The Berners Street Hoax

In 1810 London was the largest, wealthiest city in the world, linked by trade with every continent, and fed by the manufacturing might of northern British cities such as Liverpool and Manchester. Almost anything could be obtained in its shops, and on Monday, November 26 of that year, all of this mercantile abundance focused for one day upon a single residential address: 54 Berners Street, the home of Mrs. Tottenham (in some sources spelled Tottingham).

The scene began in the morning when multiple tradesmen simultaneously arrived outside No. 54 to make deliveries. According to a contemporary account (The London Annual Register for the year 1810) these deliveries included "Waggons laden with coals from the Paddington wharfs, upholsterers' goods in cart-loads, organs, pianofortes, linen, jewellery, and every other description of furniture."

Berners Street Hoax
"The Berners Street Hoax" from The Choice Humorous Works of Theodore Hook

Berners Street was located in a wealthy part of London, directly off of Oxford Street. Mrs. Tottenham herself was described by newspapers as "a woman of fortune." Her neighbors included some of the most important people in the city including the bishops of Carlisle and of Chester, Lady Coote, Count Woronzow, Earl Stanhope, and Lady Bensley. No. 54 was a particularly "large and handsome house." (It was later converted into a hospital, eventually torn down, and today is the site of the exclusive Sanderson Hotel.)

Because of Mrs. Tottenham's social status, she herself would not have answered the door in response to the tradesmen. Instead, a maid would have been sent to do this, and the maid's anxiety must quickly have mounted because none of the deliveries fast arriving had been ordered by the household.

And yet more tradespeople kept showing up, all insisting they had received notes requesting their presence, until soon a huge crowd of angry, shouting merchants had collected outside the front door. Newspaper accounts emphasized the bizarre diversity of the professions represented: six men bearing an organ, wine porters with permits, barbers with wigs, mantua-makers with band-boxes, and opticians with their various articles of trade.

The Sanderson Hotel, located at the former site of No. 54 Berners Street. (Note truck making deliveries)

The scene grew even more out-of-control in the middle of the day when the Lord Mayor of London arrived in his carriage accompanied by two of his livery servants and tried to make his way to No. 54. He told the policemen on the scene (who had by then arrived in response to the growing chaos) that he had received a letter from Mrs. Tottenham in which she said she had been summoned to appear before him, but was confined to her room by sickness and asked if he would do the favor of calling on her. Realizing the letter had been a fake, the Mayor quickly departed.

But as the afternoon progressed, tradespeople continued to arrive: accoucheurs, tooth-drawers, miniature-painters, artists of every description, auctioneers, grocers, mercers, post chaises, mourning coaches, poultry sellers, &c. At one point, even an undertaker showed up, bearing a coffin made to measure.

Adding to the mayhem was a large crowd of laughing, unruly spectators who gathered to observe the bizarre event. At the height of the commotion, there were so many people crowded into the street that it was hard even to move.

Eventually police officers blocked off both ends of Berners street in order to prevent more people from entering. Still, it was well past dark before the crowd dispersed.

The cause of this bedlam, it was soon realized, was some unknown prankster who had sent letters in Mrs. Tottenham's name to tradespeople throughout London, requesting their presence at her home. Since she was a wealthy woman, all these requests had been honored. London newspapers reproduced some samples of these notes:

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.

Mrs. Tottenham begs the hon. Mr. _____ will be good enough to give her a call at two to-morrow, as Mrs. T. is desirous of speaking to him on business of importance — 54, Berners street, Monday.

The police offered a reward "for the apprehension of the criminal hoax."

Public Reaction
The Berners Street Hoax, as the event soon came to be known, generated enormous public interest. Newspapers described it at length, and Annual Registers included it as one of the notable events in London for the year 1810.

One sign of the hoax's notoriety is that by 1811 references to it were being incorporated into London stage productions. For instance, a review of a play performed at the Lyceum Theatre in early 1811 includes this line: "A spirited epilogue was spoken by Mrs. Edwin, in which an allusion to the late hoax in Berners street was highly relished by the audience." (The Universal Magazine, Vol 15, 1811: 63). The hoax was similarly referenced in a performance at Covent Garden.

Contemporary accounts criticized the hoax for its cruelty, especially since its victim was a woman who had apparently done nothing to deserve being singled out in that way. The London Annual Register described it as "a malignant species of wit."

And yet, the criticisms were muted by a sense of fascination with the sheer spectacle the hoax conjured up. An article in an unnamed London paper (reproduced in May 1811 in the Baltimore Repertory) declared it to be, "The greatest hoax that has ever been heard of in this metropolis."

This fascination occurred, to a great degree, because London — the city itself — was the true star of the hoax. The growth of cities was one of the great social changes that occurred during the nineteenth century. Every day more people were leaving the countryside to live in cities, and the experience of the hustle and bustle of the urban environemnt, living surrounded by hundreds of thousands of strangers, was recognized as a distinctly new, modern phenomenon. The Berners Street hoax successfully dramatized both the sheer amount of resources the city put at people's disposal, as well as the chaos of urban living. In fact, it created a massive traffic jam — a phenomenon that would eventually become a well-known aspect of city life.

The Perpetrator
The identity of the person responsible for the hoax was not initially known. But by 1812 a lead suspect had emerged: a young, well-born writer of popular comic operas named Theodore Hook. (Hook would have been twenty-two at the time of the hoax.) The Nov 1st, 1812 issue of The Satirist or Monthly Meteor includes a brief note declaring that Hook was "grievously suspected of the Berners Street Hoax." Hook had acquired a reputation as a playboy and practical joker, so he was a natural suspect.

Theodore Hook
Theodore Hook at the age of 20

Decades later, Hook confessed, in a roundabout fashion. In his semi-autobiographical work Gilbert Gurney, he included a character, Dray, who declares at one point:

"There's nothing like fun — what else made the effect in Berner's Street? I am the man — I did it; sent a Lord Mayor in state, to release impressed seamen — philosophers and sages to look at children with two heads a-piece — piano-fortes by dozens, and coal waggons by scores — two thousand five hundred raspberry tarts from half-a-hundred pastry-cooks — a squad of surgeons — a battalion of physicians, and a legion of apothecaries — lovers to see sweethearts; ladies to find lovers — upholsterers to furnish houses, and architects to build them — gigs, dog-carts, and glass-coaches, enough to convey half the freeholders of Middlesex to Brentford. Nay, I despatched even Royalty itself on an errand to a respectable widow lady, whose concourse of visitors, by my special invitation, choked up the great avenues of London, and found employment for half the police of the metropolis."

However, no criminal charges were ever brought against Hook. In fact, the hoax probably elevated his reputation.

One of Hook's biographers, R.H. Dalton Barham, writing in 1849, claimed Hook had two accomplices whom he identified as "Mr. H _____ and Mrs. _____, a celebrated actress." Mr. H was probably Henry Higginson, a friend of Hook's whom he had met at Brasenose College, Oxford. The identity of the actress is unknown.

Beginning in the 1840s, accounts of the hoax regularly include that Hook and his accomplices rented a room in a Berners Street house in order to be able to observe the chaos they had created. It's also said that Hook and his friends wrote 1000 letters (or, in some accounts, as many as 4000) to tradespeople throughout London. This took them weeks of planning and preparation.

The sheer randomness of Hook's victim was one of the unusual features of the hoax. There was no apparent connection between Hook and Mrs. Tottenham, no reason for him to single her out. On November 26, chaos just descended upon her out of the blue.

J.G. Lockhart, in an 1843 article in The Quarterly Review, was the first to suggest that Hook's motive was a simple bet for one guinea between him and a friend (often suggested to be the architect Samuel Beazley). Apparently the two men were walking down Berners Street when Hook pointed to No. 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" (or words to that effect).

Hook also had a habit of selecting random victims for his pranks. Hook was highly regarded within his circle of upper-class friends for his ability to show up at the front door of any random stranger and talk his way into securing an invitation to that night's dinner.

Barham also argues that the Berners street hoax had a hidden satirical purpose. He claims that, although it was not reported by papers at the time, more dignitaries than just the Lord Mayor of London showed up at No. 54 Berners street that day. And that Hook's true purpose was to embarrass these dignitaries by hinting at the possible revelation of scandalous information:

Completely familiar with London gossip, and by no means scrupulous in the use of any information he might possess, Hook addressed a variety of persons of consideration, taking care to introduce allusion to some peculiar point sure of attracting attention, and invariably closing with an invitation to No. 54, Berners street. Certain revelations to be made respecting a complicated system of fraud pursued at the Bank of England, brought the Governor of that establishment, a similar device was employed to allure the Chairman of the East India Company, while the Duke of Gloucester started off with his equerry to receive a communication from a dying woman, formerly a confidential attendant on His Royal Highness's mother.

But it's also worth noting that the idea for the hoax was not original to Hook. Similar hoaxes had been perpetrated before, quite recently. London papers reported that on October 31, 1809 a hoaxer had sent numerous tradesmen to the home of Mr. Griffith, an apothecary who lived in Bedford Street, Covent Garden. Apparently this hoax was a form of payback, since Mr. Griffith had once given the hoaxer a medicine "which did him no good".

So the idea of pranking a victim by sending numerous unwanted tradesmen to their home was, at the time, part of the repertoire of young playboy-pranksters such as Hook. J.P. Malcolm wrote in An Historical Sketch of the Art of Caricaturing (1813):

Posterity should be informed that it has lately been the practice of certain merry gentlemen to write circular letters to professional men and tradesmen, appointing them to attend at an appointed hour and place, with their terms and various articles of sale and manufacture, which place is invariably the habitation of a person perfectly unconscious of the approach of the proposed assembly, whose confusion and dismay, and the uproar caused by the persons, forms the reward of the deceiver or hoaxer.

Although Hook couldn't claim originality, what did make his hoax stand apart, in the eyes of his contemporaries, was its sheer size. Grace and Philip Wharton wrote in The Wits and Beaux of Society (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, and the clever means taken by the conspirators to insure the attendance of every one who ought not to have been there.

Just as the Berners Street hoax was not the first such prank of its kind, nor was it the last. In Gilbert Gurney Hook acknowledged that versions of the hoax continued to be perpetrated, but dismissed these as mere imitations of his own work, having the character Daly say, "Copy the joke, and it ceases to be one."

Below are listed some notable later instances of Berners-street-style hoaxes:
  • In 1881, over thirty people showed up for a party at the home of Archdeacon Lear, who was Canon in residence at Salisbury Cathedral. They had all received letters of invitation, written in a lady's handwriting. However, the Archdeacon had no knowledge of such a party. Also sent were numerous goods, including three tons of coal, and two large classes of schoolchildren presented themselves.
  • On October 24, 1951, Mrs. William Spreen of 166 22nd Avenue in San Francisco had to answer her door all day in response to deliverymen and tradespeople sent by an unidentified hoaxer. Deliveries included "orchids, corsages, a Chinese Mandarin dinner for 21 people, ice cream, and a host of other articles." Tradespeople included "plumbers on emergency calls, doctors on the same, and mechanics".
  • The Berners Street hoax is also the distant ancestor of the Pizza Prank, which continues to be frequently perpetrated at colleges and universities. This prank involves arranging to have numerous unwanted pizzas delivered to a victim's residence.

Links and References


Excellent work on this incident, which I had been *very* sceptical about. Thanks.
Posted by Mike Paterson  on  Fri Nov 18, 2011  at  11:22 AM
Good thing there were no Pizza Hut's in 1810 London.
Posted by Paul  on  Wed Feb 29, 2012  at  02:23 PM