to deal with him. Fowler appears to have responded by adopting the aliases Mortimer and Harrison, when he sent details of other sensational news, including the attempted murder of a sweetheart and the attempted murder of a wife. When he went to the association's offices to collect contributor fees due to them he was recognised and payment was refused. Fowler was caught when a policeman spotted him writing a report in the Fleet Street Postal and Telegraph office. The detective trailed him to the offices of the Morning Post where he delivered an account of a ferocious, though fictitious, fire in an Essex warehouse.

The jury acquitted Fowler. His shrewd barrister pointed out that the false reports had been submitted by Mortimer and Harrison and that Fowler had merely tried to collect their fees. He also argued that writing a report that was never published could not be construed as fraud. If Fowler stayed in court to hear the sentence of Charles Oldham he might have considered that he himself had had a very fortunate escape.

For connoisseurs of crime, these trials show that devious people have always found ingenious methods of diverting someone else's money into their own pocket. For historians, they act as a salutary reminder to corroborate evidence, rather than uncritically accepting any piece of writing at face value.

1st February 2020

A New Perspective

Old newspapers are special. For a history undergraduate, with a weekly essay to research and write, it was impractical to locate pithy detail on microfilm to supplement a long, recommended reading list of standard texts. Without the ability to conduct wide-ranging searches quickly, it was impossible to know whether a forgotten snippet that seemed to debunk received wisdoms was one of many similar examples, or the exception that proved the rule.

After decades of pursuing other paths, I returned to researching history in 2010. With digitised newspapers now available to access from home, a new version of the past stepped out of the shadows, a version which challenged accepted, if not cherished beliefs. Awkward matters, which may have been sanitised as ugly rumour, lies or unrepresentative practices, were far from exceptional, and pose some very difficult questions about the values which have prevailed in the last three centuries.

As I grew up, I was sometimes told by older and wiser heads, that ‘you can’t believe everything you read in the papers.’ Absolutely true, false news has often found an outlet, but with several years experience of newspaper research to draw on, it is equally the case that you can’t believe everything that has been transmitted through the text books or history syllabuses either.

Perhaps more surprising was the power of the news to influence public opinion. Extending my research about breach of promise to marry, (which many newspaper editors portrayed as an abuse of the law by undeserving women) I found a fascinating link between the damages awarded at times when the claim was being scrutinised in Parliament and those when the perceived abuses were not being so prominently reported. When the matter was in the public eye, the damages awarded by juries fell markedly, if temporarily.

So take the challenge. Look at some newspapers from other times and then consider, whether your opinions are still exactly the same.

4th March 2018

Lest We Forget

I recently decided to focus on the Great War and the men of Jarratts Buildings, Worsborough Dale who lost their lives in that carnage. As well as the page that will be posted on this website, I intend to pay tribute to any of these men whose family or friends have not commemorated them at the everyman remembered website. This is a website which aims to ensure that, a century later, every fallen soldier has someone to remember them.

I had already researched and posted the story of Roland Cope and wondered whether his decision to volunteer for service in 1914 was influenced by the deaths of his father and elder brother in separate mining accidents. I have also wondered, whether, as Roland lay dying of wounds in a military hospital, he reflected on death in a coal mine versus death in combat.

I knew that only one of Roland's siblings had survived to adulthood and had children. As I suspected, Roland was one of the many men whose life had not yet been commemorated. I was honoured to be able to do so, and to add some detail of his life and family from my research. I felt that it had helped to make him a person, rather than a forgotten name (or in this case a set of initials).

It then occurred to me that there will be other researchers or writers who, in the course of investigating possibly unrelated subjects, have come across information about other fallen soldiers who have been forgotten over time. This blog is an appeal to fellow historians, researchers and writers to join me in checking the notes you have made and, if a man has not been commemorated at the everyman remembered website to become the person who does so. These men gave their lives. All it takes from us is a short period of our time.

10th April 2016


It is sad to see charities making the headlines for the wrong reasons. I have a background in the voluntary sector and have sometimes heard 'it's for charity' marshalled to exonerate inadequacy. If different standards apply to a charity, as this sentiment implies, they must be high ones, not excuses for things not being up to scratch.

Sustainability has been the buzz word for over a decade, with hard-pressed funders arguing that a charity should generate income to fund its work and not depend on grants from third parties. This is a good approach. When a charity becomes dependent on a funder, ambitions to campaign can be neutered by the risk of biting the hand that feeds it.

But where does enough sustainable income come from? A commercial approach does not necessarily sit well with the popular notion of a charity being selfless and public-spirited. Some charities have a genuinely saleable product that users expect to pay for. Think heritage for example, and entrance fees charged to visit a property. Other charities cannot convert their offering, however valuable to society or the service user, into an adequate monetary income stream. Those which support a needy user on a low income are a case in point. A contribution may be raised but full cost recovery is an unattainable aspiration.

Services can be delivered under contract, but the commissioner names the price, and writes the eligibility criteria and service specification. Grant-givers have priorities and funding may be time-limited. A charity whose work does not meet the criteria of the grant-giver may leave with nothing, even if there is unallocated money.

Running a charity shop is only feasible if the takings cover the costs of rent, heating, lighting, health and safety and insurance and there is a good supply of volunteers and donated goods to sell. Collecting boxes bring in coins but not many of them at times when the populace is feeling the pinch. In any case voluntary donations are not limitless and a high profile campaign for one charity may generate large sums at the expense of other good causes.

With a seemingly insatiable requirement for money, charities cannot expect a blank cheque and some charity work seems more about wish than need. With the best of intentions, a charity might take on a workload it cannot realistically carry. It may be that too many good causes are competing for income. There may be duplication and unwise expenditure that wastes money.

With the charity world in the spotlight, a reasoned debate is needed about the role of charity in modern times, and how it should be paid for. Charities cannot rely on the 'it's for charity' mantra to deflect criticism, but when highlighting actual or perceived abuses it is essential not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. When the spotlight moves elsewhere, functional organisations to help those in need must remain. The alternative, for some needy people to have nowhere to turn to, is unthinkable.

7th February 2016

The Real Sherlock Holmes

Was the character of Sherlock Holmes a work of fiction? Angela Buckley's recent biography of Victorian detective Jerome Caminada has fuelled the debate, adding the exploits of the eminent Manchester policeman to those of Joseph Bell and Henry Littlejohn as a potential inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's private investigator.

Whether or not there was an actual model for the sleuth, the stories in which he featured indisputably left their mark on a few boys who were born between 1897-1915 into families surnamed Holmes. On eight occasions a son was registered at birth as Sherlock. One Yorkshire miner and his wife must have been particularly captivated by Conan Doyle's stories as their next-born son was named Mycroft, after the fictional Sherlock's fictional brother.

Despite a name that might have marked them out for attention there is not much evidence about their future lives. One Sherlock died within weeks of his birth. At least two others served in the Great War and at least four married, as did Mycroft. Four Sherlock's died in adulthood.

Very occasionally Sherlock Holmes featured in the newspapers in situations where a different man's minor deviations from the law might not have been noted. Derby Police Court was treated to the spectacle of Sherlock Holmes being hauled into court by the Chief Constable to face charges of being drunk on the London Road. A young miner appeared and was fined 5 shillings (25p) for the offence. A Southampton driver was fined £1 for speeding in a lorry.

It is impossible to say whether an individual Sherlock Holmes was embarrassed or amused by his novel name, or simply took it in his stride. A century later and with interest in the fictional sleuth as strong as ever, the idiosyncratic moniker helps to reveal the impact of Conan Doyle's stories on a few of the very early readers.

14th October 2015

Fiction and Fact

One mark of an excellent book is that it reveals more with every reading. As a young teenager I decided that L P Hartley's The Go-Between was one of the best summer novels I was ever likely to read. My opinion has never wavered and many readings later I still find something new.

"I have since had the curiosity to check my figures by the official records, and found them not far out," commented the adult narrator about the unofficial temperatures he had noted in his youthful diary during the heatwave of July 1900. The comment had never struck me as remarkable until my latest re-reading. It was simply a way of showing how the dry life of facts had consumed Leo Colston's adult existence.

I lingered over the comment this time because I'm also a fan of on-line newspapers which are now making it possible to visit the past in perhaps unexpected ways. Wondering if the words might have more significance than character illustration, I extracted the highest daily temperature from newspapers for 9th - 27th July, the nineteen days of the young Leo's fateful stay in Norfolk which scarred his future. Comparing these with the figures in the childhood diary, the skill of Hartley's plotting soared to a new level. The fictional events were firmly aligned to the actual weather of those nineteen days.

The novel and the relationships portrayed within it, derive their intensity from the weather. Twelve year old Leo travelled unsuspectingly from London to Norfolk in moderate temperatures. Whilst the county became bathed in a scorching heat, Leo gradually realised that his host's daughter Marion, the wife-to-be of an aristocrat, was involved in an illicit relationship with a local lady's man; a farmer whose social standing was far below her own. As the story unfolds, the fluctuations in temperature parallel their the doomed affair and Leo's growing dismay at the way he has become entangled in it. On the day the heat finally broke, rain, thunder and lightning formed the backdrop of the tragic denouement from which no-one emerged unscathed.

Fiction writers often ask the reader to suspend their disbelief about an improbable plot. Hartley mastered his craft and wove a believable story into a real English summer. The skill of his narrative in marrying truth with imagination adds yet another superlative to a much-treasured novel.

21st July 2015

Changing Times

One of my favourite resources is the British Newspaper Archive, but I'm frequently horrified at the response to anecdotes from more than a century ago. Stories containing bizzare incidents which led to an agonising death are apt to raise a laugh or smile as a first response. Surprisingly, many people focus on the situation rather than the pain another person suffered. I now challenge these reactions with a modern analogy. What is the difference between a child being killed by a load of vegetables tipping off a handcart and a box flying off a moving delivery van in the street and hitting someone?

A few readers of Breach of Promise to Marry have commented that Edgar Holland deserved everything he got. Well, no. Holland deserved his comeuppance for the cynical way he jilted Catherine Kempshall but that does not justify her settling her grievances with a bullet.

Times change beyond recognition but if we forget that the past is about the experiences of real people, then the point of studying history is lost. Or are we in the twenty-first century still prepared to laugh however inappropriately at the pain of others?

22nd February 2015

Food for thought?

I recently took a friend to an activity centre to recuperate from a health issue. Whilst she completed a prescribed exercise session I sat in the waiting area surrounded by a bewildering range of machines selling bubble gum, crunchy candy, flavoured chews, candy shelled chocolate eggs, chocolate discs, gobstoppers, various types of coffee, chocolate and tea. The drinks machine stressed that it used only fat free milk, but was silent on the nutritional sachets of sugar it housed.

As I sat an unappetising cheesy, chilli, smoky bacon aroma wafted in the air. I traced the source to other vending machines where a range of crisps vied with a dozen varieties of chocolate bar, and rows of fizzy, sugary drinks that almost masked a few bottles of water.

The mixed messages shocked me. Is the profit from vending products that can contribute to poor health worth it? Should a facility that tries hard to assist people to overcome their individual health issues exercise restraint about what is sold on its premises? Food for thought?

22nd August 2014

Ten out of Ten?

Records from a school that my family members attended have recently been passed to an archive and are being made available to researchers (with appropriate data protection restrictions for anyone still living). I'm as keen on primary source material as anyone, but is it justifiable to preserve some details? I recall breathing a huge sign of relief some years after graduating when my own school reports were taken from the box where they had lovingly been stored and consigned to the flames. Out-of-context termly grades and end of year exam marks have no on-going relevance.

There are times when I read someone's published childhood memoirs, feeling uncomfortable about the foibles of identified persons which have been included. They might seem trivial points but these people have no right of reply. Likewise, comments in school reports, medical records and such like are sometimes opinion rather than fact.

The balance is between what illuminates the past and what does not. Is my interest in my Pit Lasses and my real Miss Havishams proper justification for trying to find as much out about them as possible? I don't know the answer, but that's no reason for not considering the question.

23rd May 2014

Too much too soon?

The year so far has already produced a glut of television programmes, books and articles about the First World War, even though we are still months away from that ominous shot in Sarajevo in June 1914. So far I've enjoyed the high-quality output. New insights inevitably arise when analysis of an event ceases to be provided by those who experienced it, or a next generation or two who might have grown up with received perceptions from their elders.

Can the cracking pace that is now been set be sustained for the next four and a half years? I can't help thinking of the shops which stock Christmas cards in August and pull their lovely seasonal displays apart on Christmas Eve to be ready for the sales, the next big event. We will do disservice to those who gave their lives or health in this conflict if the rush to be first means that their story runs out of steam or that intertia, indifference, or even cynicism develops amongst viewers and readers.

27th February 2014


Historians sometimes find themselves rescuing a forgotten part of the past from oblivion. A recent invitation to the Hulme Playhouse Theatre in Manchester highlighted the work of volunteers in preventing valuable aspects of the past from disappearing. Projects developed by enthusiasts often reveal aspects of society that will not necessarily be obvious from official records and a steely determination by those involved to preserve a slice of life they feel is important.

For a few hours on Saturday 30th November, the Hulme Playhouse again played host to the BBC's Northern Dance Orchestra, affectionately known as the NDO. The distinctive sound of the NDO featured regularly on BBC radio and television in the mid-twentieth century.

A couple of years ago a former BBC staff member decided that the orchestra and its music could not be allowed to disappear. His voluntary project to collect and preserve memories of the band and its recordings has led to the release of several CDs and generated money for charity.

At this informal tribute to the NDO was a volunteer with another project, to preserve an old BBC outside broadcast vehicle in working order. The vehicle attends public events and is proving a hit with visitors, fascinated to discover twentieth century techniques for bringing radio and television programmes to the airwaves.

As new tastes and technologies displace older ones, it is not always possible to identify what ought to be preserved until it's too late. Enthusiasts and volunteers who identify a slice of history and save it for the future deserve our thanks for their commitment and foresight.

2nd December 2013

It's a fact (or is it?)

george sanger
George Sanger

Whilst researching Pit Lasses, I rediscovered the account of a gingerbread vendor who was kicked to death at Stalybridge Wakes in 1850. This incident remains familiar to historians as it was discussed by two eminent academics. George Kitson Clark recounted the story in 1960. The following year, Edward Carr referred to it in his book, What is History? as he analysed why some facts pass into history and others fade into oblivion.

Kitson Clark found the account of the Stalybridge Wakes murder in the memoirs of circus proprietor George Sanger. These were originally published in 1910. In the 1980s, a Stalybridge historian tried to flesh out the detail, but found nothing to corroborate the incident, despite an extensive search. Digitisation of records now provides improved tools and I decided to see what a new search might reveal. Thinking it possible that Sanger had mistaken place or time I hoped to find the incident elsewhere, but, like the earlier researcher, I also drew a blank.

Whether the old showman was muddled in his recollections, or simply decided not let the truth stand in the way of a good story, one thing is clear. Until some corroborative evidence of Sander's account becomes available, the murder at Stalybridge Wakes in 1850 can no longer be considered a historical fact.

14th October 2013