The Baldock Beer Disaster: One of Wikipedia's most famous hoaxes
PUBLISHED: 13:36 17 August 2018 | UPDATED: 13:54 04 September 2018
In November 2005, the ‘did you know...’ sidebar on the main page of the English-language Wikipedia featured a new article about the “Baldock Beer Disaster”.
This was supposedly an incident that happened on March 14, 1904, in which a floor collapsed at the Simpson Brewery in Simpson Drive.
The article claimed this crushed eight workers to death, drowned another five and injured 15 more – with a wave of beer then sloshing through the surrounding streets, destroying three houses and killing a dog.
Two more people died from “alcohol-related conditions”, the tale went on. The brewery was purportedly so disgraced it declared a state of bankruptcy, with the building remaining derelict until it was demolished in 1968.
The disaster was claimed to be commemorated each year by staff at the library in Simpson Drive.
Quoted as sources for the article were a fictional book by the actual Baldock historian and former Knights Templar School headmaster Vivian Crellin, and a purported 1928 Royston Crow article by someone called Gregory Westonbyre.
Wikipedia users raised concerns about the article as early as November 2005 – not over its veracity, but over whether the disaster was important enough to have an article on the site.
The first suspicions that it might be a hoax were aired a month later by Wikipedia user Arwel Parry, who said he was unable to find anything to prove it happened besides mirrors of the Wikipedia article.
An anonymous user identifiable only by an IP address insisted in response that it was genuine but had been “forgotten due to the trauma sufferred [sic] by those involved, the bad publicity for the town and the half-hearted cover-up by the brewery owners”.
The page was edited in February 2007, anonymously, to add in a supposed supporting quotation from a “Mr Lidder (Baldock resident)” – whose account initially claimed his grandfather had died in the disaster along with his dog.
Days later, a user called Jspearmint revised this to appear as a quotation from the memoirs of the now “late” Mr Lidder, whose new statement said it was his father who had died in the flood “as well as his dog (Geoffrey) as mentioned above”.
A third supporting source for the article, a supposed Baldock Mail correspondent called “A. Pedant”, was also added at this point.
The article’s downfall came three months later, when three Wikipedia users agreed the tale was fictitious. The page was originally converted to be about the hoax, before being deleted altogether.
It was noted during the conversation that Mr Crellin never wrote the alleged book cited, and that the supposed publisher Hancock & Hine shared its name with two Knights Templar School houses.
The actual Baldock Mail also printed what Wikipedia user Lordelph summarised as a “fairly entertaining rebuttal” of the story, which had lasted a year and eight months in total as a Wikipedia article.
The fact the Baldock Beer Disaster never happened didn’t stop the Destihl Brewery in Illinois naming its Baldock Rye IPA after it.
Repeated reference has been made to the hoax in articles examining the reliability of Wikipedia and its content. In 2015, the website Mandatory included it in a list of “The 10 Best Wikipedia Hoaxes”.
The Wikipedia user Jspearmint perpetuated further elaborate Wikipedia hoaxes – including claiming garden city pioneer Ebenezer Howard was also an early electronic composer with works including the theremin-led ‘Morrisons: Fresh Choice for You’, and that July 1914 saw a “Letchworth Corset Riot”.
These were praised by Wikipedians as “beautifully done”, “masterfully written” and “supremely well-done” – but, as hoaxes, deleted. Jspearmint was permanently banned from Wikipedia in September 2009, with an administrator describing his antics as posing “acute danger to the encyclopedia”.
In January 2009, a blogger identifying himself only as Jim made a post entitled “Wikipedia At Your Peril”, in which he recounted the Baldock Beer Disaster hoax and claimed his brother was responsible.
“To the uninitiated the page looked believable and even had a variety of carefully constructed references,” he said.
“The Comet, the local paper to which I earlier referred, had its suspicions early on. The reason, of course, is that the Baldock Beer Disaster never happened.
“Destihl publish their brewmaster’s email address on their website but I couldn’t bring myself to contact him with the truth. We’ll let him enjoy a cool, refreshing glass of Baldock Rye IPA and drink to the memory of the unfortunate canine.”