Today (November 26) in London History – Gotcha!

The greatest hoax in London’s history took place on November 26, 1810. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It was mischief on a grand scale. Artistry, inconvenience, allurement and aplomb all rolled up into one.

It was a London spectacular. Highly original. A crowd pleaser. Though Mrs Tottenham can’t have been pleased. Ditto the shopkeepers, dignitaries and VIPs who were hoaxed, embarrassed and mightily inconvenienced. It happened on this day – November 26th, 1810. Happened at 54 Berners Street, in Marylebone.

And now it’s time to meet the artist and choreographer who created London’s greatest-ever piece of live art. 

Artist, choreographer, live art… even hazarding those words feels like making a bet in a poker game. If you’re listening to this, you’re in this game. You going to call, fold or raise? It’s pretty much a lock that at least one of you’s going to say, “I’ll see your artist, choreographer and live art and raise you a hoaxer, a perp and a practical joker.

And on that note, let’s show our hand, our card. Meet Thomas Hook. 

He was a Londoner through and through. He was a writer. He was a gambler. He was a gentleman. He was educated at private schools. Including a turn at Harrow, the famous public school that also educated Byron and Churchill.

He was good at pulling the wool over the eyes of other people – including strangers – but he was ruthlessly honest about himself. Of his school career he said he was principally distinguished for mischief, deceitfulness, and a lack of serious application.

What he was undeniably good at was practical jokes and dreaming up and perpetrating hoaxes.

The most celebrated of which we’re visiting him today. It was so spectacular it’s earned him a day – this day, November 26th – in my Today in London History calendar. 

It started with a wager.

Hook bet a couple of the lowlifes – the gentlemen reprobates he hung with – that he could make any house in London the most talked of residence in the city. A property on Berners Street – No. 54 – was chosen at random. The hoax was six weeks in preparation. It was carried out with the aid of two assistants, though accomplices is probably a better word.

Hook and his accomplices busied themselves falsely ordering a range of goods, all to be delivered to 54 Berners Street on the afternoon of November 26th. And he sent out bogus invitations to dignitaries and notables. Come the day, come the appointed hour, Hook and his accomplices watched from a room opposite as wagonloads of coal from the Paddington wharves, upholsterers’ goods in cartloads, organs, pianofortes, linen, jewellery, and all types of furniture arrived in unison at Mrs Tottenham’s Berners Street door.

And it wasn’t just the greatest one-off Amazon delivery ever – Mrs Tottenham also had an A-List of guests arriving at the same time. To name but a few, the Lord Mayor of London, the Governor of the Bank of England, the Chairman of the East India Company and the Duke of Gloucester were equally tricked into making an appearance. An amused crowd blocked the street for the entire day. Hook won his wager. To top it all, Hook was suspected but he escaped without his involvement being proved. 

He was completely feckless. It’ll come as no surprise that the Prince Regent liked him a lot. Clearly his royal highness recognised that in Hook he’d found a soul-mate, someone as deeply unscrupulous as himself. It was thanks to the good offices and bad judgement of the Prince Regent that Hook, at age 24 and a business neophyte, obtained the post of accountant-general and treasurer at Mauritius. Under his watch, £62,000 – over £6 million pounds in today’s money – mysteriously disappeared. He was recalled, needless to say. Did a stint behind bars. He got out and got writing and was very successful. But he never attempted to discharge any portion of his admitted liability.

He died at his house in Fulham on August 24th, 1841. He was 52. In what was more or less his final pronouncement, he was, he said, “done up in purse, in mind and in body.”

In addition to the immortal Berners Street hoax, he’s in the pantheon of English Literature. He appears in Disraeli’s Coningsby as Lucien Gay and in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair as Lord Steyne’s Toady Mr Wagg. And then there’s Coleridge’s encomium. Coleridge, incidentally, had lodgings at 71 Berners Street just a couple of years after the hoax. Anyway, Coleridge’s reckoning of Thomas Hook was that he was “as true a genius as Dante.” Praise doesn’t come any higher than that.

Anyway, you’ve just been gifted with the Berners Street hoax. For you, from here on out, Berners Street is all changed, changed utterly.

And same goes for Charlotte Street, Bedford Square. Hook was born at 3 Charlotte Street. You find yourself in either of those streets with a friend or two in tow, you’re going to have a story to tell.

And as long as we’re more or less in its neck of the woods, I think, for our Today in London recommendation, we should shimmer over to RIBA – the Royal Institute of British Architects – it’s at 66 Portland Place – catch their latest exhibition. Or if you’d like me to be a bit more directive, on January 19th, 2023, the architect and team who designed the 2022 House of the Year will be there at RIBA telling the story of their winning project.

And hey, come to think of it, that’s not a bad way of putting it. Thomas Hook’s Berner’s Street hoax was also a winning project. Of sorts. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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