The Newsroom blog

News about yesterday's news, and where news may be going

Introduction

Whether you are studying history, politics, society, international relations, economics, media history, sports history or family history, our collections will have something for you Read more

18 May 2022

The woman who gave birth to rabbits

A sensation hit the headlines in 1726. Mary Toft, a working-class woman from Godalming, Surrey, gave birth to rabbits. Dubbed the ‘rabbit woman’, she hoodwinked the entire nation, including some of the most lauded medical professionals.

The news travelled fast with newspapers across the country covering the story. In our Breaking the News exhibition, you can read about Mary Toft in one of the earliest newspapers printed in Exeter, Devon.

As an early example of evidently fake news, we have to ask why did people believe her?

Mary Toft exhibit at British Library Breaking the News exhibition

Mary Toft exhibit at the Breaking the News exhibition

Toft claimed that she had become obsessed with rabbits before going into labour. It was a popular belief at the time that, in a theory known as maternal imagination, what a woman saw and did whilst pregnant affected her offspring. This, along with her acting skills, gave Toft just enough credibility to fool the experts and excite the public.

She couldn’t maintain the hoax forever. The same press that had covered Toft’s story so gleefully derided her when, after she had been taken to London for further investigation, she confessed. She was briefly incarcerated in Bridewell Prison and paraded in front of large crowds

Eventually Toft returned to Godalming and faded into obscurity thereafter. We do not know much about her life afterwards – only that she was briefly imprisoned for possessing stolen goods years later and the press reported her death in 1763.

Detail from Hogarth print on Mary Toft

Detail from William Hogarth's print on Mary Toft, 'Cunicularii or the wise men of Godliman in consultation' (1726)

Magician and historian Ian Keable elaborates on Mary Toft and other amusing fake news of the past in The Hoax: The 18th Century's Most Intriguing Deceptions at the Library on Monday 23 May.

Journey back through the last 500 years and discover how truth and trust in the news has changed in Britain in our Breaking the News exhibition. Open until 21 August 2022. Members go free. Buy your tickets now: www.bl.uk/events/breaking-the-news

Maddy Smith, Curator Printed Heritage Collections

12 May 2022

Caroline, Byron and Wilde: celebrity scandal in the 19th century

Sordid details of celebrities’ sex lives scandalised the public and sold huge numbers of newspapers in the 19th century and beyond. However, unlike today, salacious celebrity stories were rarely published in the press. Libel laws were more stringent and a strong sense of deference, especially to aristocratic notables, pervaded.

When a celebrity sex story did break through in the 1800s, it invariably caused a sensation. Our Breaking the News exhibition (22 April – 21 August 2022) showcases three such stories, spanning the century.

The celebs in the spotlight – Caroline of Brunswick, Queen consort of the UK, Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde – were exposed to the public gaze because of a varied mix of their alleged ‘bad behaviour’ (according to contemporary prejudices), legal transgressions and news publishing loopholes.

Portrait of Caroline of Brunswick

Portrait of Caroline of Brunswick, 1804, by Thomas Lawrence (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Royal divorce?

Caroline of Brunswick’s marriage to King George IV was beset by troubles and ill will from the start. He thought her uncouth, she considered him a drunkard and a bore. Upon George’s ascension to the throne in 1820, he instigated divorce proceedings, which, in this era, had to be heard in the Houses of Parliament.

For the first time, the details of Caroline’s lifestyle and the allegations of impropriety coming directly from her estranged husband were voiced in the public domain where previously only gossip and rumour had circulated. Newspapers were able to publish the evidence put forward at the trial in the House of Lords due to a loophole that allowed all proceedings in Parliament to be reported word-for-word in the press.

Coverage of the divorce hearing in The London Chronicle 1 September 1820

Coverage of the divorce hearing in The London Chronicle, 1 September 1820 (British Library)

Despite Caroline’s immense popularity with the British public (at the expense of her husband) when the finer points of her affair with Bartolomeo Pergami, an Italian and a commoner, came out the nation was scandalised. However, the remaining public goodwill was such that the Pains and Penalties Bill 1820, which would have stripped Caroline of the title of queen and dissolved her marriage, never made it into the House of Commons.  

Coloured etching by R Cruikshank 1820

George IV and entourage laden with provisions, about to embark from Brighton in the Royal Yacht; satirizing the extravagant monarch's distressed retreat from England at the time of the Queen's trial. Coloured etching by R. Cruikshank, 1820. (Wellcome Images CC BY 4.0)

Separation, scandal and self-imposed exile

Only a few years before the royal divorce trial, the intimate details of Lord Byron’s shock separation from Annabella Milbanke, his wife of little more than a year, were leaked to the press. What was the source of this unexpected glimpse into the couples’ private life? Lord Byron’s own verses.

Portrait of Byron 1813 by Phillips Thomas Phillips

Portrait of Byron, 1813 by Phillips Thomas Phillips (Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Two poems were published by The Champion: one laid bare the depth of Byron’s feeling for his erstwhile wife, while the other viciously attacked her close, elderly friend and servant. The broadcasting of such strong personal sentiments was certainly not considered the ‘done thing’ in Regency London. Originally authorised by the poet for a limited print-run for his friends and allies, Byron was betrayed and the poems were maliciously given to the newspaper to print.

One of Lord Byron’s leaked poems in The Champion 14 April 1816

Part of one of Lord Byron’s leaked poems in The Champion 14 April 1816, BL NEWS11674

The published poems caused a frenzy of gossip and encouraged wider speculation about Byron’s colourful and unorthodox (in many instances illegal) romantic history.

So intense was public scrutiny and condemnation that Byron felt compelled to leave England. He was never to return. The editorial accompanying the poems describes how the editors viewed Byron’s initial willingness to publish – albeit on a limit run – as an invitation to turn his personal life into current affairs:

‘His Lordship, then, is determined that nothing shall stand between him and public animadversion'.

Oscar Wilde imprisoned!

Photograph of Oscar Wilde c1882

 Photograph of Oscar Wilde, c. 1882, by Martin van Meytes (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The close of the 19th century saw one of the greatest celebrity scandals of the Victorian age: the trial of Oscar Wilde. The trial itself was a result of Wilde’s hubris. He had initially taken the Marquess of Queensberry to court for publicly referring to Wilde as a ‘somdomite’, a move that grossly backfired and resulted in Wilde facing charges himself.

Evidence of the famous author’s sexual activities were presented to the court and he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’. As a result, Wilde was imprisoned in Reading Gaol. The public were enthralled and closely followed the coverage of proceedings, in print and through illustrations.

The trial of Oscar Wilde in The Illustrated Police News 4 May 1895

The trial of Oscar Wilde in The Illustrated Police News, 4 May 1895. As displayed in the Breaking the News exhibition.      

These three historical celebrity stories appear in the Breaking the News exhibition alongside more recent showbiz scoops, including #WagathaChristie, the Rolling Stones drugs bust, and the first paparazzi picture of Diana Spencer, later Princess of Wales.

Breaking the News is open until 21 August 2022. Members go free.

Supported by Newsworks.

 

Tamara Tubb, Exhibition Curator

09 May 2022

Spotted: A flying serpent and a record-breaking Trump

During his inauguration in 2016, Donald Trump claimed to have been met by ‘record’ crowds after his successful campaign to become President of the United States. But what does this have in common with the appearance of a flying serpent in the 17th century?

They are both – as Trump’s Campaign Strategist would deem – ‘alternative facts’.

Donald Trump

President Donald Trump (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

It is easy – reassuring, even – to trust and consume news that supports our existing worldview. However, without challenge or counter-balance, we can end up in a news bubble where opinion and rhetoric that we agree with can be mistaken for, or ignored in favour or, objective facts.

‘Alternative facts’, fake news and conspiracy have been published as news for centuries, but are becoming more threatening to mainstream news and the public in today’s online algorithm-led world.

Donald Trump became President of the United States in 2016 in what was a victory for right-wing politics in America. Trump and his staff claimed, contrary to the visible evidence, that his presidential inauguration attracted the largest crowd ever. In his first press briefing, Sean Spicer accused journalists of ‘deliberately false reporting’, claiming that the mainstream media was purposefully underestimating the crowd and that the ceremony had drawn ‘the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration’. Later, Trump’s Campaign Strategist Kellyanne Conway defended these claims, describing them as ‘alternative facts’.

On display in the Breaking the News exhibition is a photograph taken by Lucas Jackson that demonstrates the small turn-out at Trump’s inauguration in comparison to Barack Obama’s first inauguration. The contrasting photographs went viral on social media. The White House’s condemnation of mainstream journalism in favour of ‘alternative facts’ became a theme of Trump’s presidency.

So how does this relate to flying serpents?

In 1669, a dragon was spotted in Essex. Witnessed by ‘many credible persons’, the locals attempted to kill the dragon several times but it survived. The dragon spent its time lounging in rivers, sunning itself on hills and attacking cattle.

The Flying Serpent or Strange News out of Essex c1669

The Flying Serpent, or, Strange News out of Essex, c.1669 (British Library 1258.b.18)

Well, at least this is what an anonymous news pamphlet claims.

The Flying Serpent, or, Strange News out of Essex is the sole surviving account of this so-called flying serpent. The pamphlet begins with “Guests, fish, and news grow stale in three days’ time, and nothing delights an English-mans fancy so much as new novelties”. This London printer transformed a fantastical tale into news – turning alternative facts into objective facts. Reports of wonders and other phenomena were ten-a-penny in early modern England, and pamphlet-writers distorted ordinary things into ‘strange news’ to capitalise on the public’s gullibility for these ‘alternative facts’. Was there really a flying serpent living in Essex? Likely not, but that didn’t stop people believing it at the time.

This wondrous story inspired Sarah Perry’s bestselling novel The Essex Serpent. The TV adaptation premieres on 13 May on Apple TV.

When do ‘alternative facts’ become conspiracy theory?

Alternative facts can be much more dangerous than this; people’s tendency to consume news that confirms rather than challenges their own beliefs can lead to the spread of disinformation and conspiracy in extreme cases.

In 1903, a notorious anti-Semitic conspiracy entered circulation that some neo-fascist and anti-Semitic circles still believe and perpetuate today. 

Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion 1920

Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, 1920 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an anonymous forgery that was passed off as a Jewish plan for global domination. Much of its content reaffirmed anti-Semitic notions that have existed for centuries; the Protocols falsely claimed that Jews wanted to take over the world, control the press and have Jewish bankers control the world’s economies. The forgery was first published as fact in a Russian newspaper in 1903 and, by the 1920s, it had been translated into multiple languages and reprinted in newspapers across the globe.

The Times denounced the Protocols as fake news in 1921 by proving that they were a forgery, but the damage had already been done. Amidst a pervasive climate of anti-Semitism, many continued to believe that the Protocols were true. They became common knowledge due to their widespread circulation in the international mainstream press. In the 1930s and 40s, they became integral to the Nazi propaganda effort surrounding their persecution of the Jews. The Protocols still gain traction today on social media and extremist websites. They are an example of when the line between conspiracy and mainstream media becomes dangerously blurred.

‘Alternative facts’ is a contemporary phrase but fake news and conspiracy news have always existed on the fringes of the mainstream media. The news can never be completely objective. News will always be shaped, to a certain extent, by opinion and beliefs but these stories show what happens when the balance tips dangerously in their favour.

These stories are explored in the Breaking the News exhibition, open until 21 August 2022. Plus there are smaller localised versions of the exhibition touring libraries across the UK.

We are also hosting a diverse programme of events at the Library and online, and an accompanying exhibition book: Breaking the News: 500 Years of News in Britain.

Maddy Smith, Curator Printed Heritage Collections