The Berners Street Hoax

Hello, friends. Many of you know that I love Judith Flanders’s work. She writes marvellously detailed social histories and her special area interest is the Victorian period. I highly recommend both The Victorian House and Consuming Passions for anyone interested in Victorian daily life, and The Invention of Murder is irresistible for those, like me, who love mysteries and detective fiction. Really, if I could choose to have the contents of one person’s brain imported directly into my own, I think I’d choose Flanders.

And she has a new book out! When I saw the title, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’s London, I yelped with excitement. And  when I actually received the book (it was a gift from Nick), its beauty made me gasp.

This image doesn't do the cover justice. The pinkish-cream half is a separate band of paper that wraps around the hardcover, like a mini-dustjacket. It's beautifully antiqued, with subtle faux-foxing, and the title and borders are in gold.

I’m now starting to dip into it and I will report back when I’ve finished the book, but the first thing I read was too good to resist telling you about now. I know I’ve missed April Fool’s Day by two days, but I think you’ll find this worthwhile.

Flanders opens with an incident called the Berners Street Hoax, which begins “early one morning in November 1810, long before breakfast”, when a chimney sweep knocks on the door of 54 Berners Street, saying he has been sent for. The residents say no, and close the door. This is the sort of minor annoyance that must happen to all tradespeople from time to time. But what happens next?

According to Flanders, “soon the house was besieged by sweeps, all claiming they had been summoned. They were swiftly followed by dozens of wagons bringing coal… legions of fishmongers” and, she quotes, “piano-fortes by the dozens… 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”.

And this is just the beginning! Flanders is quoting from what sounds like a street ballad (it’s not cited in the end notes), so there’s more than a hint of exaggeration, here. (I question the 2500 raspberry tarts: it’s November, so where did the raspberries come from? I’m happy to believe in apple tarts, though.) But, for what it’s worth:

The surgeons first, armed with catheters, arrive

And impatiently ask is the patient alive.

The man servant stares – now ten midwives appear,

‘Pray, sir, does the lady in labor live here?’

‘Here’s a shell,” cries a man, ‘for the lady that’s dead,

My master’s behind with the coffin of lead.’

Next a waggon, with furniture loaded approaches,

Then a hearse all be-plumed and six mourning coaches,

Six baskets of groceries – sugars, teas, figs;

Ten drays full of beer – twenty boxes of wigs.

Fifty hampers of wine, twenty dozen French rolls,

Fifteen huge waggon loads of best Newcastle coals –

But the best joke of all was to see the fine coach

Of his worship the mayor, all bedizen’d, approach;

As it pass’d up the street the mob shouted aloud,

His lordship was pleased, and most affably bow’d,

Supposing, poor man, he was cheered by the crowd…

And it doesn’t end there! After the Lord Mayor, there came “rows of carriages of the city’s grandees, all invited to a party” (Flanders), the chairman of the East India Company, the Governor of the Bank of England, and the Duke of Gloucester.

It’s challenging to visualize a prank on this scale: traffic jams, tears of frustration, frantic denial, roars of indignation and, most of all, the sheer number of onlookers who must have flocked to the scene. Terrific, in every sense of the word.

How was your April Fool’s Day? Mine was perfectly tame, and I confess myself relieved.


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2 Responses to “The Berners Street Hoax”

  1. Amber says:

    Apparently a very famous hoax, it even appears on Wikipedia!

    “The Berners Street Hoax was perpetrated by Theodore Hook in the City of Westminster, London, in 1810. Hook had made a bet with his friend, Samuel Beazley, that he could transform any house in London into the most talked-about address in a week, which he achieved by sending out thousands of letters in the name of Mrs Tottenham, who lived at 54 Berners Street, requesting deliveries, visitors, and assistance.”

    The funniest part is he was never caught…”Despite a “fervent hue and cry” to find the perpetrator, Hook managed to evade detection, although many of those who knew him suspected him of being responsible. It was reported that he felt it prudent to be “laid up for a week or two” before embarking on a tour of the country, supposedly to convalesce.” Probably a good idea!

  2. Ying says:

    Thanks for the details, Amber! Judith Flanders mentions that most people assumed it was Hook, but one of Hook’s close friends believed otherwise. The friend described (but didn’t name) the real culprit, and said that Hook had been responsible a very similar prank a few years earlier. I hadn’t heard about his discreet retreat, though!

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