Rebecca Gowers is the author of The Swamp of Death: A True Tale of Victorian Lies and Murder (Hamish Hamilton/ Penguin). Her first novel, When to Walk, is published by Canongate.

Death, lies and old newpapers

In the 1840s, government stamp duty kept the minimum price on an English newspaper at four pence, a sum way beyond any ordinary labourer. In recompense for this tax, supposedly, newspapers could be sent through the post for nothing: the postal system also belonged to the government. By this means, information would wend slowly from the cities into the countryside. It was illegal to perforate or otherwise mark a newspaper so as to send the recipient a coded message, effectively a free letter. It was also illegal to publish any sort of newspaper without paying stamp duty on it.

Edward Lloyd's fabulously successful idea was to print one-penny newspapers that circumvented the law by virtue of the fact that not a single story in them was true. He was already familiar with the tastes of the impoverished reader, being a premier publisher of pamphlet-form "penny bloods" – serial novels of erotic gore, highwaymen and horror. He was also busy poaching customers for the serial parts of Dickens's novels, bringing out instant improvements on each new installment under titles like Oliver Twiss and David Copperful. Weak copyright protection allowed for this form of piracy, but a pseudo-newspaper was, legally, a different proposition. The importance of defining "news" here can be deduced from Lloyd's having only narrowly avoided prosecution when, on January 8, 1843, one of his editors carelessly included the genuine report of a lion loose in London that had escaped from somebody's zoo.

Within a few years, Lloyd was amongst the richest newspapermen in the land. Demand for his product was so high that he had to plant his own forests to generate enough paper. But here's the question. If one were compelled by the authorities to fill a penny newspaper with anything but news, avoiding in particular all metropolitan topicality; if one wished to make a fortune out of fantastic, faked stories, bent information and suitable lies, what would be the plan for charming ill-heeled Londoners of the 1840s into giving up their beer money? – beer, not water, being the cheapest liquid it was safe at the time to drink.

It is important to note that you decidedly didn't want to print anything quite so plausible that it provoked the investigative arm of the law. There was also in this period the offence of "circulating false news", designed in part to prevent the weary hawker from trying to shift a heap of the day's unsold papers by yelling out, say, that the Duke of Wellington had just been struck down dead. You definitely didn't want to be fingered as an exploitative pseudo-alarmist: that, too, was a crime.

Lloyd came up with several answers to these constraints. Principally he told tales from long ago, dressed up to look like news. On July 12, 1840, for example, he had the headline: A COOK BOILED TO DEATH IN SMITHFIELD. Self-evidently, this is brilliant. And the first four words of the article? "In the year 1530..." Or what about this for a front-page account of a shocking murder? "A more detestable instance of deliberate ferocity than the following has rarely disgraced humanity: On the 25th April, 1759..." So what if the story was eighty-one years out of date and never happened anyway?

Lloyd could get away with items on recent assaults only if they were presented as having taken place in foreign lands, such as the havoc wrought by a bride-eating Philippine alligator. And if he couldn't resist the English? It seems he was permitted to tell stories of the English so long as they were at sea.

One might protest that the English being at sea could hardly have been thought to constitute news, let alone fake news. The English at sea? This isn't news, by any stretch of anybody's imagination. And while we're on the subject, why does the phrase "at sea" imply incapacity and limitation? Surely for the English being at sea ought to mean being exhilaratingly in conversation with the waves and the stars, the stars and the waves, the fish, the wind, the salt, the spray. Did we or didn't we rule the waves once upon a time? No? Can we really have crept out onto our great oak ships and stood around, embarrassed, as little gusty breezes sank the Spanish Armada?

Oh well. It is worth noting that if you are drawn to old newspapers, especially ones that were required by law to be pure invention, then the daily papers of your own age start to seem utterly ridiculous, not to mention the narrative of your own life.

So did Lloyd learn the lessons of the bride-eating alligator? Absolutely not. No, he decided to go straight. It had been his habit to use the editorial columns in his fake papers to rail against slavery, capital punishment and the utter tedium of bona fide news stories, and yet in 1876, he used his vast wealth to buy himself a legitimate title, the Daily Chronicle, successfully turning it into an ever more respected Liberal organ. At the same time, he seems to have deployed agents to trawl through bookshops looking for his earlier works in order to purchase and destroy them.

A century and more later, this canny attempt to revamp his reputation is as nought. After decades of mergers – including one with the Daily News, a paper first edited by Dickens back when Lloyd was pirating his novels – the Daily Chronicle at last sank from view. Nowadays it stands as merely a dim detail in the prehistory of a right-wing tabloid, the Daily Mail. By contrast, precious issues of Lloyd's false newspapers are preserved in the country's most august libraries, while surviving copies of his penny bloods – known for their extreme rarity – are worth thousands.

Worse, what has proved to be Edward Lloyd's most potent cultural legacy springs from an example of his very lowest output. The work in question, tumbled together in 1846 by the hack writer Thomas Peckett Prest, was, typically of Lloyd's penny titles, a souped-up rehash of popular, ghoulish whispers. Furthermore, and also typically, it was tempting to semi-believe. Yet much though it followed a general pattern, The String of Pearls: A Romance struck a particular chord. The publisher is all but forgotten, the author a mere footnote, but its central character, Sweeney Todd, "the Demon Barber of Fleet Street", skulks in the backs of our minds to this day.



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