Berners Street Hoax

I've heard this story dozens of times during my career and I can't believe I haven't written anything about it until now.

Theodore Hook was an early 19th-century writer who was also a bit of an asshole, which is why I like him. He was quite the prankster, and in1810 he won a bet in a truly spectacular way by pulling the Berners Street Hoax which, if not actually harmful, had to at least be deeply upsetting for the people involved.

220px-Theodore_Hook
A portrait of Hook. I think the biggest joke of all was that haircut.

Hook was friends with Samuel Beazley, another English writer. One day in the middle of London, the two friends got to discussing the fame of certain addresses. Hook bet Beazley that he could turn any residence into the most famous address in London in a single week. Beazley took the bet, reasonably thinking that Hook would never be able to pull it off.

Together they randomly chose 54 Berners Street as the address of choice. It was a house in a respectable part of town owned by a woman named Mrs. Tottenham, who was unknown to both of them. Hook then departed to act upon his plan.

Exactly one week later, a chimney sweep showed up at Mrs. Tottenham's door at 5 a.m. to sweep her chimney, as per her request. Her servants thought it was a misunderstanding: no chimney sweep had been requested. They sent him away. Her servants no more than closed the door, when another chimney sweep showed up, "as per Mrs. Tottenham's request". Confused, the servants sent him away.

A total of 12 chimney sweeps showed up that morning, by which point the servants were profoundly confused. As the day wore on, deliveries started arriving, none of which Mrs. Tottenham had ordered. Food of all sorts was delivered, as well as wedding cakes, giant coal deliveries, furniture (including more than a dozen pianos and an organ), clothing, dry goods, doctors, lawyers, clergymen, notaries, and a variety of other service-professionals, all came to the house and all were sent away.

The streets were fairly narrow and were in a central location, so the extreme and unusual traffic congested a large part of London. It didn't help that word got out and onlookers came just to see what would be delivered to the house next. In total, Mrs. Tottenham received over 4,000 deliveries–deliveries that Theodore Hook had spent all week requesting to be delivered to that address, on that single day, under Mrs. Tottenham's name (I hope he got a discount on writing paper at his local stationery store; he probably spent more money on postage than he won from the bet).

He, of course, along with Beazley, were two of the spectators (which is some serious serial-killer shit to do, standing in the crowd and watching the mayhem ensue). Beazley was unable to deny that 54 Berners Street became the most famous place in London, at least for a short while.

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An illustration of the mayhem.

Poor Mrs. Tottenham was perplexed, embarrassed and upset, as were a lot of the tradesmen who had wasted their time going to her house. Little damage had occurred, but it still got some people pretty riled. Hook managed to keep his involvement a complete secret for years, though people who knew him and his flair for large pranks suspected that he was the perpetrator. He immediately went on a tour of Europe until tempers cooled down.

Poor Mrs. Tottenham was never able to live down the events that happened and she was forced to move house.

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2 Responses to Berners Street Hoax

  1. Minor quibble: in those days, the recipient paid the postage.

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    • Definitely! However, I assume that Hook did the typical “ordering from tradesmen” practice where if you ordered something by letter, you would include a few coins inside the letter to offset the cost of the tradesmen having to pay to receive it. However, if he didn’t do that, maybe that’s part of the reason why all the tradesmen were so angry. I just assumed that Hook wouldn’t be THAT big of a jerk. But then I realized: yeah, he might be.

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