Chaos on Berners Street

Georgian London’s most famous prankster once summoned thousands of officials and tradespeople to the house of an unsuspecting victim.

Berners Street hoax
William Heath, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Back in January, in the post on the first postcard, I promised to write about Theodore Hook’s most famous prank. I included the tantalising description “it involved the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Mayor of London, a fishmonger, and a dozen chimneysweeps” – but, to be honest, that description is really underselling the chaos that Hook unleashed.

The reasons why Hook pulled off this prank are not well understood. A rumour from 33 years after the event suggested that it was the result of a bet – to make a random house the most famous place in London within a week – but Hook never explained himself or even confessed.

This is what we know: in the early 19th century CE (1809 or 1810 depending on the account), Hook sent out letters to tradespeople, officials, the clergy, pretty much everyone he could think of, and asked them to come visit a particular house on Berners Street. He sent hundreds of letters.

The letters asked for goods (fish, coal, cakes, pianos – cash on delivery, of course), services (chimney sweeps, lawyers, doctors), and ministration to the dying (from priests and vicars). The letters asked for visits from the Lord Mayor of London, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bank of England’s governor… essentially Hook made up whatever lies he could to get the largest possible crowd into one street at one time.

The house on Berners Street was not Hook’s. It was the residence of a woman of some means and eminence, Mrs Tottenham, and her name was enough to get them to actually turn up. From dawn onwards, the street (just 200 metres long) was completely packed, first by the summoned throngs and then by the throngs of gawking onlookers and then by the throngs of police trying to control the chaos.

History does not record Mrs Tottenham’s reaction to this onslaught. The so-called Berners Street Hoax was the talk of the town for months afterwards, and then the source of gossip, rumours, fabrications, and dramatizations for years afterwards.

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