When historians disagree, it is usually about the interpretation of facts rather than the facts themselves. The philosopher Nietzsche said: ‘There are no facts, only interpretations’, which is true, but only up to a point. No-one is going to argue with the fact that ‘Queen Elizabeth II died in 2022’. But they might argue with the ‘fact’ that the Duke of Wellington won the Battle of Waterloo; without Blücher’s Prussian army, the outcome may well have been different. Wellington himself commented that it was ‘the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life’.
Nevertheless I think that if a historian commits a narrative to print as a true record of events, it is essential that the facts are checked and not just hearsay. Otherwise history, historical fiction, and pure fantasy become confused and intertwined. A sloppy historian is worse than useless; if alleged ‘facts’ can be shown to be spurious, their work can never be viewed seriously.
I have come across several instances of this in my own researches, but two stand out. Lady Celia Noble was the granddaughter of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. She wrote a biography of Isambard and his father Marc, mentioning briefly Isambard’s sister, Emma Joan Brunel. My interest in Emma is explained in the article Isambard’s Gift which can be found elsewhere on this website. Celia Nobel wrote that Emma had married a curate, Frank Harrison, from ‘Longdon near Tewkesbury’, and had died young. This account was copied and repeated in at least two subsequent publications about the Brunels by different authors. In fact a fairly simple investigation showed that Emma had married George Harrison, a curate of Langdon Hills near Basildon, and she lived to be eighty years old.
Lucy Worsley is a quirky popular historian, who frequently does TV shows on historical events, and likes dressing up as her characters. The book accompanying her BBC TV series ‘A Very British Murder’ garnered unqualified praise from the broadsheet newspapers as well as that doyenne of experts of the genre Antonia Fraser. Worsley wrote a chapter on the Red Barn murder, and in the TV series she dressed up as the victim Maria ‘Marten’ (her name was actually Maria Martin). Maria was the victim of William Corder, her boyfriend and the father of her third illegitimate child. It is difficult not to conclude that this chapter in Worsley’s book was just an excuse to show some gruesome colour pictures of relics of the murder on show at the Moyse’s Hall Museum at Bury St Edmunds. These included a copy of an account of the murder bound in Corder’s skin, his scalp complete with an attached ear and a death mask.
Worsley’s skimpy account of the affair seems to have been based purely on a conversation she had with the museum curator and is full of factual errors. The old canard about the barn seeming to be a ‘bloody and ominous red’ in the setting sun comes from a thoroughly discredited account of the affair by Donald McCormick. The barn was quite probably painted red as a preservative for the wood. Maria was ‘said’ to have gone to meet Corder disguised in a man’s clothing. She was dressed as a man, and this is clear from the trial transcript. Worsley tells us that Corder found a wife after advertising in The Times. Not true; he found his wife, Mary Moore, after advertising in the Morning Herald. A second advertisement did appear in the Sunday Times, but Corder never picked up the responses because he had already met Mary Moore and married her two days after the second advertisement was published. According to Worsley, Corder claimed in his confession that he just threatened Maria with the gun and only fired because of ‘trembling fingers’. Yet the confession, dictated to John Orridge, governor of Bury Gaol, just twelve hours before Corder was hanged there states quite clearly: ‘... a scuffle ensued, and during the scuffle, and at the time I think she had hold of me, I took the pistol from the side-pocket of my velveteen jacket and fired.’
“So what?” You might say, “These are minor details. What does it matter how the Red Barn got its name; one newspaper is as good as another, and whether Corder killed Maria accidentally or on purpose, he still killed her.”
I would counter, “Yes, but with the exception of the way the barn got its name, these are not the actual facts, which are clear, well documented, and in the public domain.” This so-called ‘history’ is, therefore, a piece of cynical merchandising; a coffee-table potboiler. Furthermore, if the ‘facts’ in the chapter on the Red Barn affair are so sloppily assembled, what credence can be given to the accounts of the other murders described in the same book. History it isn’t.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs