The Epic Berners Street Hoax Of 1810

On February 14, 2015 by Tim Newman

Theodore Hook -  Eden Upton Eddis

Everyone likes a good practical joke (as long as it isn’t carried out on you and no one dies or ends up in a coma), the Germans call it schadenfreude – ‘pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others’. It’s not the nicest of human traits, but it’s as old as humanity itself, I’m sure.

I’m not sure why we’re so mean, but the following tale is an early example of a pretty impressive practical joke / hoax / trolling session from the 1800’s. called the Berners Street hoax.

Theodore Hook (1788-1841 – pictured above) was an intellectual, composer and civil servant in Mauritius; he was also a well renowned prankster. In 1840, Hook was the first person in the Universe to receive a postcard; he created, illustrated and posted the thing to himself.

The postcard was adorned with caricatures of postal workers, so it was probably just another of Hook’s practical jokes at the expensive of the postal system. Said postcard sold at auction in 2002 for more than £30,000:

Theodore Hook - First Postcard

Theodore Hook, known at the time for partying hard and illegal financial wrangling, is now best known for his Berners Street hoax. The story begins in 1810 with Hook making a bet with his BFF Samuel Beazley (an English architect, novelist and playwright). Hook bet Beazley that he could turn any house in London into the most talked-about address within just 7 days.

Beazley called his bluff and Hook got to work. The following skit shows Hook’s ingenious mind and an impressive lack of empathy too.

On 27th November, 1810, a sweep arrived at Mrs Tottenham’s house, 54 Berners Street. A maid answered the door and advised the sweep that his services were surplus to requirement and that no one had requested him. He promptly left. Moments later a second sweep arrived and the drama played out once more in a similar fashion. Then another arrived, and another. Twelve sweeps rocked up at Mrs Tottenham’s house in total.

History Collection on LAZERHORSE.ORG

This was just the beginning of Hook’s devious ruining of Mrs Tottenham’s peace. Next to arrive were a fleet of coal deliveries, swiftly followed by a host of cakemakers with large decorative wedding cakes. Next to join the throngs were a gaggle of doctors, lawyers, vicars and priests who had been told someone was gravely ill at 54 Berners Street.

Theodore Hook - Berners Street Hoax

Fishmongers, shoemakers and over a dozen pianos were among the next to join the party, along with “six stout men bearing an organ.” Dignitaries, including the Governor of the Bank of England, the Duke of York and Albany, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Mayor of the City of London also arrived.

The narrow streets were soon severely congested with tradesmen and onlookers. These errant deliveries and visits continued into the early evening, bringing a large part of London to a total standstill.

This is an excerpt from the Morning Post the next day:

Every Officer that could be mustered was enlisted to disperse the people, and they were placed at the corners of Berners Street to prevent trades people from advancing towards the house with goods. The street was not cleared at a late hour, as servants of every denomination wanting places began to assemble at five o’clock. It turned out that letters had been written to the different trades people, which stated recommendations from persons of quality. A reward has been offered for the apprehension of the author of the criminal hoax.

The entire charade was watched by Theodore Hook from a residence just across the road from Mrs Tottenham’s cursed abode. I imagine he was fairly pleased with himself. Hook, jammy to the last, managed to evade detection. Amongst his friends there were suspicions that he was to blame, so he laid low for a couple of weeks before travelling off around the country to “convalesce”.

Theodore Hook - Berners Street Hoax cartoon

Just in case you were wondering what 54 Berners Street looks like today it is now the Sanderson Hotel:

Theodore Hook - Sanderson Hotel on Berners Street

No one can deny that the Berners Street prank is of epic proportions, but most would also agree that it was more than a little bit mean.







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