When I worked on a local newspaper in one of Hertfordshire’s duller towns in the mid-1970s, the news editor rushed in from the pub one lunchtime frothing with excitement – he had just been given a story by a guy in the bar that was bound to make the week’s front page splash.
This man’s mate knew a young woman who was getting into her vehicle in the town’s only multi-story car park, when a little old lady appeared. The old lady asked if she could possibly be given a lift home. “Of course”, the young woman replied, getting into her car to let the old lady in. But as she lent across to open the passenger door, she noticed that the old lady’s hand, reaching out for the door handle, was extremely hairy …
Immediately the young woman slammed her own door shut, reversed out of her parking space and hurtled as fast as possible round to the town’s police station. A squad car shot off to the car park, our news editor was told in the pub, and though the old lady had gone, the police searched the area and found, behind a pillar alongside where the young woman’s car had been parked, a large axe …
Yeah, yeah, many of you will now be saying, and you’ll be unamazed to learn that when the newspaper sent a reporter, notebook ready, rushing round to the police station to check the facts and get a comment, Herts Constabulary said they had no record of this alleged “incident”. Meanwhile, of course, the news editor’s saloon bar informant could not give him a name or address for the young woman driver – our head newshound had fallen for a popular urban myth.
The excellent Snopes.com site lists a number of variations on the “old lady is crazed killer in disguise” legend, and traces it back to at least 1834 (when the driver involved had a horse-drawn gig rather than a motorcar, of course). It’s another example of the persistence of certain sorts of stories in the face of both the facts (or rather the lack of facts) and logic – in the “old lady” story, for example, it makes no sense that a crazed killer hunting fresh prey would leave the murder weapon behind at the scene after a potential victim escaped. But the story gets repeated – always happening to “a friend of a friend” – in part because it touches our fears of what might befall us one day in a badly-lit and lonely car park.
Other urban myths appeal to more humanitarian impulses: the Craig Shergold story, for example, about a little boy in Croydon dying of cancer who is trying to collect enough greetings cards to get into the Guinness Book of Records. This actually happened, in 1989, and by 1991 Craig had collected an amazing 33 million cards. Unfortunately, nearly 20 years later, and long after Craig had recovered from his cancer, the cards keep coming, frequently addressed to “Craig Shelford”, or “Greg Sherwood”, or even “John Craig”, and instead of greetings cards the people who have fallen for the story that a sick boy is still trying to get into the Guinness Book of Records are sending business cards, or even compliments slips.
The Shergold family have appeared on television several times to try to kill the appeal, without any effect. I personally have stopped versions of the appeal going into two newspapers, in 1996, when very senior figures in the City of London had been suckered into posting their business cards to Croydon, and again last year, when it was hoteliers receiving appeal letters. Editors who hadn’t realised the Shergold story has become a mythical monster (with an estimated 200 million items posted) thought they would get this poor lad’s record attempt some more publicity, and tried to run the “appeal” without bothering to check it out. The journalists’ in-joke – “never let the facts get in the way of a good story” – is followed more often than the profession likes to admit.
After I began researching for Beer: The Story of the Pint I was surprised to find how many “facts” I had previously read about the history of beer turned out, once investigated, to be untrue – “alehouse myths”. I decided that as much as I could I wouldn’t print anything I hadn’t been able to check with an original source. I also decided that at the end of the book I would run a chapter debunking a dozen or so of these false stories. As it happened, the list of myths that needed debunking rose to almost 40, from the nonsensical idea that our word “cash” comes from the Egyptian (or Sumerian) for beer (it doesn’t) to mild being so called because it uses fewer hops (it isn’t).
Tracking original sources was sometimes like chasing after wild deer, as references ran panting down through the footnotes and the years. Many writers on beer quote an alleged ban on using the “wicked and pernicious weed” hops in brewing, supposedly imposed by Shrewsbury’s mayor and corporation in 1519 (or 1512 according to some). Richard Unger’s Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, published in 2004, gives HS Corran’s A History of Brewing from 1975 as his source for the Shrewsbury ban. Corran’s footnote refers readers to Lewis Salzman’s English Industries of the Middle Ages, published in 1923. Salzman credits the Victoria County History of Shropshire for the story. The VCH says it got the facts from the September 10 1886 edition of a magazine called Shropshire Notes and Queries. Shropshire N&Q quotes a book called North Wales by the Reverend William Bingley, originally published in 1800. Tired yet? Press on – we’re nearly there.
Bingley’s book says, on page 242 of the 1804 edition: “In a chronological list of remarkable events at Shrewsbury are recorded the following singular occurrences: …1519. The brewers were ordered by the corporation not to use that wicked and pernicious weed, hops, in their brewings, under the penalty of 6s. 8d.” But Bingley did not give any source for his statement. After hunting back more than 200 years, we find all those claims about a ban on hops in Shrewsbury, sometimes from people with impeccable academic backgrounds – Richard Unger is Professor of History at the University of British Columbia – ultimately rely on one man’s assertion three centuries after the event, with no contemporary source given.
We can’t even be certain who called hops a “wicked and pernicious weed” – Bingley doesn’t put the phrase in a context so that we can be sure it was the corporation who said it first, and that it wasn’t an expression the Reverend inserted himself into the story. Thomas Fuller in The History of the Worthies of England, published in 1662, wrote about people allegedly calling hops a “wicked weed” in the time of Henry VI, and Bingley, an antiquarian sort, would probably have been familiar with Fuller’s Worthies and could have picked up the phrase from there. The expression “a most pernicious and wicked weed” occurs in a book published six years before Bingley’s, A General View of the Agriculture of the County of Somerset, by John Billingsley (sic – no family connection known between Billingsley and Bingley), who was writing about an alleged petition to Parliament against hops supposedly presented in 1528 (and for which there is, again, no evidence). The phrase was, therefore, in the air, and Bingley could have stuck it in his list of “remarkable events” to jazz up his narrative.
As it happens, we can guess that Bingley’s source for the hop ban story, at least, was the Assembly books for the Corporation of Shrewsbury, or, more likely, a book published in 1729 which listed “Extracts from the Orders of the Corporation of Shrewsbury”. Eheu, this book no longer exists: the one known copy was “suffering from mildew” in 1888, according to the Shropshire Records and Research Centre, and it subsequently vanished. Fortunately the Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological Society in 1888 (volume XI) printed extracts from the mildewy book, including an order in 1520 “as to the Brewers & they not to use hops under pain of 6s 8d”. One year out, and no “wicked and pernicious”, but we are now at least close to a primary source for the prohibition on hops in Shrewsbury.
In other places where the city corporations banned hops, however, the bans always specifically covered the “common ale brewers” (Norwich in 1471) or using hops in ale (London in 1483; Coventry in 1520) and the beer brewers were left alone to use as much hops as they liked. Did Shrewsbury’s prohibition cover all brewers, or only the ale brewers, and did the Shropshire Archaeological Society, or the author of the 1729 book, or Bingley, leave the word “ale” out of the transcription of the ban on hops, not realising that ale and beer in Henry VIII’s time were still separate drinks and “ale brewers” were different people from “beer brewers”? Unfortunately, Shropshire Records has copies of the Assembly books for 1509 to 1511, and for 1521 to 1530, but nothing covering the years we are interested in, which volumes seem to have been missing for centuries.
The result of our game of track-the-reference, therefore, is that we can still feel fairly positive, even though we only have secondary sources saying so, that around 1519/1520 Shrewsbury Corporation passed an order prohibiting the use of hops (given that Bingley and the Shropshire Archaeological Society both seem to have seen the same book from 1729, whose author quite likely saw the original records). What we don’t know is if this ban applied, as it did elsewhere, only to ale brewers or if it covered all brewers (and since, if you ban hops from beer, it isn’t beer any more, my bet would be on a prohibition covering ale only – but I wouldn’t be certain I was right). Nor do we know for certain that it was the Shrewsbury burgesses who called hops a “wicked and pernicious weed” – and again, my bet (since the Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological Society doesn’t mention the phrase) is that they didn’t, and it was Bingley who inserted the adjectives. But again, I wouldn’t be dogmatic.