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“The Berners Street Hoax” – The greatest practical joke of the 19th century

Goran Blazeski

Theodore Hook was born on September 22, 1788, in Charlotte Street, London. He was the son of James Hook, a composer of popular songs.

He was educated at private schools and he also spent a year at Harrow School. Theodore was only 16 years old when he began to work together with his father on musicals, including the successful The Soldier’s Return, a comic opera that was extremely popular with the public.

The Soldier’s Return brought him £50 when he was only sixteen. During the next five or six years, he produced a number of farces and melodramas.

Amongst the things for which Hook was most remembered, however, was his love of pranks, practical jokes, and hoaxes.

Hook, c. 1810

Hook, c. 1810

One of the most celebrated practical jokes was the famous Berners Street hoax, perpetrated in 1809. It all started when Hook had bet his friend the noted architect, and writer, Samuel Beazley, a guinea that he could transform any house in London into the most talked-about address in a week.

They shook hands and after that, they choose the house of the widow Mrs. Tottenham, a lady of fortune, on 54 Berners Street, London.

It all began on November 27. Hook and his friend Samuel Beazley rented a room across from the house of the widow Mrs. Tottenham and around 5:00 am, the fun began.

Berners Street hoax, caricature

Berners Street hoax, caricature

Hook had sent out thousands of letters purporting to be Mrs. Tottenham and requesting deliveries, visitors, and assistance. First, a chimney sweep turned up at Mrs. Tottenham’s door claiming that he’d received a letter requesting his services at that exact hour, but the only problem was that Mrs. Tottenham hadn’t requested the services of a sweep.

12 more sweeps arrived just a few minutes after that, but they too were also turned away. But this was just the beginning and it didn’t take long before coal delivery workers began showing up with several large carts packed with coal to be delivered to Mrs. Tottenham.

Following this, a cart-load of furniture arrived and just a few minutes later workers showed up bearing a coffin for Mrs. Tottenham.

Theodore Hook, portrait by Eden Upton Eddis

Theodore Hook, portrait by Eden Upton Eddis

Several cake makers arrived attempting to deliver very large custom made weddings cakes and after that around fifty other chefs arrived attempting to deliver a total of around 2,500 raspberry tarts.

Dentists, grocers, priests, couch-makers, doctors, lawyers, gardeners, wig-makers, coach-makers, opticians, brewers, shoemakers and many other people showed up in front of Mrs. Tottenham’s home.

Over one dozen pianos were delivered to her doorstep. The Governor of the Bank of England, the Duke of York, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Mayor of the London, the Lord Chief Justice, several cabinet ministers, and the Chairman of the East India Company also arrived in front of Mrs. Tottenham’s house.

The road outside Mrs. Tottenham’s home was completely jammed, with traffic backed up almost two blocks away and Hook and Beazley just sat and watched the chaos from across the street.

Another story from our Wacko Vault: Harry Kellar: magician who claimed to make invisible herds of elephants march on the stage

The crowds dissipated late in the evening. The prank was a huge story in newspapers and everyone in London talked about it for weeks and months afterward. Hook won the bet, and Beazley paid him one guinea, a gold coin worth a pound and shilling.