Today is of course the first of April, the day when japes and merry pranks fill the pages of the newspapers and the content of TV and radio news shows. This year there seems to be something of a paucity of ‘April fools’ perhaps because the world is quite mad enough without making stuff up.
The Victorians were just as gullible as ourselves it seems and the nineteenth-century press were quite happy to try and trick their readerships with ‘fake news’ stories. I doubt however, whether this extended to the reporters at the Police Courts, who were tasked with entertaining readers with the day-to-day ‘doings’ of this lower level of the criminal justice system.
Alongside the drunks, brawlers, petty thieves and wife beaters there were those who tried, in a variety of ways, to trick the more susceptible members of society. These included fraudsters who sold things that didn’t work, or bought goods on ‘tick’ with no intention of paying, and others who persuaded people to part with money under false pretences.
One such person was Frederick Walter Ventris, a bookseller, who was charged at Wandsworth Police Court with ‘obtaining money by false representations’.
Ventris had knocked at the door of a Mr Terry (an actor) and his wife. He told the lady of the house ‘a pitiable tale of having been a surgeon, but could not follow his profession as he was paralysed, and had just been discharged from the Fulham infirmary’. Mrs Terry said she would speak to her husband, gave him some money to allow him to pay for his lodgings and invited him to call again soon.
Ventris returned a day or so later and this time managed to speak to Mr Terry. This was probably Benjamin Terry, a well-known actor and the head of what was to be a renowned acting family. Terry was married to Sarah Ballard, who also trod the boards, and then had several children. One of these was Ellen who went on to achieve international fame as a Shakespearean actress, appearing often alongside Henry Irving. Her great nephew was John Gielgud, demonstrating perhaps that great genes do run in the family.
Benjamin Terry was sympathetic to Frederick Ventris’ plight who wrote to the Charity Organisation Society on his behalf. Ventris explained that he had been given permission to deliver a series of lectures on chemistry by the vicar of Chiswick and in this way managed to persuade several other persons to give him money so he could buy the ‘chemical equipment’ he needed for the talks.
However, when the case came to court Ventris’ ruse began to unravel. The vicar, the Reverend Dale said he given no such permission to the supposed surgeon. He said the story he had been told was that the man was one of his parishioners and was applying for the job of caretaker at the local board school.
Ventris protested to the magistrate that all this was hearsay and false rumour but Mr Paget was having nothing of it. He saw through the attempt to hoodwink and actor and a man of the cloth, both potentially more open to believing a ‘hard luck’ story, and found Ventris guilty as charged. He told him he ‘had taken advantage of a superior education to commit a systematic course of fraud on charitably disposed persons’. He then sent him to prison at hard labour for three months.
[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, April 01, 1879]