Chances are, you’ve never heard of the Berners Street Hoax, one of the world’s biggest pranks and one which brought Georgian London to a virtual standstill. Concocted by Theodore Hook who was a celebrity of the time, it was designed to show that any old London house could become the most talked-about address in town within a week.
The Berners Street Hoax
Theodore Hook placed the bet with his chum, Samuel Beazley, also a well-known figure. And he did it for the grand sum of a guinea.
The set-up took place on the 27 November 1809 at 54 Berners Street, a hop, skip and a jump from Oxford Street. And it happened to a poor Mrs Tottenham, a well-to-do widow who was probably minding her own business.
Hook had previously sent out thousands of letters to businesses and individuals around London, inviting them to deliver their wares to 54 Berners Street on the morning of the 27 November.
Let the Game Begin
It all started at 5am on the fateful day. A chimney sweep came knocking at Mrs Tottenham’s door, claiming his services had been ordered. He was followed by 12 more. The deliveries then started: coal from Paddington wharf, potatoes, wedding cakes, books, ices, jellies, and 2500 raspberry tarts ordered from 50 pastry cooks. Further deliveries included a church organ, several pianos, mourning coaches and a made-to-measure coffin (measuring 5’6 x 16).
Lawyers, doctors, nurses, hairdressers, milliners, fishmongers, barbers and artists arrived on her doorstep. Auctioneers, accoucheurs, tooth drawers, poultry and pigeon sellers also formed part of this extraordinary cacophony.
Members of Parliament came knocking, together with The Lord Mayor who was responding to a request from the “deathbed of a penitent councilman.” Hook also sent letters to the Governor of the Bank of England, the Chairman of the East India Company, the Duke of York and Archbishop of Canterbury.
Examples of the letters sent to Mrs Tottenham included:
Mrs Tottenham requests Mr ———- will call upon her at two to morrow as she wishes to consult him about the sale of an estate —– 54 Berners street Monday”
“Mrs Tottenham requests that a post chaise and four inay be at her house at two to morrow to convey her to the first stage towards Bath —– 54 Berners street Monday
Hook, Beazley and friends rented out rooms opposite No 54 so that they could watch the parade of tradesmen arrive. Berners Street became a hazardous quagmire of carts, wagons, people and fare. Breakables, carriages and carts were smashed in the mellée, beer and wine barrels were overturned, and utter chaos ensued. The streets of Mayfair ground to a halt. The traffic jam grew from one end of Oxford Street to the other and into its ancillary roads.
The roaring crowds called for the capture of the perpetrator, but friends of Hook’s who were in attendance kept schtum. The Marlborough Street police station despatched officers to the scene of the hoax, but to no avail. On arrival, they were greeted by “six stout men bearing an organ, surrounded by wine porters with permits, barbers with wigs, manufacturers with band boxes, opticians with their various articles of trade…at four o’clock all was still in confusion.” 1
Hook got away with one of the biggest hoaxes in British history by absconding to the country for a few weeks. The famous Londoner would become infamous.
The Berners Street Hoax Perpetrators
Theodore Hook was born in Charlotte Street in London. He was a Regency playboy, writer, wit, composer and joker. He received (and most likely sent) the world’s first postcard. Hook was one of the celebrities of the Georgian age and the inspiration behind Mr Wagg in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Lucian Gay in Disraeli’s Coningsby.
He was the son of composer, James Hook, and grew up writing words for his father’s operas. The Prince Regent made him Accountant General to Mauritius, where he was arrested for fraud in 1817. Back in the UK, he went on to found John Bull, a popular Sunday newspaper (it shut down in 1964).
Hook was one of the country’s bestselling novelists. He was a member of the “silver-fork” school, famous for writing fashionable novels where members of the English Upper Class penned comedies of errors about the same class (think Lady Whistledown in Bridgerton.)
He died at his home in Fulham, aged 53.
Another famous Londoner, Beazley was a novelist and playwright and one of the leading theatre architects of the Georgian era. His credits include The Lyceum Theatre and the now defunct St James’s and Royalty theatres. He was also asked to undertake major renovation works to the Adelphi and Drury Lane theatres.
The house where it all happened is now home to the splashy Sanderson Hotel.
Berners Street has strong associations with Charles Dickens. His mistress, Ellen Ternan, lived at No 31, and it was in this Street that Dickens took inspiration for one of his greatest characters: Miss Havisham: a “conceited old creature, cold and formal in manner….dressed entirely in white…”
1 The Annual Register, Or, A View of the History, Politics, and Literature
The British Newspaper Archive
The Baltimore Reportory, of Papers on Literary and Other Topics