Today
Mon 25 October 2021

John Mitchinson unearths some of the juiciest incidents turning the gossip mills of times past…

Put three humans in a room and, sooner or later, you will get a scandal. Oscar Wilde called them “gossip made tedious by morality” and, it is true, we can’t go long without setting up rules to guide our behaviour and, as soon as we’ve done so, we delight in finding creative ways of breaking them. 

The mighty are fallen, the wise behave foolishly, the innocent are betrayed, while the rest of us sit comfortably by the fire, like George Orwell’s idealised News of the World reader, sipping our tea.

Scandals may be universal but not all are of equal value or stand the test of time. Some, like the Profumo Affair of the early 1960s, have political repercussions that carry way beyond the actual moral lapses of the participants. Others, such as the sub-prime mortgage scandal, have devastating consequences for the global financial system (and therefore all of us) but lack an easily identifiable human agent. The great scandals need a hero, or an anti-hero, a point of human focus and a sense of something exceptional having happened. 

Here are four less well-known historical scandals that cover the four great sources of public outrage: royalty, money, lying and sex


Caroline of Brunswick: The ‘Unruly Queen’ of George IV

If you thought Charles and Diana’s marriage plumbed the depths of unhappiness for a royal marriage, the union of the future George IV and his first cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick, may cause you to reconsider.

George, a gambler and heavy drinker, was appalled by Caroline’s poor personal hygiene and taste for vulgar jokes. He was blind drunk on their wedding day in 1795 and sobbed audibly though the vows. On becoming King, George tried to strip Caroline of her title of Queen Consort by setting up a parliamentary investigation into her alleged adulteries. Reluctantly, she agreed to exile but remained hugely popular. 

When she decided to return as Queen for George’s coronation in 1821, she was denied access to the Abbey at bayonet point. She died a month later and her funeral cortege provoked riots across the city when the authorities tried to change the route to avoid the crowds.


The Sadleir Scandal: The 19th Century Bernie Madoff

The career of John Sadleir, an Irish politician and banker, has similarities to more recent financial scandals. 

Sadleir was an investor in railroads and the director of the Tipperary Bank, which had offices in Dublin and London. When the bank failed in 1856, it turned out that Sadleir had embezzled more than £1.5 million by creating fake balance sheets showing transactions which had never actually occurred. Many other businesses failed and thousands of private investors lost their savings. 

Unable to face the anger of his creditors, Sadleir downed a bottle of prussic acid on Hampstead Heath. His story found its way into two great novels – he was the model for Mr Merdle in Dickens’s Little Dorrit and the suicidal financier Melmotte in Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.


The ‘Shell’ Crisis of 1915: The End of Asquith’s Liberal Government

The last purely Liberal government collapsed in scandal in May 1915. What caused it was a classic case of spin. 

The British war effort was running short of high explosive shells, which the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, publicly denied, on the advice of his War Secretary, Lord Kitchener. A Times reporter blew their cover by reporting on the British failure at the Battle of Aubers Ridge, where “the want of an unlimited supply of high explosives was a fatal bar to our success”. The resulting furore forced Asquith to set up a coalition government, with David Lloyd George appointed Minister for Munitions. He immediately increased production by pressing women into the munitions industry. By 1917, 80% of the ammunition used by British forces was being produced by ‘munitionettes’, often in hazardous conditions and on half the pay of their male counterparts.


The Rector of Stiffkey: Saviour of Fallen Women

The Reverend Harold Davidson of Stiffkey in North Norfolk was defrocked in 1932. Known as ‘the Prostitutes’ Padre’ as a result of his tireless efforts to save hundreds of vulnerable girls from a life on the streets, he divided his time between the sleepy Norfolk parish and the seamy back alleys of Soho. 

The Bishop of Norwich hired a private detective to follow Davidson around London but found little evidence against him. Nevertheless, Davidson was found guilty of five charges of immoral conduct and had to suffer lurid press headlines. 

His response was to turn himself into a seaside performer, protesting his innocence by pretending to be roasted on the spit by the Devil and appearing in Skegness as Daniel in a den of real lions. This went tragically wrong when he stood on one of the lion’s tails and was mauled to death.

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s ‘QI

OUR JOURNALISM RELIES ON YOU

Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.

Thank you for reading this article

New to Byline Times? Find out more about us


SUBSCRIBE TO THE PRINT EDITION

A new type of newspaper – independent, fearless, outside the system. Fund a better media.

Don’t miss a story…

Our leading investigations include Brexit, Empire & the culture war, Russian interference, Coronavirus, cronyism and far right radicalisation. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.

More stories filed under The Upside Down

More stories filed under Culture