By Brad Dison
At about 2 p.m. on Tuesday, November 27, 1810, a strange occurrence happened in the normally boring Berners Street in London, England. A Mr. Wilson, a prominent dance instructor, arrived at No. 54 Berners Street with a note from Mrs. Tottenham, a “Lady of fortune.” Mr. Wilson knocked on the door at No. 54 and presented his note which read, “Mr. Wilson, Dancing Master, Bedford Street, Bedford Row – Mrs. Tottenham wishes Mr. Wilson to call on her tomorrow, between the hours of two and three, as she is desirous that her daughters should receive instructions from him the ensuing winter. — Monday, Berner’s-street, No.54.”
No one in the house knew anything about the request for dance instruction. At about the same time, a realtor arrived with another note which read, “Mrs. Tottenham requests [name withheld] will call upon her at two to-morrow, as she wishes to consult him about the sale of an estate.”
The household was dumbstruck. Then another caller arrived in a carriage pulled by four horses with another note; “Mrs. Tottenham requests that a post-chaise and four (a carriage with four horses) be at her house at two to-morrow, to convey her to the stage towards Bath.”
At the same time, the Lord Mayor of London, Joshua Smith, arrived in his carriage tended by his two livery servants with his letter in hand; “Mrs. Tottenham begs the Hon. Mr. [name withheld] 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.”
Before members of the household could finish reading a note, which Mrs. Tottenham was meant to have sent, more callers with more notes arrived. Tradesmen of all sorts arrived at No. 54 Berners Street seemingly at the request of the wealthy Mrs. Tottenham. Wagons filled with coal from Paddington wharfs, carts filled with upholsterer’s supplies, linens, jewelry, organs, pianos, and enough furniture to fill every house on the street arrived at Mrs. Tottenham’s home at about the same time. Each of the callers possessed their letter from Mrs. Tottenham requesting their goods or services.
Members of the household told each of the callers that Mrs. Tottenham had not written any letters and had made no such requests of anyone. More and more callers arrived on Berners Street with each passing minute. Barbers arrived with assortments of wigs. Mantua-makers (high-end dress makers) arrived with band-boxes (wooden cylindrical containers which held pieces of fabric). Opticians arrived with assortments of eyeglasses. More coal merchants arrived with loads of coal. Carpenters arrived with a coffin made to fit Mrs. Tottenham’s five feet, five inch body, dimensions which were provided in the letter they received. Miniature-painters, male midwives, tooth drawers (dentists who specialized in pulling teeth), auctioneers, undertakers, grocers, dealers in textile fabrics, horse drawn carriages, mourning coaches, butchers, dealers from every available occupation arrived at No. 54.
By 4 p.m., Berners Street was total chaos. So many tradesmen arrived with their wares at No. 54 that the street was totally impassable. Throngs of onlookers gathered in the street and on the sidewalk. Several of the spectators jeered and laughed at the spectacle. The normally boring Berners Street was anything but boring on this date.
The Lord Mayor of London left Berners Street and went to Marlborough Street Police Office. He told the officers of the chaotic scene. Within minutes, every available officer headed to Berners Street to quell the hullabaloo. Officers stationed themselves at both ends of Berners Street to prevent more tradesmen from advancing towards No. 54.
As the day faded into evening, just as the number of tradesmen began to decrease, scores of household servants of all varieties, in search of employment in Mrs. Tottenham’s household, arrived with letters of their own. Servants arrived with their letters until late into the night, but policemen turned each of them away. On the following day, the chaos had subsided and the street was boring once again.
Police offered a reward for the name of the person or persons responsible, but no one ever collected. Investigators had one suspect who seemed to fit the crime. Theodore Hook was an author who loved to pull practical jokes. In his autobiographical book published in 1835 entitled “Gilbert Gurney,” Theodore wrote “There’s nothing like fun – what else made the effect in Berner’s Street? I am the man – I did it.” Investigators theorized that Theodore and his accomplices rented a room on Berner’s street from which they wrote the myriad of letters, a herculean task which must have taken weeks and would have cost a considerable amount. Theodore’s motive, they contended, was a result of a friendly bet. Theodore made a bet with some friends that he could turn any nondescript home on any boring street into the most popular house in London. Theodore’s friends, with whom he made the bet, chose Mrs. Tottenham’s house. Theodore later claimed that he and his friends joined the jeering crowd during the chaos which became known as the Berners Street Hoax. Theodore won the bet.
The London Morning Post, November 29, 1810, p.3.
The New York Evening Post, July 12, 1843, p.2.
“The Berners Street Hoax.” Accessed April 4, 2020. http://hoaxes.org/archive/permalink/the_berners_street_hoax.