5 Brass-Necked Londoners Who Weren't Who They Claimed To Be

By Jane Alexander Last edited 30 months ago
5 Brass-Necked Londoners Who Weren't Who They Claimed To Be

Throughout London's history, there have been brass-necked imposters — willing to risk everything for fortune and fame. Here are five of the most audacious of all. Spoiler alert: most of these stories do NOT end well.

1. The man who claimed to be a lost prince

The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1483 by Sir John Everett Millais. Image: public domain

One of London’s earliest imposters emerged from the confusion surrounding what would become one of the city’s most enduring mysteries. Uncertainty has always existed over the fate of King Edward IV’s sons Edward and Richard, or the 'Princes in the Tower'. They'd been next in line to the throne until their uncle, Richard III, declared them illegitimate and made himself king instead.

The boys had been living in the Tower of London but were never seen again after the summer of 1483, and it was often speculated that they had been murdered at Richard’s instructions. However, some believed it was plausible that one or both had escaped and gone into hiding elsewhere, and several years later, one person sought to capitalise on the belief in the possibility of a secret royal survivor.

A man named Perkin Warbeck emerged in 1490, claiming to be the younger son, Richard, and that his brother had been murdered, forcing him to go undercover for his own safety. Warbeck made a claim to the English throne and managed to convince some members of European royalty of his identity, including the future Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I. However, his various armed attempts to progress his claim in England did not meet with success, and he was eventually captured and handed over to Henry VII in 1497.

Ironically, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London itself, only being released when he confessed he was not actually one of the Princes in the Tower after all. While he was still allowed to attend the royal court, he remained under guard, which led him to make a number of escape attempts. He was eventually recaptured and locked up in the Tower again, before being executed at Tyburn in 1499.

2. The fake German princess

James Basire, engraving of Mary Carleton as The German Princess with her Suppos'd Husband and Lawyer. Image: public domain

Restoration era London also saw someone styling themself as a member of a royal family. In 1663, a woman emerged in the city claiming to be Maria von Wolway, a princess from Cologne, who described herself as 'the German princess'. That same year, she married a surgeon named John Carleton, who believed her account, and she became known in London society under his surname. In truth, Maria was not a princess, but a woman from Canterbury called Mary Moders, and this was one of a number of marriages she had made in the past, often for financial gain.

John Carleton was later tipped off that she was not who she claimed to be, and she was prosecuted for having married him under false pretences. However, Moders produced documents that seemed to support her case, and managed to be cleared of the charges. She spent the next stage of her life moving from one relationship to the next, under a range of false identities, and stealing money in almost every case. After being convicted of theft on one occasion, she was deported to Jamaica, but managed to secretly return to London and begin her schemes again. Eventually she was arrested for defying the terms of her previous sentence, and was executed in 1673.

3. Another fake princess

A rather snarky article from the Stamford Mercury, 12 October 1821. © The British Library Board

The painter Olivia Serres was born under the name Olivia Wilmot, but she would later claim there was a secret story behind her birth which made her a member of the royal family. In 1817, she began pretending to be the daughter of George III’s brother, the Duke of Cumberland, who had died in 1790. Olivia alleged that the Duke had secretly married her mother in 1767, and forged documents to support her claim. By coincidence, she also happened to look sufficiently like the late Duke to convince some sceptics. She named herself Princess Olive of Cumberland, arranging for a baptism under this name in an Islington church, and also paid for announcements to be published in the newspapers declaring her identity to London society. However, in 1822 she fell into debt and was arrested. In a panic, she plastered numerous posters around London declaring, "The Princess of Cumberland in Captivity!", in an attempt to arouse public sympathy, as well as financial assistance. Afterwards she continued to press her case to be royalty, but her claim was eventually dismissed in parliament. She avoided being prosecuted for this, but spent much of her remaining years in prison for debt instead.

4. Tichborne or not Tichborne?

The blended image (centre) was said by the Claimant's supporters to prove that Roger Tichborne (left, in 1853) and the Claimant (right, in 1874) were one and the same person. Image: public domain

One of the most sensational court cases in Victorian London revolved around a man’s claims to be the long-lost heir to a baronetcy. In 1854, Roger Tichborne, who had recently inherited his family’s title, disappeared while on a sea voyage, and was thought to have drowned after the remains of his ship were discovered. However, 12 years later, a man began making claims to be the lost Tichborne, stating he had been rescued by a passing ship from his disastrous voyage, and taken to Australia. He managed to convince many people of his case, including Tichborne’s own mother after travelling to England. But others were suspicious, and evidence began to accumulate that the person claiming to be Tichborne might actually be a man called Arthur Orton, who had been born in Wapping before travelling abroad for a number of years. He took his case to court, in an attempt to prove his identity and secure his fortune, but the jury eventually rejected his claim, and he was subsequently charged with perjury. The saga became a source of fascination in London, with many of the public convinced that he was the real baronet and that he was being robbed of his rightful inheritance. However, the second court case affirmed the conclusion of the first that the claimant was Orton rather than Tichborne, and he was sentenced to 14 years in prison. After his release, he wrote an article for a newspaper in which he confessed to being Orton after all, although he later retracted this and returned to his previous claim to be Tichborne.

5. A Stanley with a plan(ley)

John Malkovich starred as Alan Conway in the 2005 film Colour Me Kubrick. (Yes, that is Jim Davidson on the left.)

The film director Stanley Kubrick moved from America to the UK in 1961 and ended up living there for the rest of his life. However, by the 1990s he had become more reclusive and seldom made public appearances, which meant that many people were unfamiliar with his appearance at this stage in his life. A travel agent from north London named Alan Conway took advantage of this, and began impersonating the director during the early 1990s. He managed to convince a number of people in the industry, using his status to gain entrance to exclusive clubs, get others to pay for his meals, and mix with renowned actors behind the scenes in London theatre. Journalists to whom the false Kubrick had promised interviews were taken aback when the director’s studio denied all knowledge of such offers, and people began to realise that a fake was at work. However, Conway was never prosecuted as many of the people he had duped refused to go the record about it. Kubrick’s assistant Anthony Frewin eventually wrote a screenplay about the bizarre tale, which was filmed in 2005 as Colour Me Kubrick, and starred John Malkovich as the imposter in question.

Last Updated 29 October 2021