Tomorrow is April Fools’ Day, the one day in the year when ‘fake news’ is supposed to be disseminated by the news media. In the past we’ve had the amazing Swiss spaghetti harvest of 1957, the invention of instant water pills that could save lives in droughts, and of course the discovery of the dead body of the Loch Ness monster (in 1972). Now, sadly, false or fake news has become ubiquitous with the advent of social media, the click-bait culture of the internet, and the ridiculous Trumpery of certain politicians. In fact given the political events in England over the last few weeks it is quite hard to think what the press could tell us that we wouldn’t believe, regardless of its veracity.
In 1889 Frederick Stubbs decided to go early with the whole April Fools thing. At midnight on Sunday 24 March 1889 he was found marching about at Piccadilly Circus (not under the gaze of Eros of course, as it was not installed until 1894) shouting “Death of Mr. Gladstone” ‘with the utmost strength of his lungs’.
He was carrying the following morning’s Sunday Edition and the 19 year-old newsvendor was as drunk as a lord, and reeling about. Drunks were routinely rounded up by beat policemen and asked to go home if they were capable or, taken to the nearest station house if they were not. Stubbs was not and so PC 16 C (reserve) took him by the arm and escorted him to ‘the nick’.
The next day Stubbs was brought up, possibly still the worse for his excesses and with a sore head, to face Mr Hannay’s inquisition. The magistrate noted that the eminent statesman was very much alive but Stubbs was adamant that he’d seen an article in the paper marking his death. That was Gladstone’s brother, Mr Hannay explained, not the ‘Grand Old Man’ himself.
Gladstone, who had split the Liberal Party three years earlier (in 1886) over Irish Home Rule, would be in opposition until 1892 when he regained the keys to Downing Street for the fourth and final time at the age of 82. He died on 19 May 1898 at Hawarden in Wales, aged 88.
In March 1889 Mr Gladstone was ‘enjoying excellent health’ the paper had actually said. So Stubbs had made a mistake and not deliberately tried to fool anyone, and the justice recognized this. However, he had also got drunk and caused a disturbance in a public place and for that he would pay a fine of 5 shillings (or about £20 today).
[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, March 31, 1889]