9 Great British impostors

Updated August 10, 2017

British history is full of memorable characters -- great leaders, groundbreaking innovators and more than a few notable eccentrics. Among the latter category are those historical figures who were not, in fact, who they claimed to be. Over the centuries, Britain has had more than its fair share of impostors. Some were fraudsters, some were simply unhinged, but all were interesting.

Lambert Simnel

The Wars of the Roses were a tumultuous time in British history. Contenders for the throne of England called the parentage of their rivals into question, and potential threats to the succession were imprisoned and secretly assassinated. The aftermath of this conflict spawned two famous pretenders to the throne. The first was Lambert Simnel, a boy of around 10 who was said to be the Earl of Warwick, a youth who was believed to have been killed in the conflict and who would have had a claim to the throne. Few people supported Simnel's claim and his small force was defeated by the army of King Henry VII in June 1487. The king pardoned Simnel and even gave him a job in the royal kitchens.

Perkin Warbeck

Yet another royal impostor in the years following the Wars of the Roses was Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be Richard of Shrewsbury, the Duke of York, one of the famous "Princes in the Tower" executed on the orders of Richard III in 1483. Warbeck received support from rival states such as France, Burgundy and Scotland. Warbeck and his allies raided in England, Ireland and Cornwall for several years, but he was finally captured, forced to confess his imposture and executed in 1499.

Dr James Barry

A much more successful impostor was Dr James Barry, a military surgeon who worked in Jamaica, India and South Africa. Barry was promoted to the rank of inspector general of military hospitals. It was only upon his death in 1865 that it was discovered that Barry was in fact a woman. Barry's true identity is not definitely known; she may have been a woman named Margaret Ann Bulkley. Her decision to live as a man may have been motivated by the desire to study medicine, a career which was closed to women at the time. If this is the case, Bulkley/Barry was successful: she was the first female to qualify as a medical doctor in Britain.

Arthur Orton

Arthur Orton, known as "the Tichborne Claimant," is one of Britain's most famous impostors. When Roger Tichborne, the heir to the Tichborne family fortune and title, was lost at sea in 1854, his mother Henriette was overwhelmed by grief. When a butcher from Wagga Wagga, Australia, Thomas de Castro alias Arthur Orton, claimed to be her lost son, she was elated and brought him to England where she supported him financially. Orton failed to convince the rest of the family, largely because he looked, sounded and acted nothing like Roger Tichborne. After a lengthy legal battle, he was convicted of perjury and jailed in 1874. Henriette Tichborne died in 1868, apparently convinced to the last that Orton was her lost son.

M.E. Clifton James

Unlike Arthur Orton, whose deception was presumably motivated by a desire for money, M.E. Clifton James undertook his imposture in the service of his country. Born in Australia, James volunteered for service in the British army at the outbreak of World War II and was assigned to the Pay Corps. He was also a keen amateur actor. In 1944, an officer noted James's astonishing resemblance to Field Marshal Montgomery, the British commander who would play a vital part in the D-Day landings. James was recruited to serve as Montgomery's double; he was sent to Gibraltar and North Africa in order to convince German intelligence that an invasion of Southern France was planned. The deception was successful, and James was returned to the Pay Corps. It was not until after the war that his contributions were recognised. James even played both himself and Montgomery in a film based on his experiences.

Lobsang Rampa

In 1956, the name Lobsang Rampa first appeared on the cover a book, The Third Eye, which purported to be the autobiography of a Tibetan monk. An investigation revealed that Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, to use his full name, had been born Cyril Henry Hoskin in Plympton. Hoskin had never been to Tibet. Undaunted, Rampa continued to publish more books, including 1964's Living With the Lama, which he said had been dictated to him by his cat.

Samuel F. Cody

Playwright, actor, expert marksman, rodeo cowboy, dirigible pilot and aeronautic engineer, Samuel F. Cody is one of the most dramatic figures of British aviation history. The only problem is that there was no Samuel F. Cody. Born Franklin Samuel Cowdery in Davenport, Iowa in 1867, the "Cody" persona was a legacy of Cowdery's work in touring Wild West shows. He even at times claimed to be the son of legendary Western showman "Buffalo Bill" Cody. What wasn't imaginary was Cody's contribution to British aviation. He developed enormous kites which could carry military observers into the air, made the first aeroplane flight in Britain in 1908, and made many other contributions to aviation. He was killed in an aeroplane crash in 1913.

Princess Caraboo

The mysterious woman known as Princess Caraboo appeared in the Gloucestershire town of Almondsbury in 1817. She spoke a language none of the locals recognised, but eventually managed to tell them that she was a shipwrecked princess from the distant tropical island of Javasu. In actuality, she was Mary Baker, a servant from Devon who had created a fictitious language in order to impress the locals, who she seems to have believed would be more generous to a poor foreigner than a poor native.

The Dreadnought Hoaxers

In February 1910, a group of Abyssinian (modern Ethiopian) dignitaries visited HMS Dreadnought, then moored at Portland. Officers from the ship welcomed the Ethiopians with an honour guard and showed them around the vessel. Embarrassingly, they were not Ethiopians at all but a group of pranksters, including Virginia Stephen, who would achieve literary fame as Virginia Woolf. The Navy were embarrassed by the prank, but the press adored it.

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About the Author

Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.