Theodore Hook, an English man of letters and a composer, was also a famous prankster that perpetrated the Berners Street hoax, one of the most famous hoaxes in London. It involved Berners Street, about two miles away from today’s Madame Tussauds and described as a “quiet street, inhabited by well-to-do families living in a genteel way.” On Berners houses had neatly drawn shades, polished knockers, and respectable vehicles that traversed its street. The quietness and respectability of Berners supposedly wore on Hook, and, so, in 1810, about the same time that Napoleon Bonaparte was divorcing Josephine, Hook wagered a guinea against Samuel Beazley “that he could, in a [single] day, make Berners Street the most talked-of place in London.”
After the bet was made, Hook then devoted several days to writing letters in the name of the widow Mrs. Tottenham,* who lived at 54 Berners Street. In the letters, Hook requested that on 27 November 1810, the appointed day, for the stated reason, the trades person, servant, or professional should arrive at her home, and just as requested, shortly after dawn on the appointed day at the appoint time, “a wagon-load of coals drew up … A van-load of furniture followed, then a hearse with a coffin, and a train of mourning-coaches.”
New arrivals by different people continued to occur one after another. All sorts of deliveries then followed that included such things as vegetables, meat, fish, liquor, pastries, musical instruments, and flowers. These deliveries were followed by doctors, dentists, brewers, clock makers, hairdressers, attorneys, philanthropists, preachers, shoe makers, tailors, coach makers, butchers, chimney sweeps, opticians, housemaids, cooks, confectioners, curiosity dealers, vicars, priests, and wig makers. Then, “to crown all, dignitaries came [next] in their carriages — the Commander-in-Chief, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chief Justice, a Cabinet minister, a governor of the Bank of England, and the Lord Mayor.”
“The last named functionary — one among those who speedily saw that all had been victimised by a gigantic hoax — drove to Marlborough Street police-office, and told the sitting magistrate that he had received a letter from a lady in Berners Street, to the effect that she had been summoned to attend at the Mansion House, that she was extremely ill, that she wished to make a deposition upon oath, and she would deem it a great favour if his Lordship would call upon her. All the other persons of eminence had their commiseration appealed to in a somewhat similar way.”
To ensure Hook would see it all and be in the center of the action, he acquired furnished lodgings across the street from Mrs. Tottenham’s house and “there posted himself with two or three companions on the day in question, to enjoy the scene.” Whatever gentility might have existed was soon crowded out by hundreds of disappointed tradespeople and a slew of upset dignitaries. The crowd continued to grow and swell until Berners Street was “choked with vehicles, jammed and interlocked one with another.” This forced London into a near standstill as the roads into Berners Street became increasingly impassable. Upset drivers clamored for vengeance, tradespeople were infuriated, and the police were soon dispatched to restore order. But the police could do little to contain the situation, and the commotion, terror, and disorder continued all through the day until late in the evening.
With mobs at either end of Berners Street “drivers were irritated, … disappointed tradesmen were exasperated, and large crowds enjoyed the malicious fun.” With so many people crammed into one spot, it was inevitable tempers would flare and the multitude would misbehave, which is exactly what happened. At one point, people became so upset vans were overturned, goods smashed and broken, and beer and wine casks broken open to satisfy those who had been hoaxed. Even pickpockets got into the act, handily enriching themselves among the crowd. In fact, it was reported “fierce were the growlings” by all those who had been cheated of their time and energy. Even Mrs. Tottenham and those in her house noted how they were terrorized and trapped against their will.
Those not involved in the Berners Street hoax found the situation somewhat comical, but the “tangible material damage done was itself no joking matter,” The exasperated multitude who had lost their time, energy, and money demanded satisfaction. Many of the tradesmen and others “who had suffered in person or in purse, took active measures towards bringing the charge home to the principal offender, who was pretty generally suspected [as being Hook].” Vociferous notes were written and delivered to authorities demanding the culprit be punished. Hook thought it best to not reveal his participation in the hoax and also luckily evaded detection, and, in fact, he never admitted his participation and what he had done was not discovered until long after the event had happened.
*Although many referred to the woman as Mrs. Tottenham or Mrs. T. it seems her real name was Mrs. Mary Teresa Tottingham. She was married to John Tottingham, who spent much of life in India working for the East India Company and she probably met and married him there just like Philadelphia Austen met and married Tysoe Saul Hancock in India.
-  Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 42, 1888, p. 415.
-  Epoch, Volume 29, 1903, p. 732.
-  Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, p. 415.
-  Ibid.
-  “Celebrated Hoaxes,” in Abergavenny Chronicle, 15 November 1873, p. 2.
-  Ibid.
-  Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, p. 415.
-  Chambers’s Journal, Volume 50, 1873, p. 488.
-  Hook, Theodore Edward, The Choice Humorous Works, Ludicrous Adventure, Bon Mots, Puns and Hoaxes, 1883, p. 540.
-  Littell’s Living Age, Volume 204, 1895, p. 5.