The Berners Street Hoax

The Berners Street Hoax

Words Peter McSweeney

Illustrations Alexandria Coe

I love a good hustle. Since before I could walk I’ve found getting into places I shouldn’t a real thrill. I now find the taste of a smoothly executed hustle (or as us Manchester folk called it ‘The Blag’) is much sweeter than actually being approved credibly by the appropriate gate keeper, access to an exclusive venue. I personally pride myself on being a master blagger, from gaining VIP passes for top fashion events and film premiere after-parties, to backstage with David Guetta in Nice, Guns & Roses in Vegas and having Harvey Weinstein shake my hand with a confused ‘Who the hell is this Kid on my boat?’ in Cannes. ‘He’s got a funny accent, get rid!’ he said to the puzzled security guard. Too bad the boat had already left Port Harvey…

A blag can also come in the form of a prank. Now forget the well-known ‘Pizza Prank’ popular with students, where you order lots of Pizza to a friend’s house from various delivery companies and get them to arrive all at the same time, or the taxi version of this prank which I was victim to on many occasions. These are both somewhat silly and juvenile and they require little skill or innovation. There is one man who puts my little social victories to shame and makes the cast of BBC’s Hustle look like amateurs, that gentleman is one Theodore Hook, a 19th century playboy, writer and all-round ‘hashtag lad.’ Modern day popular media would probably use clichés such as ‘living legend’ and quote Charlie Sheen and ‘#winning’ when describing this fella. His neighbours? Well they might have a different slant on it.

Rewind to Fitzrovia Nov 27th 1810, 5am on a well-to-do street in central London called Berners Street. Mrs. Tottenham (in some sources spelt Tottingham) was fast asleep when a chirpy Chimney Sweep arrived. The maid quickly sent him on his way as no such service had been requested. Moments later another sweep arrived, then another and another! They keep on coming, twelve in total. As no such serviceman had been ordered they were all swept promptly on their way abruptly. What a strange hour it was, however it had just begun.

Suddenly, a fleet of large coal carts arrived, followed by tradesman from every service industry thinkable. Along came Doctors, Lawyers, Fishmongers, Butchers, Shoemakers, and a Priest who was preparing to minister the last rights after being told ‘the master of the house was dying.’ They were accompanied by a team of bakers bearing wedding cakes for Mrs. Tottenham’s big day. The Priest must have been rather confused!

According to The London Annual Register for the Year 1810, these deliveries included “Wagons laden with coals from the Paddington wharfs, upholsterers’ goods in cart-loads, organs, pianofortes, linen, jewellery, and every other description of furniture.” It did not stop there: out of the chaos, six men rocked up holding an Organ, along with a dozen pianos. Mrs. Tottenham must have been a keen musician. They were joined by wine porters, barbers with wigs, mantua-makers and an optician. By this point the road was blocked and members of the public were stood watching and amused by this Comedy of Errors.

However, room could still be made for the Lord Mayor of London accompanied by two of his servants. Mrs. Tottenham was a lady of wealth and status so could call upon such dignitaries throughout the day, which also included the Governor of the Bank of England, the Duke of York and the Archbishop of Canterbury! What a popular lady she was that day. By now she was nowhere to be seen, as she was hiding in her room after being summoned by the Police who had been brought in for crowd control and to deal with bedlam of the roads being closed in the very heart of The British Empire. A few doors down a young Mr. Hook watched on, in what I can only imagine as being ecstatic excitement that his carefully planned Hoax had been executed with military precision.

To pull off such a prank today would require some planning and man-hours. However, in a time before social media, booking apps, email or even the telephones, it required months of work as everything needed to be arranged by letter or in person. It is thought that Mr. Hook sent over a thousand written correspondents and in a manner that would not arise an ounce of suspicion.

Why did he go to such feats? Well, like the birth of many great enterprises, it was no more than a bar bet to see if he could turn one street in London into being the most talked about, famous street in the land. He succeeded! His antic made the national press and the Police embarked on a manhunt for the perpetrator of such a wicked hoax.

Although Mr. Hook was questioned about the matter, he was never formally charged or found guilty of the hoax, even though he is widely believed to be the brains behind it. He went on to live a varied life that one would expect from such a character, from the refines of a sponging house for debtors to launching his own newspaper and being the inspiration for the characters of Lucian Gay in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Coningsby and also Mr. Wagg in Vanity Fair. He certainly left his mark on the world in many ways.

What would he be doing today? Well, probably much of the same. Although he might have found the commercial success that television pranksters and showman such as Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat & Ali G), David Blaine and Dom Joly have enjoyed. At the very least, he would have gotten a spot on Channel 4’s Balls of Steel. There is no doubt his prank caused a lot of hardworking tradesman a wasted journey (and some a real loss of earnings). Saying that, it is hard not to admire the planning and gall on some level, but I would strongly advise any budding pranksters to take a different approach to Mr. Hook and find notoriety elsewhere. Partly because they will no doubt leave a trail that will result in prosecution, or a beating of some kind, but mainly because I now live on Berners Street and I don’t want the hassle. However, let’s raise our glasses and say cheers to Mr Hook, one of the greatest pranksters Fitzrovia has ever seen.

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