It has been nearly ninety-six years since that fateful Saturday night when a previously peaceful unemployment demonstration in London’s Trafalgar Square turned into a violent mob ransacking the National Gallery and the Houses of Parliament, and knocking down the clock tower containing the famous Big Ben.
A shock, for sure, the wireless report from the BBC may not have been entirely unexpected by a nation made nervous by the recent 1917 Russian revolution. England had elected its first Labour Government in 1922 and the country was in the grip social change.
Dumbfounded wireless listeners followed the breaking news story until the final moments when the BBC’s London station was overrun and the broadcast faded into assorted music. The audience was left to anxiously wait for their newspapers to arrive the next morning with more details of what had befallen their capitol city.
Then, heavy snows the following day in London delayed those newspapers to many of the more isolated rural areas, leaving some in great suspense, imagining the charred ruins of the Savoy Hotel and the terrible lynching of Minister of Traffic Mr. Wotherspoon.
Of course, astute listeners may have understood that there was, in fact, no such position as the Minister of Traffic in the English government of 1926 and that “Mr. Wotherspoon” is kind of a silly name, as is that of Mr. Popplebury, the Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues and ringleader of the violence.
In addition, those listeners who had tuned in from the very start would have heard the preface explaining that the fictitious news account they were about to hear came from the imagination of brilliant satirist, Catholic priest, and maybe slightly ironic lover of cozy mysteries Father Ronald Knox, whose tongue was so firmly implanted in his cheek that it was surprising he could talk at all.
Knox’s performance piece Broadcasting the Barricades was a smash hit eliciting a huge number of responses which were about nine to one positive, and included only one report of a stress-induced fainting. The piece, written by the same man who would later come up with the “10 Commandments of Detective Stories,” one of which says that “No Chinaman must figure in the story,” encouraged the BBC to begin its long and glorious tradition of April Fools pranks a few months later, and most likely influenced the War of the Worlds radio play presented by Orson Welles in 1938.
And today it serves as a good example of why, when you hear something terribly upsetting on the news, you probably ought to take a deep breath and look for another source, from a different perspective before you pass out from the stress. Because surprising, terrible, scary things do sometimes happen, but there are probably also a lot of snarky priests out there, good detective stories involving Chinese characters, and, it seems, fake news reports.
24 thoughts on “Big Ben Takes a Tumble”
Where do you find these quirky things that you then turn expertly into comment on our present? wherever it is, keep on doing it, thanks
I read a lot of quirky things.
I never heard of this Knox trickery! Marvellous! I knew him for two things: He was challenged to write a limerick using the town Aberystwyth (which is unsavoury), and he translated from the Greek the New Testament version we used when I was at school!
I think he was a pretty fascinating guy. Think I would have enjoyed getting a coffee with him. If I drank coffee that is.
LOL – I would imagine he would more enjoy a nice cup of English tea – but I’m not sure!
I don’t normally drink tea, either, but maybe I could choke down a cup.
Ha! I had heard of War of the Worlds but not this one!
He was quite a character I think.
Good advice and wonderful read. I have a soft spot for those who know how to park a tongue in their cheek.
I never heard of this either. This was really interesting. As mentioned above, it reminded me of Orson Welles broadcast of War of the Worlds which sent radio listeners into a frenzy.
There’s apparently no explicit evidence that the Knox hoax informed War of the Worlds, but circumstantially, it seems pretty plausible that it did.
I don’t know. The important thing is you highlighted perhaps one of the first great mass hoaxes and reminded us to read from alternative sources.
Any time we remember that, everyone wins.
Yes. It’s a pleasure to read your articles of history.
Very cool story. It’s a good thing that you cleared this up because all this time I had suspected that Wotherspoon and Popplebury were in cahoots.
I grew up watching Charlie Chan every Saturday afternoon on the local UHF channel so I don’t know about number 5.
Smart not to trust those guys. I’m not sure that too many of Father Knox’s 10 commandments hold up all that well, though I particularly like the notion that the detective’s stupid companion is only supposed to be slightly more stupid than the reader. That one, I think, is pretty spot on.
I love sidekicks. Not that I want to be one. I mean, who likes to get kicked? I’d hire on as a sidenudge for someone, perhaps.
Then you’re clearly not stupid enough to make a good sidekick.
I hadn’t heard of this one! Brilliant wheeze by Father Knox, as they might say in the UK.
I’m not familiar with that phrase. How wonderful!
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