The Berners Street Hoax, History's Most Audacious Prank
A caricature of the Berners Street Hoax. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)
In 1810, in Westminster, London a respectable house on the well-to-do Berners Street became ground zero for one of the most disruptive hoaxes in history. This prank became known as the Berners Street Hoax.
On the morning of November 27, 1810, a chimney sweep arrived at 54 Berners Street proclaiming that he received an order to do work by Mrs. Tottenham, the widowed, wealthy homeowner. The house servant who answered the call knew of no such work and sent the man away. The sweep was soon replaced by others who were crying “sweep” as they descended upon the house for work.
As Mrs. Tottenham’s servants repelled the brigade of chimney sweeps these were joined by wagons brimming with coal. There were so many that when combined with the sweeps, the normally quiet Berners Street had come to a standstill. Then came cabs, coming to pick up fictitious passengers. These were followed by “medical men with instruments for the amputation of limbs, attorneys prepared to cut off entails,” and a laundry list of other trades.
Artists ready to paint portraits, clergy ready to bestow blessings, cooks bearing wedding cakes, butchers hauling shanks of lamb, fishmongers carrying fish, and merchants of each and every kind tried to jostle their way to the door of 54 Berners Street. An undertaker even arrived with a coffin for still living Mrs. Tottenham. Men attempted to deliver a dozen pianos. Then at 11:00 a.m., a handsome carriage pushed its way onto the street carrying the Lord Mayor of London himself.
According to reports, the mayor had received a note “purporting to have come from Mrs. Tottenham, which stated that she had been summoned to appear before him, but that she was confined to her room by sickness, and requested his Lordship’s favor to call on her.”
This continued on until evening as tradesmen, merchants, and dignitaries came only to find that they had not been summoned at all. At 5:00 pm a squad of servants arrived purporting to fill new jobs they were offered. Besides the deceived trades, there were numerous gawkers who were agog at each new strange visitation to 54 Berners Street from playing organs to haberdashers to wigmakers. It was as if every kind of trade in the British Empire was coming to call on Mrs. Tottenham. The archbishop of Canterbury came as well as the Governor of the Bank of England, the Chairman of the East India Company, and the Duke of York. The police finally dispersed the remaining crowd at night.
It was obvious that the whole affair was a prank. Tradesmen had received orders that they filled since Mrs. Tottenham was a wealthy woman. Examples of such orders which were printed in the London newspapers 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, may be at her house at two to-morrow to convey her to the first stage towards Bath — 54, Berners street, Monday.
These types of stunts where numerous tradesmen and deliveries would come calling on a home were not unknown. The difference was the sheer scale of the prank. Thousands of orders and letters had to have been written to pull off the whole affair. Those directly impacted by the hoax were livid at the waste of time that had been forced on them. There were calls to find and arrest the perpetrator of such a disruptive joke. But no arrests were ever made, but it is generally agreed that the prankster was Theodore Hook.
Theodore Hook (1788-1841) was a writer and man of letters who was known for his practical jokes. While it was never truly confirmed that he was responsible for the Berners Street Hoax, he admitted it through one of his characters in his semi-autobiographical novel, Gilbert Gurney. What was perplexing was that Hook had no relationship with Mrs. Tottenham in the least. Instead, the hoax seems to have originated from a bet. In 1843 an account of the hoax was published in which Hook was taking a walk on Berners Street with a friend. Hook reportedly said to the friend while pointing at 54 Berners Street, “I'll lay you a guinea that in one week that nice modest dwelling shall be the most famous in all London.” Mrs. Tottenham was apparently a random target.
The wager was accepted although it seems unlikely that Hook could have pulled off a hoax of such scale with only a week of planning. Still, he apparently had two accomplices an unknown man and woman. Theodore Hook never faced any legal ramifications for the Berners Street Hoax though by his death he was largely held to be the man responsible for it.
Hook had one other claim to fame. In 1840 he received the first-ever postcard which he mailed to himself. It was apparently a joke on the post office since the card contained caricatures of postal workers.