One learns every day

How a study of one man’s activities in the first world war led to the discovery of the origins of fake news.

One of the great things about running a storage business is that it brings in a huge range of customers, each with different interests, and each of whom stores a wide range of different items.   And, as I have mentioned in the past, some of these customers do take up the offer of pausing for a moment for a brief natter and a coffee when they visit the Admiral facility.

In this way I find I get to learn about all sorts of things the likes of which would never have occurred to me in the normal course of events.

I mention this because one such occasion happened this past week when I found myself talking to a client who stores a range of documents and items he has collected from the era of the first world war – a period he has dedicated many years of his life to studying.

What I found fascinating was that he reported that research of the type that he undertakes often results in findings that turn up by pure chance and in our conversation he gave me two examples.

In the first case my customer told me he was following the history of a man called Henry Norris, who rose from very humble origins, leaving school at 14 without qualifications to work as a very junior clerk in an estate agent’s office, and ended the war as a knight of the realm and a Lieutenant Colonel in the army.

This was particularly difficult case, he told me, since the search for this man’s progress through the war was hampered by the fact that Mr Norris left no memoires or diaries, and most of the records of the War Office from the period of the First World War were destroyed by a bomb in the Second World War.

“I know he did do some work for the War Office for a short while in 1915,” my customer told me, “from the few records that survived” and for that he was given the rank of Captain, just so that other military men knew what position he held.  But after that I have found nothing.

“What tipped me off however was that he was asked to serve on the London County Council in 1917, but then after just a couple of meetings, his attendance was very erratic.  Now normally a person who is invited to be on a committee of such a powerful body, but then never turns up, is quickly removed and replaced by someone who does do the job – but not Norris. Which suggests he was using the LCC position as a cover for War Office work, although as yet I don’t know how or why.”

I must say at this point I wasn’t that impressed by the story – it all seemed a bit vague to me – and I was surprised that historical research of this type could be based on such scraps of evidence.

Something in my face must have revealed this, because my customer then went on…

“But that was only the start.  From there I started reading the local papers for the era, and gradually got immersed in what life was like in the war years.

“Looking back to the time before the war started, the local papers were fairly factual, they didn’t do rumours or gossip as happens now.  Obviously there was no radio or TV then, so they were the one source of information, and there clearly was a perceived need for them to be seen as accurate.

“But as soon as the war broke out in 1914, censorship was imposed by the government in order to avoid giving information to the enemy and to keep up public morale, and this left the papers with less and less to say about the main story of the moment.

“And so the papers started printing rumours.  At first they stated that these were rumours, but quite quickly this caveat was dropped and they were printed as if they were real stories.

“Then I found a story in 1916 about Belgian refugees who had settled in Fulham after Belgium was invaded by Germany, who themselves had built a couple of clubs at which they used to gather of an evening for a drink and a smoke.

“The story began to circulate that these clubs were being used by German infiltrators who were plotting to blow up London’s bridges.  The ‘evidence’ to support this was that people had heard those coming and going from the clubs speaking German.

“No one, in writing up the story, questioned whether it was likely that the Belgians, who had been thrown out of their own country and were now virtually penniless living in London, would allow their enemy to use their clubs.  But of course hardly anyone in Britain spoke German at the time – this was the height of the days of Empire, when the world most certainly had to speak English if they wanted to communicate with us.

“What passers-by probably heard was people speaking Flemish – one of the two languages of Belgium.  But the story was presented as fact, and the paper called on the government to act.”

Suddenly I saw where the story had gone.  “So you found an example of ‘fake news’ from 100 years ago,” I said.

“Possibly the first ‘fake news’ report of the modern era,” my customer said.  “It’s hardly an earth shattering discovery, but it gave me a lot of pleasure not just to find it, but to realise that it was caused not by a desire to get more readership, but by a desire to get more news – in fact any news – in a period of heavy censorship.”

As I said above, one learns something everyday – and for the first time, I got an insight into the world of the amateur historian.