A Forgotten Genius and the Most Epic Prank Ever

Every era boasts its own cast of colorful characters – of people we wish we could have met, if for nothing else than their fascinating audacity. If Regency London could have nominated only one person for that role, it surely would have been Theodore Hook.

The son of a composer, his precocious nature and scathing wit began to win him admirers at a young age. At 16 years old, he co-authored with his father a successful comic opera. He continued writing prolifically, producing 38 novels, multiple operas and comic plays, and various journalistic publications.

So, yes, the most infamous character of the Regency era was, of course, a writer. My chest swells with pride.

Young Theodore

Hook was a cultured class clown and a brilliant prankster. In 1840, he designed a postcard that ridiculed the postal workers who would have handled it and sent it to himself. The postcard was rediscovered in 2001 and determined to be the oldest known picture postcard – perhaps the first. It also has affixed to it the oldest preserved “Penny Black” – the world’s first adhesive postage stamp. It sold at auction for 32000 pounds in 2002, a fact that likely would have tickled Theodore.

Worlds’ First Postcard

Hook possessed an extraordinary gift for improvising witty songs on any subject at a moment’s notice. This skill so charmed the Prince Regent that he declared that something must be done for Hook. As a result, Hook was appointed the accountant-general and treasurer of Mauritius, a tropical island off the coast of Africa, with a generous salary. He arrived on the island in 1813 and immediately became the life of the party there. However, in 1817 a sum of 12000 pounds was found to be missing and Hook was returned to England on a criminal charge. The fact that the theft was the work of a deputy official allowed Theodore to avoid significant punishment, but he remained responsible for the debt.

In an attempt to repay the debt, he launched in 1820 the now-famous newspaper John Bull, in which he championed Toryism through a brand of political satire not seen before, but which is now central to British journalistic style. Despite a good income from the immensely popular paper, he was arrested for debts to the state and sent to a sponging house – debtor’s prison – for two years. It was during his stay there that he launched his career as a novelist, and he succeeded to the point of becoming England’s best-selling novelist just prior to Charles Dickens.

Did I mention Theodore Hook was an infamous prankster? This reputation was cemented by one of the most audacious pranks in history. On November 27, 1810, at 5 o’clock in the morning, a chimney sweep arrived at the house of a well-known widow of means, Mrs. Tottenham, at 54 Berners Street in London. The maid who answered the door said that no such services had been requested and turned the man away. Minutes later, a second sweep arrived, and then another and another – twelve in all. After the sweeps there arrived an armada of carts carrying large deliveries of coal, followed by a stream of cakemakers delivering large wedding cakes. After them came a series lawyers, doctors, vicars, and priests who’d been summoned to minister to a dying person in the house. These intermingled with a horde of arriving fishmongers and shoemakers, along with the delivery of a dozen pianos and a pipe organ. In the midst of the chaos, summoned dignitaries began to arrive, including the Governor of the Bank of England, The Duke of York, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Lord Mayor of London. Adding to the crushing congestion was a growing crowd of curious onlookers, bringing a large portion of London to a standstill.

Berners Street Hoax

The architect of the chaos was none other than Theodore Hook, who bet his friend, Samuel Beazley, that he could transform any house in London to the most talked about address in a week. He accomplished the feat by sending out 4000 pieces of correspondence in the name of Mrs. Tottenham with notes such as:

“Mrs. Tottenham requests Mr. – will call upon her at two to-morrow, as she wishes to consult him about the sale of an estate. -53, Berners-street Monday.”

And: “Mrs. Tottenham requests that a post-chaise and four may be at her home at two to-morrow, to convey her to the first stage towards Bath. -54, Berners-street, Monday.”

And: “Mrs. Tottenham begs the Hon. Mr.– will be good enough to give her a call at two to-morrow, as Mrs. T. is desirous of speaking with him on business of importance. -54, Berners-street, Monday.”

Meanwhile, Hook and Beazley rented the house across the street to watch the chaos unfold. As the story goes, when a “fervent hue and cry” arose for the perpetrator, Hook skipped town to “convalesce” in the country.

Now, as with any good writer, we should expect a twist. Though this story was circulated by the press, there is little direct, first-hand evidence that the event ever occurred. An article appeared on November 28, 1810 in the Morning Advertiser describing the incident, including the visit by the Lord Mayor but no other dignitaries. Virtually every other journal of the time appeared to source this article, but with ever-growing embellishments. However, a visit by the Lord Mayor and the subsequent dispatch of constables should have produced a public record, but it seemingly did not. Also, consider the sheer time and expense needed to pull off such a hoax, as well as the personal ramifications for embarrassing high-ranking nobility.

On the one hand, I desperately want the account of the Berners Street Hoax to be true and accurate. On the other hand, I applaud Hook if his real hoax was to invent a compelling story and make the entire world believe it. Either way, Theodore Hook was an audacious character of the first order whose contributions to Regency London society should never be forgotten – whether true or not.

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