The Berners Street Hoax

Samuel Beazley led an interesting life. Born in Westminster in 1786, he wrote his first play at age 12. He later served in the British Army during the Peninsular War, where he had two interesting adventures in particular. At one point, he was knocked unconscious during a skirmish and, thought to be dead, was prepared for burial, only to wake up at the last minute. He also played a role in the rescue of Duchesse d’Angoulême, the daughter of Louis XVI, from approaching French forces led by Napoleon.

Beazley returned to England after the war and wrote over 100 plays, mostly comedies. He also wrote two novels – The Roué (1828) and The Oxonians (1830) – and translated several Italian opera librettos into English. He also designed a spa, a town hall, a couple of hotels, the South-Eastern Railway Company’s station at London Bridge and several stations on their North Kent line. He also designed the hilariously named Studley Castle in Warwickshire.

But Beazley was mostly known for being Britain’s first “theatre architect”. He designed St James’s Theatre, the Royalty Theatre and the City of London Theatre. He led major renovations of the Adelphi Theatre and the Drury Lane Theatre, and designed two theatres in Dublin, two in Belgium, two in India and one in Brazil. He even designed the Lyceum Theatre twice: his original 1816 building burnt down in 1830, so he designed its replacement, which still stands today:

Lycium Theatre

Yet, despite all of Beazley’s good works, he is best remembered today… for a prank.

Beazley had a friend named Theodore Hook. Hook, born in London on September 22, 1788, was the son of James Hook, was a composer of popular songs of the period. His elder brother, also named James Hook, became Dean of Worcester Cathedral.

Thomas was something of a musical prodigy: his father often took him to theatres to show him off to other performers, and at sixteen Hook debuted his first work, a comic opera called The Soldier’s Return. He wrote several more works, all of which were commercially popular. He was fairly well off by this point, but his music so charmed the Prince Regent – the future King George IV – that the prince named him accountant-general and treasurer of the island of Mauritius, a gig that paid him a healthy £2,000 a year.

Unfortunately for Hook, £12,000 ended up missing from the island’s accounts. Hook could provide no answer for the discrepancy, so he was arrested and brought back to England for trial. During this time he made money by writing articles for newspapers and magazines. His writings were so popular that he was able to start a newspaper named John Bull, which proved to be yet another commercial success. However, Hook never addressed the missing  £12,000. He was arrested again, and this time sent to a “sponging-house”, a kind of halfway house for debtors. Typically, one would be sent to a sponging-house – a private home, usually that of the bailiff who’d arrested you – as a last ditch attempt to arrange a way to pay off debts. If unsuccessful, the debtor was usually sent to debtor’s prison. Hook was able to use his charm to get out of the house after a couple of years. But the debt hung over him the remainder of his life, and after he died on August 24, 1841 the government seized his estate to settle the debt.

Hook was also known as a consummate prankster. In late 1810, Hook and his friend Beazley were walking down a street in a fashionable part of London. Hook pointed to a random house and bet Beazley that he could make that house the most talked about address in the city in less than a week.

Beazley took him up on it, and at around 4 AM on on Monday, November 26, Hook picked up Beazley and took him to a rented room across from the soon-to-be-infamous home on Berners Street. Remember that this was an upscale location just off Oxford Street. This was a part of London where lords, ladies and earls lived, as well as the Bishops of Carlisle and Chester. As the two huddled in the pre-dawn darkness, Hook pointed across the street to the large home at 54 Berners Street, which was owned by a woman named Mrs. Tottenham (or, in some sources, “Tottingham”).

At 5 o’clock that morning, a chimney sweep appeared at Mrs. Tottenham’s door. Of course, Mrs. Tottenham was wealthy, so she wasn’t the one who answered the door, but rather one of her servants. The sweep said he’d received a letter requesting his services at that exact hour, and the servant, not wanting to wake up Mrs. Tottenham, didn’t know what to do. As the sweep and the servant argued, another sweep appeared, and another, and another… and another and another. Eventually a dozen chimney sweeps stood on the steps of 54 Berners Street, angrily wanting to know what the deal was.

The maid was somehow able to convince the sweeps to leave, but just minutes after they’d left a fleet of coal carts showed up at the door. And as the maid spoke with the dozen or so drivers, carts full of furniture began arriving. This was followed a few minutes later by a hearse, complete with coffin and an entire train of “mourning coaches”. Next, several carts showed up with giant wedding cakes.

The poor maid was completely flummoxed by this point, but more and more tradesmen arrived: barbers, bakers, wig makers, tailors, seamstresses, dentists, physicians, opticians, apothecaries, architects, lawyers, carpet makers, fishmongers, poultry sellers, coach makers, cabinet makers, clock makers, coopers, carpenters, confectioners, candlers, auctioneers, miniature-painters, cloth merchants, shoemakers… almost any trade you can imagine. Cooks, housemaids, nursemaids, coachmen and footmen all appeared at the door, having received letters about possible jobs. And, as Hook and Beazley were no doubt laughing their asses off in the house across the street, more deliveries showed up: a dozen pianos, a cartload of potatoes, a cart of ale barrels, even a chamber organ, complete with six giant men to move it.

Berners Street wasn’t very wide to begin with, and as word of the deliveries spread, onlookers appeared. The street was completely clogged with angry merchants, onlookers and police, who were curious as to why traffic had come to a complete stop on Oxford Street. In fact, traffic had ground to a halt throughout much of London. But Hook had it all planned out. Like a symphony, the prank was approaching a crescendo.

At around noon, the Lord Mayor of London appeared, having claimed to receive a letter from Mrs. Tottenham saying that she was on her death bed and had a legal matter she wanted to discuss with him. Shortly thereafter, the Governor of the Bank of England arrived, as did the Governor of the East India Company, the Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of York, the Lord Chief Justice, a Cabinet minister, the commander-in-chief of the British Army, and even the Archbishop of Canterbury, all of whom had received letters similar to the Lord Mayor’s. And, of course, all the dignitaries came with drivers, secretaries, valets and footmen, which only added to the mass of people.

Surprisingly, given the anger the merchants must have felt, a riot did not break out. A few carts were overturned, and onlookers helped themselves to the ale which had been delivered. But the crowd was remarkably peaceful, and by late afternoon police had sealed off Berners Street at both ends and were prodding the crowd to disperse. By evening, the crowd had gone, no doubt a huge relief to poor Mrs. Tottenham.

As you might guess, the prank was a huge story in newspapers, and it was such an “event” that annual registers – reference books that chronicled the important events of the year – mentioned the prank. It appears that the entire population of London talked about it for weeks and months afterward, and the hoax was even mentioned in a few plays which debuted in early 1811.

Of course, newspapers came down against the prank. Poor Mrs. Tottenham hadn’t done a thing to be a target of the prank, and although the situation ended peacefully, it could have early broken out into a riot. The London Annual Register, for example, described it as “a malignant species of wit”.

Having said all that, even people condemning the prank were amazed by the sheer scale of the hoax. The Industrial Revolution had just begun, and thousands of people had left the countryside to get jobs in the big city. And here it all was, the wealth, grandeur and material output of a mighty city, all sitting on the steps of one poor woman’s house. As Grace and Philip Wharton noted in their 1861 book The Wits and Beaux of Society:

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.

Although authorities searched high and low for the perpetrator of the crime, Hook was never charged for the hoax. Although many who knew him or knew of him suspected him of the hoax, the first time he was named as a “suspect” in print did not appear until 1812. In 1836, Hook basically admitted to the prank in the semi-autobiographical novel Gilbert Gurney:

“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.”

It’s thought that Hook had help from a friend named Henry Higginson and an actress whose name is lost to history. Historians believe that the three wrote at least a 1,000 letters to various tradesmen and dignitaries, although some have put the number of letters as high as 4,000.

In the end, Hook won the bet, and Beazley paid him what they’d wagered: one guinea, a gold coin worth a pound and shilling. Today that amount of money would be worth roughly £70, or around $110.

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