On 27 November 1810 on of the Regency era’s most famous ‘practical jokes’ occurred — the Berners Street Hoax. Although it is almost wholly forgotten now, it created a huge sensation at the time, reported in all the papers and a “fervent hue and cry” to find the person responsible.
Like 99.9% of practical jokes, the Berners Street Hoax was amusing only to the perpetrator. For everyone else, especially its victims, it was a horrid experience. It wasted the time, money, and effort of several tradesmen and workers, as well as causing intense distress to Mrs Tottenham, the principle victim, who lived at 54 Berners Street.
A complete twatwaffle (or comic genius depending on your point of view) named Theodore Hook, who was fancied quite a wag, wagered his friend, Samuel Beazley, that he could make any house in London briefly famous. Beazley bet that Hook couldn’t do any such thing, so Hook wrote and sent “thousands of letters” claiming to be Mrs Tottenham, “requesting deliveries, visitors, and assistance” to all come to 54 Berners Street on 27 November. Hook did not care about the expenditures of the defrauded tradesman or servants, or the dismay this would cause an innocent woman.
First 54 Berners Street was besieged by chimney sweeps, convinced they had been summoned for a job, followed by unwanted coal deliveries and numerous confectioners bearing wedding cakes that were not requested or needed, and thus not paid for. Hook also sent fictitious deliveries of fish, shoes, more than a dozen pianos, and at least one organ. This insane rush of deliveries caused massive traffic congestion in the streets of London, and inconvenienced people throughout the city.
Every Officer that could be mustered was enlisted to disperse the people, and they were placed at the corners of Berners Street to prevent trades people from advancing towards the house with goods. The street was not cleared at a late hour, as servants of every denomination wanting places began to assemble at five o’clock. It turned out that letters had been written to the different trades people, which stated recommendations from persons of quality. A reward has been offered for the apprehension of the author of the criminal hoax.
Worse, people had to make these efforts in lieu of some other actual paying client or possible job offer at this time, meaning that products or opportunities were squandered, and either the businesses or the deliverymen had go without compensation. This would have been a serious disruption of their livelihoods. Considering how close to the edge of disaster most working-class people lived in the Georgian era, this could have resulted in failed businesses and/or hungry children.
Impinging on the working class wasn’t enough for Hook. He also arranged for a large number of doctors, lawyers, vicars and priests to come to the house “to minister to someone in the house they had been told was dying.” He also managed to trick the Governor of the Bank of England, the Duke of York, the Chairman of the East India Company, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Mayor of London to show up on poor Mrs Tottenham’s doorstep.
Hook, comfortably middle-class himself at the time, got away with his little joke, but the quality of his character spelled out his own doom. In spite of securing an appointment as accountant-general and treasurer of Mauritius with a lavish salary of £2,000 in 1813, he botched the job so badly that in 1817 he was arrested and hauled back to England to account for himself. He was held responsible for the loss of more than £12,000, which he was required to reimburse or face imprisonment. Needless to say, he wasn’t one to take his debt seriously.
In 1820, he launched the newspaper John Bull, which served as a mouthpiece for high Toryism and enjoyed a good circulation because it was both witty and cruel, especially in regards to the defamation of Queen Caroline. Hook made, for the time, a good deal of money from the paper, but being an inveterate shirker, he was “arrested for the second time on account of his debt to the state, which he made no effort to defray.” In 1823 he had to go to live in a sponging-house, but he earned enough by writing for magazines and newspapers that he was released in 1825.
He continued to support himself through writing, and became famous for producing several novels most noted for their “frequent passages of racy narrative and vivid portraiture.” Hook also sent the world’s first known postcard, designed by himself and sent to himself, in 1840 as yet one more of his practical jokes. This is one of the few times a practical joke benefit anyone, because postcards became handy ways of sending short notes and pictures and in 2002 the postcard was bought by a collector for a whopping £31,750.
Hook wasn’t one to straighten out his life just by becoming a successful, popular novelist. He still wanted to drink and party his way through life. However, to pay for his drinking and partying, he had to work. This “prolonged attempt to combine industry and dissipation resulted in the confession that he was done up in purse, in mind and in body, too at last.” Theodore Edward Hook died at home on 24 August 1841, at the age of 54.
His property and goods were seized by the crown for debt, much to the dismay of his common-law wife, Mary Anne Doughty, and their six children. Because the children were illegitimate, they had no claim to their father’s name or fortune, and I have no idea what happened to either them or their mother. The Victorian era was not a time to be kind to the bastard offspring of scamps, so I fear the worst. The only hope is that Hook was immensely popular during his life, a kind of literary Johnny Knoxville and admired by many, and I hope his fans remembered to help his kids.