With April’s Fool is just around the corner, fans of practical jokes will be considering their best moves for 2022. But no matter how inventive their ideas, they are likely to pale in comparison to those of Regency prankster extraordinaire, Theodore Hook.
Born in 1788, Theodore Hook fancied himself a bit of a jester (one might say of the unpleasant kind). He eventually became a writer, but what made him famous weren’t his words, but his pranks.
One, in particular, was to earn him the title of the greatest prankster of the Regency. Here’s how it went.
A Regency Prank With an Early Start
London, 27 November 1810, 5 am. In the cold and misty early hours, a chimney sweep knocks on the door of 54, Berners Street, an ordinary house in a residential area not far from Oxford Circus. The maid sends him away, insisting that nobody has requested his services.
But then another chimney sweep shows up. And then another. And then another. In total, 12 chimney sweeps appear. The maid, now alarmed, finally convinces all of them to leave. Little does she know that it’s only the beginning.
The Delivery Carts
Moments later, the deliveries begin to arrive: “waggons laden with coals from the Paddington wharves, upholsterers’ goods in cart-loads, organs, pianofortes, linen, jewellery, and every other description of furniture*.”
Observers spot “tradesmen of every sort”, including “wine porters with permits, barbers with wigs, manteau-makers with bandboxes, opticians with various articles of their trade*”, and an amused crowd begins to form. The interest only grows when several doctors, lawyers and men of the cloth turn up to attend to a dying man (or so they have been told).
As delivery carts jam up the street, a procession of elegant coaches appears. Their passengers include none others than “the Governor of the Bank of England, the Chairman of the East India Company, a Lord Chief Justice, a Cabinet Minister*.” The Lord Mayor, the Duke of York (see left) and the Archbishop of Canterbury arrive soon afterwards.
The chaos is considerable. The traffic has completely blocked the street. Above the shouts of the nervous tradespeople, the crowd, now a mob, laughs and jests. Behind the crowded front door, the house owner is flummoxed, then terrified. Poor Mrs Tottingham, the widow of a shopkeeper and a woman of orderly life, cannot begin to understand what’s going on outside her home.
A Room With a View
Meanwhile, across the street, Hook is watching the events with a couple of friends from the comfort of lodgings rented for the occasion. He has been working on the prank for weeks, sending up to a thousand letters to tradespeople and VIPs across London, and wants to have the best view of the mayhem he has created.
The reason behind his actions? Allegedly, upon walking past the neat and modest house one day, Hook bet a guinea that he was capable of turning it into the most famous address in London.
It is fair to say that he won, and the Berners Street prank legend was born.
An Unsatisfying End?
The prank was talked about for months, condemned and milked in equal parts by the newspapers, and there was “a fervent hue and cry for the detection of the wholesale deceiver and destroyer*.” Many in his circle suspected Hook, and he disappeared for a while. It worked, and got away with it.
Hook went on to become a writer of dubious quality, earning the praise of the Prince Regent (which in itself says much about his character). Licentious and scheming, it will be no surprise to hear that he was also imprisoned for accounting fraud.
Annoyingly, Hook has a second claim to fame, after the Berners Street hoax: he was the recipient (and possibly sender) of the world’s oldest postcard, which fetched a record £31,750 (about $42,000) in 2002.
* See John Timbs, “The Lives of Wits and Humourists, Vol II”, London, 1862. Available on Google Books.
What do you think of the Berners Street prank? Would it be possible to replicate something similar in the age of social media?