The Top 10: Things people are remembered for that they didn’t actually do

<p>Granny myth: the kind of fruit eaten by Eve is not specified in the Bible</p> (Getty Images)

Granny myth: the kind of fruit eaten by Eve is not specified in the Bible

(Getty Images)

Inspired by 24 hours of clips of Christopher Plummer not actually singing “Edelweiss”, marking the actor’s death earlier this month, Stewart Wood suggested this list and nominated no 1. I excluded things people are remembered for saying that they didn’t actually say, as we have already done Misquotations and Misattributed Quotations.

1. Eating a hamster: Freddie Starr. The Sun’s front page headline from 1986 dogged the late comedian for the rest of his life. He never ate or attempted to eat a friend’s hamster. The story was planted by Starr’s publicist, the late Max Clifford, to drum up publicity for a tour. To add insult to injury, Starr was a vegetarian. Thanks to David Lister.

2. Eating an apple: Eve. The kind of fruit is not specified in the Bible. Nominated by Adam Huntley and Adrian Hilton.

3. Being emperor of Rome, and conquering Britain: Julius Caesar. His highest title was “dictator for life”; it was his successor Augustus who was first declared emperor. And Caesar invaded Britain in 55 and 54BC, secured a treaty which included the payment of tribute, and went away. It was Claudius who invaded again in AD43, adding Provincia Britannia to the Roman empire. Nominated by Paul T Horgan, Ian Thomas, Slartibartfast and Jane.

4. Fiddling while Rome burned: Nero. We have no idea what he was doing: except that he was in Antium (now Anzio) at the time. But the Ancient Romans did not have violins. Thanks to Steven Fogel and Blair McDougall.

5. Circumnavigating the world: Ferdinand Magellan. He died in the Philippines, and it was Juan Sebastian Elcano, his fellow navigator, who led the remaining 17 men (of the original 270) back to Spain in 1522. Nominated by James of Nazareth, William Barrett and Paul in Oxford.

6. Inventing the guillotine: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. He was against capital punishment and proposed it to replace existing, crueller methods of execution. It should really be called the Schmidt, as the prototype was built by Tobias Schmidt, a German engineer. Thanks to Francis Eldergill, John Oxley and Adam Behr.

7. Inventing the steam locomotive: George Stephenson. Richard Trevithick did that in 1802; Stephenson’s was the first to take members of the public as passengers, in 1825. Nominated by Allan Holloway.

8. Sitting in the “White” section of the bus: Rosa Parks. She sat in the “Coloured” section and refused to give up her seat when the “White” section was full. “An important lesson about choosing the most reasonable demand to make opponents look unreasonable,” said Blair McDougall.

9. Closing many of Britain’s railways: Richard Beeching. He was chairman of (nationalised) British Railways who carried out policy set by Ernest Marples, the Conservative minister of transport. So he did “do” it, but he was the government’s agent. Thanks to Sam Evans.

10. Mistaking mushy peas for guacamole in a northern chip shop during a by-election campaign: Peter Mandelson. Thanks to Don Brown London.

A lot of nominations for Christopher Columbus, and yes I know about the Vikings and Venetian glass beads that turned up in Alaska in the 1400s, and the indigenous peoples of North and South America found them first, also via Alaska, but Columbus was the first from the industrialising, map-making world.

Plus, no one really knows what Canute did on a beach, how Harold died at Hastings, whether Robert the Bruce hid in a cave or what happened to George Washington’s father’s cherry tree.

Nigel Fox nominated Gordon Brown, who is remembered for not holding a general election in 2007. Top marks. David Sutherland tried to complicate things further by nominating George I, who is remembered for not doing something that he did in fact do, namely speaking English. Richard Troth nominated Boris Johnson, who “did not get Brexit done”. And Star Man nominated TV detector vans, which couldn’t detect TVs, but also weren’t people. Honourable mentions all round.

Next week: policies inspired by films, after Matt Hancock, the health secretary, suggested his vaccine strategy had been influenced by watching Contagion.

Coming soon: deaths of famous people eclipsed by deaths of even more famous people, starting with CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley, who both died on 22 November 1963, and no one noticed because JFK died the same day.

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to

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