How A Practical Joke Brought 19th Century London To A Standstill
In 1809 (or, by some accounts, 1810), a 21-year-old writer named Theodore Hook was strolling through central London with his friend, the architect Samuel Beazley, when he decided to put down a bet. “I’ll lay you a guinea,” Hook wagered, pointing to a house opposite, “that in one week that nice quiet dwelling shall be the most famous in London.”
The “nice quiet dwelling” in question was 54 Berners Street, the private residence of an unassuming widow known only as Mrs. Tottenham. According to some descriptions of what became known as “the Berners Street Hoax,” Hook knew Mrs. Tottenham well, and the prank that he engineered was revenge for a past dispute. According to other accounts, the pair had no connection at all, and Mrs. Tottenham was nothing more than the unsuspecting butt of Hook’s epic practical joke—in which case, all that mattered was that she lived in a suitably well-to-do part of the city, and that there were rooms available to rent in the house directly opposite hers.
Whatever Hook's motive, one week later—on November 27, 1809—a chimneysweep turned up at Mrs. Tottenham’s door. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t have seemed unusual in the up-market area of Westminster, but on this particular occasion, it was 5 o’clock in the morning, and, what’s more, Mrs. Tottenham hadn’t hired a sweep that day. Nor had she hired any of the other two dozen chimneysweeps who turned up at her door over the next half-hour, nor the pastry chefs that showed up next, carrying trays of fresh raspberry tarts, nor had she purchased any of the enormous custom-made wedding cakes that began to be delivered, nor the bespoke hats, wigs, ladies’ dresses, men’s suits, spectacles or pairs of shoes that followed. As the morning wore on, the street outside Mrs Tottenham’s house steadily began to fill with disgruntled merchants, tradesmen, deliverymen, and their vehicles, every one of them wanting payment for their wasted time and wares, and every one of them turned away by an utterly bemused Mrs. Tottenham. A crowd of spectators began to gather on Berners Street to watch.
After the pastry chefs, cobblers and wigmakers came through, bulkier goods began to turn up: butchers carrying whole legs of mutton, upholsterers carrying rolls of carpet, and tailors pushing wagons full of brand new linen. Cartloads of coal and fresh fish were hauled from Paddington Wharf, nearly two miles away, to Mrs. Tottenham’s door. Then came expensive glassware and furniture, a dozen grand pianos from a dozen different suppliers, and even a pipe organ, so large it had to be carried by “six stout men.”
At that point, the road outside Mrs. Tottenham’s home was completely jammed, with traffic backed up almost two blocks away. Fights broke out among the increasingly enraged crowd of tradesmen, and several expensive deliveries were destroyed as their owners attempted to battle their way through the chaotic scene. Before long, much of central London was in total disarray.
Next to arrive were vicars and chaplains, each one answering a request to administer last rites to someone they were told was dying in Mrs. Tottenham’s home. They were followed by scores of unemployed domestic servants answering a job vacancy, then private tutors, doctors, lawyers, and solicitors, undertakers bearing coffins, and finally a handful of local dignitaries; throughout the course of the day, Mrs. Tottenham received visits from the Lord Chief Justice, the Governor of the Bank of England, the Chairman of the East India Company, numerous Members of Parliament, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and even the Duke of Gloucester, nephew of King George III. The Lord Mayor of London turned up in his carriage, but by then the road was so impassable that “his lordship’s stay was short, and he was driven to Marlborough Street police office.” Eventually, every available policeman was called on to disperse the crowds, but, according to the London Morning Post, “the street was not cleared [until] at a late hour.” It took well into the evening for the area around Berners Street to return to normal—and throughout it all, in a rented room in the house opposite Mrs. Tottenham’s, Theodore Hook and his friends sat and watched the bizarre event unfold.
Method to the Madness
In an effort to win Beazley’s wager, Hook spent the entire week (or, according to some versions of the story, as many as six weeks) prior to the prank sending out 4000 handwritten letters, invitations, advertisements, and mail orders to hundreds of people and businesses all across London. All were in Mrs. Tottenham’s name, and all asked that their recipients arrive at her home on Berners Street on November 27. It soon came light that these letters were behind the entire fiasco, as everyone involved—including the Lord Mayor—had received one:
At the office [of Marlborough Police Station], his lordship [the Lord Mayor] informed the sitting magistrate that he had received a note purporting to come from Mrs T. which stated that she had been summoned to appear before him, but that she was confined to her room by her sickness, and requested his lordship would do her the favour to call on her.
Despite a public outcry demanding that the perpetrator be tracked down, the source of the messages remained a mystery:
… the tangible material damage done was itself no laughing matter. There had been an awful smashing of glass, china, harpsichords, and coach-panels. Many a horse fell, never to rise again. Beer-barrels and wine-barrels had been overturned and exhausted with impunity amidst the press of countless multitudes. It had been a fine field-day for the pickpockets. There arose a fervent hue and cry for the detection of the wholesale deceiver and destroyer.
Throughout the subsequent “hue and cry,” Hook laid low at home before quitting London two weeks later to embark on a short trip around England. By the time he returned, the entire debacle had been forgotten. Amazingly, Hook’s involvement was never proven and he was never punished. After his death, a friend claimed that Hook wasn’t responsible, though he had orchestrated a similar hoax one year earlier on nearby Bedford Street. (Still, she declined to name who was behind the Berners Street debacle.) Whoever masterminded the day's events had succeeded in making Mrs. Tottenham’s house the talk of the capital—and in the process, brought much of central London to a halt.