Big Ben Takes a Tumble

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.

Trafalgar Square with approximately the same amount of mob violence as was seen on January 16, 1926. Charlie Forman, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Standing tall. Alvesgaspar, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.