You’re Having A Laugh – Part Five

The Berners Street Hoax, 1810

Chaos descended upon Berners Street in London’s Fitzrovia on 26th November 1810. The road was crowded with merchants who descended upon No 54, the home of a wealthy woman, Mrs Tottenham or, in some reports, Mrs Tottingham. The London Annual Register noted that what turned up included “Waggons laden with coals from the Paddington wharfs, upholsterers’ goods in cart-loads, organs, pianofortes, linen, jewellery, and every other description of furniture.” The poor lady of the house was at her wit’s end.

During the course of the day more and more tradesmen arrived, including an undertaker with a custom made coffin. Around midday the Lord Mayor of London arrived brandishing a letter from Mrs Tottenham asking him to favour her with a visit. He soon realised it was a fake and made a speedy exit, stage left. The afternoon saw a steady flow of tradesmen and the street was in chaos with their carts made worse by a motley crew of onlookers who had assembled to view the comings and goings. The police, in an attempt to restore order, blocked off both ends of the street but it was not until it had grown dark that some sort of order was restored.

Each of the tradesmen had received a letter, purportedly from Mrs Tottenham, requesting them to attend her house with their wares at designated times during the day. As she was known to be a wealthy woman and of standing, tradesmen jumped at the chance of doing some business with her. Of course, it was all an elaborate hoax and the police were on the search for the perpetrator, offering a reward “for the apprehension of the criminal hoax.

The hoax generated considerable public interest and by the following year, references to it on the stage drew enthusiastic responses from the audience. The perpetrator, however, remained undetected. By 1812 the finger of suspicion was pointed at a young writer of comic operas, one Theodore Hook who was known as a playboy and practical joker. One of his favourite tricks, it seemed, was to knock on the front door of a perfect stranger and using his charm and persuasiveness secure himself an invite to dinner.

Hook sort of confessed in a roundabout sort of way in his semi-autobiographical Gilbert Gurney, published in 1835. There one character, Dray, remarks, “There’s nothing like fun — what else made the effect in Berner’s Street? I am the man — I did it.” Hook was never charged but further details of the possible motives for an elaborate hoax on a woman with whom he had no connection emerged in the early 1840s. It was said that when he and a friend were walking down Berners Street Hook pointed at random to number 54 and said, “I’ll lay you a guinea that in one week that nice modest dwelling shall be the most famous in all London.” It is even said that Hook and his accomplices – the sheer size of the hoax required that over a 1,000 letters be written and sent to tradesfolk summoning them to Berners Street – rented a room across the way to better view the mayhem.

The hoax was not original – on 31st October 1809 a hoaxer had sent numerous tradesmen to the home of an apothecary in Bedford Street in Covent Garden as payback for some medicine “which did him no good” – but what marked it out was its sheer size and audacity or, as Grace and Philip Wharton put in The Wits and Beaux of Society in 1861,”it was not the idea of the hoax — simple enough in itself — which was entitled to the admiration accorded to ingenuity, but its extent and success.” Quite.

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