Berners Street Hoax – True or False?

Anyone familiar with the Georgian period will probably have heard of the Berners Street Hoax. So much has been written about this over the centuries that I was unsure as to whether it warranted yet another telling of the story, but as one of my lovely readers asked me about it, I felt it was worth checking out, if only for my own peace of mind and to confirm what everyone thought they knew about the story.

Let’s begin by setting the record straight about the name of the unfortunate recipient of  one of the most famous hoaxes. The lady in question was NOT, Mrs Tottenham, she was in fact Mrs Tottingham.

Almost all accounts I have read state that she was either just a Mrs T or Mrs Tottenham. I can now reveal that she was in fact, Mrs Mary Teresa Tottingham, a widow at the time the hoax is believed to have occurred, but as to why such a hoax was instigated, I have no idea. Nor do I know how Mary Teresa would have felt about such a prank or whether she even knew of it until she read it in the newspaper, as she would, no doubt, have had servants to receive guests and trades people.

Her late husband, John Tottingham (1735-1808) spent much of his life employed by the East India Company and was based in India, which is probably where he met his wife, Mary Teresa as there’s no record of them having married in England.

They had 4 children, Hester, born in India, Maria Teresia, born Sept 1773 in Munger in the Indian state of Bihar, followed closely by John James who was born in Danapur in October 1774. The couple’s youngest child being Jane Mary who was born in 1783 and baptised in London, so it’s fairly safe to assume that they had returned to England with their ever growing family by this time.

John, a retired colonel of the East India Company, died in 1808 and his will confirmed the street the couple lived in as being Berners Street, so I definitely had the correct family.

Mary Teresa remained at Berners Street until her death in 1833, at which time her 3 surviving, unmarried daughters, moved into their parents’ house where they remained until at least 1841 as we see here on the 1841 census.

Let’s now return to the prank itself; it is said to have taken place on 27 or 28 November 1809 or 1810, the year seems rather unclear, but the first public account of it  did not appear until  28 November 1810, in the Morning Post, which said that it

exceeded by far that in Bedford Street a few months since.  

Prankster and author, Theodore Edward Hook, apparently wagered a bet with a friend, Samuel Beazley, that

he could make any house in London the most talked about address in London within one week

He selected Mary Teresa’s home for this mischief.

Theodore Edward Hook, by Samuel De Wilde. Courtesy of Bonhams
Theodore Edward Hook, by Samuel De Wilde. Courtesy of Bonhams

To achieve this, he was said to have sent out around 4,000 letters to trades people who were to arrive throughout the day at the home of a Mrs T___, No. 54 Berners Street, London. This prank was said to have eventually created chaos on Berners Street, blocking the whole street with waggons laden with coals from Paddington wharf, upholsterers’ goods by the cartload, organs and pianofortes, linen, jewellery and a whole variety of furniture.

Even the Lord Mayor was invited to attend to house, but his stay was said to have been very short upon seeing the chaos being caused and he was driven to Marlborough Street police office to resolve the matter.

In case you needed any further proof as to the occupant of that now infamous address, here we have the burial register which confirms that Mary Teresa Tottingham lived at 54 Berners Street until her death at the age of 80. She was buried at the same church has her husband on 27 May 1833.

The Naval and Military Gazette and Weekly Chronicle of the United Service, 1 June 1833 also noted her demise, but no mention was made of the prank, perhaps it had faded from memory by this time, or perhaps it never really happened!

The 1841 census confirms that her three daughters, Maria, Jane and Hester took over the family home.

But was there really a hoax played upon the family, or, was the hoax something created for the newspapers only? I began to search the newspapers for similar such hoaxes and sure enough there were quite a few.

On 7 November 1809, one took place at 37 Bedford Street, near Covent Garden, at the home of a Mr Griffiths. Again, a mass of letters were sent out to trades people who were to attend 37 Bedford street bringing with them a diverse range of items.

Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Courtesy of Wiki Commons

They demanded to see Mr Griffiths, who, it transpired was out of town, leaving the servants to eventually lock and bolt the doors. His deliveries included a mangle, sofas, boots, tea and coffee, fiddles and flutes, pianofortes, prints and drawings, coal wagons and gigs to name but a few. Physicians, surgeons dentists and Pidock, of the Exeter Exchange Menagerie was required to purchase a live tiger. The most annoyed person, however, was an elderly man who had hobbled to town from Hammersmith to be paid a legacy of £700 which he was assured Mr Griffiths had received for him.

Edinburgh witnessed a very similar hoax, according to the Morning Post, 26 December 1810.

A singular hoax was practised on Tuesday, at Edinburgh. Cards were put into the post office, addressed to medical gentlemen, undertakers, upholsterers, grocers, confectioners, haberdashers, milliners, mantua makers, wig makers etc. desiring their attendance at a gentleman’s house, a few miles from Edinburgh, and requesting them to sen a hearse and mourning coaches for a funeral; and others to send out quantities of wine, grocery articles, etc.  In consequence of this the road was crowded with carriages, coaches, a hearse and twelve mourning coaches. After their arrival at the house to their utter astonishment they found the whole thing to be a hoax of some silly malicious wag!

Another one took place in London, according to the Evening Mail 14 March 1810:

Hoax – physicians, surgeons and apothecaries, jewellers, auctioneers and governesses, poulterers, pastry cooks, and undertakers etc have for the last four day besieged the house of Mr Hookham, 15 Old Bond Street, in consequence of two-penny and threepenny post letters, containing appointments, order etc.

Finally, the Suffolk Chronicle, 19 January 1811 reported the following hoax, which they believed to have been instigated by the same prankster as the Berners Street hoax:

On Sunday se’nnight every confectioner in the metropolis, from Whitechapel to Hyde Park, including the adjacent streets, to the amount of near 100, sent Twelfth Cakes of various dimensions, none less than 20 pounds weight, to Mr E I Samuel, West India merchant, Great Prescott Street, Goodman’s fields; circular letters having been sent to the different shops with the orders, stating that Mr S was recommended by an eminent city baronet. The whole of the gentleman’s friends were invited, most of whom did themselves the honour to accept the invitation, to the no small amusement of the authors, who it is suspected, attended as if invited. On Tuesday, circular letters were also sent to about 100 grocers, in consequence of which, from 9am to 9pm the neighbourhood was amused with arrival of parcels of tea and sugar about 30 pounds in weight each, and on Wednesday arrived, by the same plan, about one hundred fine large Cheshire cheeses, which cut a curious appearance from their uniformity, and sometimes 8 or 10 meetings at the door at one time!

From these, it would appear that 1809-1812 was a great time for carrying out hoaxes, if indeed any of them really happened, I remain unconvinced, what do you think?

Hoax at the Pavilion Sloane Street. August 31 1812. British Museum
Hoax at the Pavilion Sloane Street. August 31, 1812. British Museum

In the next article we will continue with this story by taking a look at Samuel Beazley, the other party involved in the Berners Street hoax, so do join me to find out more.

Sources 

Hereford Journal 8 Nov 1809

Chester Chronicle 7 December 1810

Chester Courant 4 December 1810

Featured Image

By William Heath. Courtesy of British Museum

15 thoughts on “Berners Street Hoax – True or False?

  1. mistyfan

    Thank you for this.

    I remember in a book about the Old Bailey there was a similar prank played on an unpopular Victorian judge, Justice Hawkins. I think it was something along the lines of someone putting in a bogus ad in the paper about the judge’s address offering ballet auditions. The ladies who turned up were such a crowd the judge had difficulty setting off for the Old Bailey. The prankster was probably inspired by this hoax.

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      1. mistyfan

        There are always copycats, so whether the Berner Street hoax really happened or not, it was so publicised it must have inspired copycat pranks.

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        1. Sarah Murden

          My problem is that the Bedford Street one took place before Berners Street, so was Berners Street the copycat? … assuming any really happened, of course.

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      2. Absoultely. Many many years after this, myself and some of my jubilant delinquent friends watched, giggling through the curtains as two taxis, a pizza and a tow truck showed up at one of the neighbors’ houses… 🤨We at least had the convenience of the telephone and didn’t have the expense of postcards. I’m sure we thought we were the originators of this gag, but if I’ve learned nothing else from history it’s that “there’s nothing new under the sun…”

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Judy Buckley

    Thank you, Sarah! That was great fun and excellent research too. I’ve been reading a lot of 18th Century letters and biographies (currently Emily Eden’s letters, a bit later but same flavour). Possibly rich young men living on family handouts, with nothing better to do, carried on behaving like undergraduates, misbehaving in London until they expired from drink or ended up in the Fleet for debt? My sympathies are with the poor middle class people (like me!) whom they looked down upon, who must have suffered. Have a super holiday!

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  3. Paul Scott

    This site (which you may have seen) claims to have researched it quite thoroughly.

    http://hoaxes.org/archive/permalink/the_berners_street_hoax

    It was certainly first mentioned in the press on 28 November 1810 and annual registers for 1810 included it as happening on the 26th as one of the most notable events of the year. They can easily be found on Google books.

    You’re spot on about Tottingham, of course. I’m inclined to think it did happen although perhaps it got over-egged in the retelling. People did enjoy doing pranks and hoaxes throughout the early 19th-century (Spring-Heeled Jack, of course, being a notable example). Whether it was Hook or not – although the semi-confession is interesting – is perhaps of wider speculation.

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    1. Sarah Murden

      Hello Paul,

      Thank you so much for your comments. My inclination is to think that IF it took place then, yes it was 1810, not 1809. I’m not sure why that one should have been remembered in favour of the one that took place the year previously, was Berners Street a copycat – it may well have been, but somehow gained more interest over time.

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      1. Paul Scott

        I feel it very likely that the culprit got the idea from the previous hoax. People have always seen something funny or different and decide to do something similar or try to top it; we see it even today, don’t we, with feats of endurance?

        I suspect Spring-Heeled Jack is probably along similar lines – one event begat another, totally unrelated and carried out by someone else, which begat, which begat…. and then elaborated over time.

        Can’t believe I’ve used the word begat. Does anyone ever use that now??? 🙂

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  4. Jim Raclawski

    I loved the history lesson… you’re able to weave together facts & critical analysis -something often found wanting in today’s corporate media world. As for it actually happening… I feel that the “media” of that time was much more acquainted with facts and the reporting of them then in the “spin” and generation of “narrative” or the regurgitation of State propaganda as our current “media’ is…

    Semper Fi ma’am

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    1. Sarah Murden

      Thank you so very much, Jim. Maybe I should consider going into media (perhaps not!). Sadly we’ll never know the truth of the story, but it’s fascinating nevertheless.

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