Fake news: there’s (probably) a bylaw for that

While researching a potential story for a client, I found, scattered across the internet, a whole subgenre of lists of archaic bylaws that are still current.  In typical internet fashion, many of the lists simply replicate other lists, and a lot include defunct bylaws or apocryphal ones – the latter having circled the Earth a few thousand times by now, I’d imagine. Does this really matter? Since it’s very unlikely that anyone would prosecute you for cracking an egg at the pointy end, does the existence or otherwise of a law prohibiting it harm anyone?

The truth is, it’s hard to say. Of course, it’s unlikely the veracity of the pointy egg bylaw matters. It’s entertaining, and I doubt anyone will lose any sleep over it. The worst-case scenario is probably a disgruntled quiz-goer who has been firmly told by the quiz master that the (wrong) answer on the card is the right one (because the internet said so).

I do quite a bit of information-foraging down the rabbit hole of internet searches. I try to find two (or ideally three) reliable sources to verify anything that I then assert in a report as fact. This is usually quite easy if you’re prepared to dig. Our access to innumerable scholarly articles is one of the great gifts of the 21st century.

But as I dig, I also discover that a lot of ‘facts’ are third-, fourth- or even tenth-generation fictions, sometimes with an origin story now lost in the ether. The first two or three pages of Google results might all repeat this fiction in a variety of ways, with the truth hidden several pages down in a blog post by some weary scientist or lawyer or historian, laying out the actual facts and doing their small bit to correct false narratives.

And in some cases, it really does matter – a person’s words, deeds or reputation will have been muddied unjustifiably, and that can hurt them or those that care about them. So it is worth doing a bit of digging.

It’s good for your political health, too – guarding you against taking everything you read at face value. I read recently that the Finnish are much less susceptible to fake news than, say, people here or in America: the Finnish government launched a multi-pronged anti-fake-news initiative and it’s helping protect them against Russian disinformation.   

So, here is my list of bylaws, the current, the defunct and the apocryphal:

Strange Bylaws that are still British Law

1) It is illegal to be drunk in a pub

1872 Licensing Act. Yes, really.

2) It is an offence to be drunk in charge of a horse, cow or steam engine

1872 Licensing Act. Would you want to be drunk in charge of a cow?

3) It is illegal to jump the queue in the Tube ticket hall

TfL Railway Byelaws. Too right. It should also be illegal to eat pungent food on a crowded Tube train, shout “I’m on a train” at your phone, or put your feet up on the seats.

4) It is illegal to handle a salmon in suspicious circumstances

Salmon Act 1986. Very suspicious, those salmon.

5) It is illegal to import Polish potatoes

2004 Act, Statutory Instruments No. 1452 “No person shall, in the course of a business, import into England, potatoes which he knows, or has reasonable cause to suspect, are from Poland.” This was apparently due to ‘ring-rot’ which was a problem at the time. It’s now well-and-truly out of date and seems very unfair to Polish potato farmers.

6) It is illegal to cause a nuclear explosion

Prohibition and Inspections Act of 1998. Is a bylaw really the place for designating this illegal?

7) It is illegal to enter the Houses of Parliament wearing a suit of armour

A 1313 Statute forbids members of Parliament from wearing armour in the House. However, wearing down the opposition is a must.

8) It is illegal to fire cannon within 300 yards of a dwelling house

S55 of the Metropolitan Police Act 1839. Admiral Boom and Mr Binnacle, take note.

9) Kite flying in a public place is punishable by a fine of up to £200

Metropolitan Police Act Of 1839. That seems a bit mean to anyone who doesn’t have a big garden.

10) Pelican-touching is expressly forbidden should you happen to find one in a London park

Royal Parks and Other Open Spaces Regulations 1997. Apparently, you might be allowed to, if you ask permission first. – That’s the permission of the park keeper, not the poor, put-upon pelican…

11) Defacing a banknote is prohibited

Currency and Banknotes Act 1928. Take note, market stallholders and magicians…

12) Easter Day shall be a fixed day in each year, viz the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April

The Easter Act 1928 – passed but never enacted.

There are more...

Some sound like they were made up by a disgruntled neighbour: no shaking out carpets in the street after 8am; no knocking on doors and then running away; no hanging your washing across the street; it’s an offence to switch on your burglar alarm while you’re away unless you’ve appointed a designated key-holder…

Some sound pretty sensible: you aren’t allowed to flag down a taxi if you know you have the plague.

And some, inevitably, relate to the Queen, and her rights over various wild animals: mute swans; sturgeons; dolphins…

Bylaws that no longer apply

1) You must carry at least one bale of hay in your car

I’ve seen this cited as referring to all cars, but it only applied to taxis. The London Hackney Carriage Act 1831 required taxis to carry at least one bale of hay. It was repealed in 1976.

2) Every Englishman aged 17-69 must keep and practice with a longbow

The Unlawful Games Act 1541, repealed in 1960.

3)  If a man unintentionally kills another man by letting a tree fall on him, the tree shall be given to the kinsmen of the slain

Laws passed by Alfred the Great. Homicidal trees as compensation. Not sure it’s a winner. From the Doom Book, aka the Legal Code of Alfred the Great. [In most cases, I’ve managed to track down an online-copy of the original law, and I did in this one too, but… I’m going to have to take Wikipedia’s word for it. Here is the link to Alfred’s legal code; if you can read Old English, I’d be extremely grateful if you’d sift through and find the tree clause for me…]

4) It is illegal to eat mince pies on Christmas Day

Sadly, no! It would be nice to think we’re all being a bit naughty gobbling those mince pies, but apparently it only applied for Christmas Day in 1644, as 25 December that year fell on a legally-mandated day of fasting. However, mince pies were strongly disapproved of by the Puritans as a sign of excess.

5) Until 2016, it was illegal to sing “Happy Birthday” in public

Not strictly a bylaw, but often quoted in bylaw lists: Warner/Chappell claimed to own the copyright for the tune of “Happy birthday”, having bought it in 1935. They actively enforced it from 1949, charging anyone for its commercial use, but this was challenged in 2013, and overruled in 2016. Warner/Chappell agreed to set aside $14million to repay the copyright fees they had erroneously collected in the intervening years.

Bylaws that most likely never existed

1) You can legally shoot a Welshman with a longbow on Sunday in the Cathedral Close in Hereford; or inside the city walls of Chester after midnight; or a Scotsman within the city walls of York, other than on a Sunday

No, you really can’t: it is, and always has been, illegal for citizens to shoot anyone anywhere in the UK, regardless of their country of birth.

2) It is legal for a pregnant woman to relieve herself in a policeman’s helmet

Nope, not the case, and why on earth would a policeman offer up his helmet for the purpose?

3) It is illegal for a lady to eat chocolates on a public conveyance

Very gender specific, and there’s no evidence it existed. The Puritans would probably have had views on women eating chocolate…

4) It is illegal to crack a boiled egg at the sharp end

This is often attributed to Edward VI but there’s no evidence it actually existed. It would have been pretty tricky (and pretty petty) to enforce.

5) It is illegal to die in Parliament because if you do, you have to be accorded a state funeral

There is no evidence that this was ever a law. Four people have died in Parliament, and none were accorded a state funeral. (Guy Fawkes (1606) and Sir Walter Raleigh (1618), both executed; Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated, shot dead in 1812; and Sir Alfred Billson, who collapsed and died in the House of Commons ‘Aye’ lobby in 1907, while casting his vote.)

With special acknowledgement to this post, which has a good run-down of many of the legal curiosities listed here (and includes some I haven’t mentioned), and references the laws in question.