Today I am celebrating the anniversary of the Berners Street Hoax. It all started when a young man called Theodore Hook bet his friend one guinea that he could, within a week, turn any house in London into the most talked about address in the whole city. Whether he picked a house at random, or had some particular grudge against the lady who lived at 54 Berners Street isn’t clear. But here is how events unfolded on November 27th 1810:
At five o’clock in the morning, a chimney sweep arrived. The maid, who answered the door, told him that no one in the house had arranged to have the chimneys swept and sent him away. Almost immediately, another sweep arrived, then another, then another. Soon there were twelve chimney sweeps outside number 54. As soon as they had been sent away, wagons of coal began to arrive, blocking the whole road. They were followed by several cooks, at least one of whom had a massive wedding cake. Doctors, lawyers and priests arrived, having been informed that someone in the house was dying. An undertaker turned up with a made-to-measure coffin. Tailors arrived in Berners Street, so did boot makers, artists, furniture makers and upholsterers. A dozen coach and horses tried to pull up outside the house, so did several drays bearing barrels of beer. The street was so full of people that no one could get near the house. Still, more tradesmen were arriving, There were forty fishmongers with cod and lobster, forty butchers with legs of mutton and at least twelve pianos were being delivered.
It wasn’t just the tradespeople either, the spectacle had attracted quite a crowd. They found it hilarious. The people who had arrived expecting to ply their various trades were less amused. Poor Mrs Tottenham, who lived at 54 Berners Street was verging on insanity. Then, the Lord Mayor of London arrived. He had received a letter, as he thought, from Mrs Tottenham saying that she had been summoned to appear before him, but she was ill, and would he do her the great favour of visiting her at home. When he saw the crowds, his coach was turned around and he went straight to Marlborough Street Police Office to tell them what was going on. Officers were dispatched to restore order to Berners Street, but at first it was impossible. It was chaos. The sight that greeted them was six large men struggling with an organ, surrounded by wine porters, barbers with wigs, dressmakers and opticians. The street was still heaving at four in the afternoon. Then, at around five o’clock the servants started to arrive. They all had letters of commendation and were expecting to gain employment.
Among the more noteworthy of Mrs Tottenham’s visitors that day were the Governor of the Bank of England and the Chairman of the East India Company. They had both received letters alluding to the fact that the lady had knowledge of fraud that was being perpetrated, accompanied by a suggestion that they visit number 54. The Duke of Gloucester received an invitation to visit a dying woman who had once been a confidential attendant of his mother. No doubt all three of them had some skeleton in their closet that they did not want revealed and they hastened to the address.
What Theodore Hook had done, along with perhaps two accomplices, was to write to around a thousand different tradesmen, professionals and noteworthy people asking them to attend 54 Berners Street on November 27th at a specific time. Then, he and his friends that sat all day in a house across the road and watched the drama unfold. Although he never publicly admitted to being responsible, everyone knew it was him. Afterwards he was suddenly, and conveniently, taken ill for a couple of weeks, then took off on a convalescent tour of the country. By the time he returned, the fuss had died down a bit and he was never charged with anything for the trouble he caused.