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.