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 the Duchesse d’Angoulême, 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 London Bridge station and several other stations on their North Kent line. In Warwickshire, he also designed the hilariously named Studley Castle.

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, led major renovations of the Adelphi Theatre and the Drury Lane Theatre, and designed two theatres each in Dublin, Belgium and 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 his good works, Beazley is best remembered today… for a prank.

*     *     *

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

Theodore Hook
Theodore Hook, prankster

Theodore 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 seemed to have a bright future, and his music so charmed the Prince Regent – the future King George IV – that the prince named him accountant-general and treasurer of Mauritius, a gig that paid him a healthy £2,000 a year.

Unfortunately, £12,000 ended up missing from the island’s accounts, and Hook could provide no answer for the discrepancy. So he was arrested and returned to England. While awaiting trial, Hook made money by writing articles for newspapers and magazines. His writings were so popular that he was able to start a newspaper, John Bull, which was yet another success.

However, Hook never did address 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 as a last ditch warning to figure out 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.

At around 4 AM on Monday, November 26, Hook picked up Beazley in a carriage and the two went to a rented room across from the soon-to-be-infamous home at 54 Berners Street. Remember, 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, which was owned by a woman named Mrs. Tottenham (or, in some sources, “Tottingham”).

At 5 AM, 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 Mrs. Tottenham, didn’t know what to do. As sweep and servant argued, another sweep appeared, and another, and another… and then another and another. Eventually a dozen chimney sweeps stood on the steps, angrily wanting to know what the deal was.

The maid was somehow able to convince the sweeps to leave, but minutes later a fleet of coal carts showed up at the door. 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. It was as if the entire London Yellow Pages just appeared at Ms. Tottenham’s door!

Cooks, housemaids, nursemaids, coachmen and footmen all appeared at the door too, having received letters about possible jobs. And, as Hook and Beazley were surely laughing their asses off 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, curious bystanders and police, who wanted to know why traffic had come to a complete stop on Oxford Street. As it happened, traffic had ground to a halt throughout much of London. But Hook had it all planned out. Like a symphony, this 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 the Archbishop of Canterbury, all of whom had received letters similar to the Lord Mayor’s. And, of course, all these grandees came with drivers, secretaries, valets and footmen, which only added to the crush 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 was such an “event” that annual registers – books that chronicled the important events of the year – mentioned the prank. 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 ended badly. 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 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 suspected him of the hoax, the first time he was named as a “suspect” in print did not appear until 1812. In 1836, Hook 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 that number 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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