The other day, en route beween somewhere and somewhere, I found myself in Berners Street. “Berners Street, Berners Street”, I pondered, “rings a bell, why should I know this street?” I forgot all about it until today when I spotted it in my London history dates database as being the scene of the so-called Berners Street Hoax of 1809, or 1810. Or maybe 1812. It apparently happened on the 10 November. Or maybe 27 November. Or perhaps over several months. The accounts vary a lot over these essential details and suddenly I am now suspicious about the whole thing. So maybe, then: not at all.
The basic story goes as follows. A swell called Theodore Hook (playboy, writer, chum of the Prince Regent) made a bet with his friend Samuel Beazley (playwright, theatre architect, bon viveur) that he could make an ordinary address the most talked about house in London within a week. Hook then sent out thousands of letters requesting deliveries and visits from tradesmen and grandees alike to 54 Berners Street on a certain date. Chimney-sweeps were the first to arrive, so the story goes. They were followed by hundreds of visitors of all kinds including piano deliverymen, coal-men etc. The tale continues that the house was also visited by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Mayor of London and even minor royalty. There was pandemonium in the street; the owner and her household were taken totally by surprise by this turn of events. Fin.
Records (all secondary source) and accounts on both the Internet and in books vary a lot. The only consistent element of this tale seems to be the address: 54 Berners Street. Some state that the householder was a Mrs Tottenham. One merely cites “a gentleman”. As mentioned, the dates vary between 1809 and 1812. Most agree that the hoax occurred in November. The late, great Charles Arnold-Baker, author of the excellent The Companion to British History simply says of the hoax as a whole: “This has never been fully explained”. Arnold-Baker was a very sceptical (and amusing) observer, and I suspect that he didn’t believe a word of any of this. I think he’s on to something. The London Encyclopaedia (Weintreb et al.) says “…it was to No 54 that Theodore Hook sent all manner of unwanted goods in what became known as the Berners Street Hoax.” Vague, the authors also seeming uncomfortable, I believe.
So what really happened? Both Hook and Beazley were fun-loving socialites, and professional story tellers, the former a novelist and composer of light opera, the latter a playwright. I suspect, frankly, that either they or friends of theirs made the whole thing up. Possibly Hook did organise unwanted goods to be delivered to the address from time to time, a common enough prank, and then after that the story just grew and grew with the telling; it was then “reverse-engineered” to the business about the bet.
I believe diligent research would get to the bottom of this once and for all but this would be too time-consuming for what is essentially a trivial albeit amusing story.
If you have better knowledge than me on this, or an opinion either way, please comment.