Friday, August 3, 2012

Theodore Hook and the Berners Street Hoax

Theodore Hook age about twenty-two
Theodore Edward Hook was a talented young man. He was a success in musical and drama circles by age sixteen. By about age eighteen he had been noticed by the Prince Regent for his skill in improvising songs. He attended intermitently at Oxford but it was in London society that he made his greatest mark. He was a bon vivant, a beau, and a rascal, was welcomed everywhere and was long remembered by London society.

He looks challengingly out of this portrait, a determined chin countered by a full pouting mouth, dark circles of dissipation already pouching the eyes which hold a disconcertingly direct gaze.

Hook's career was vast and varied. The Prince Regent made him accountant-general and treasurer of Mauritius for five years. At the end of his career there he was held responsible for a discrepancy in the treasury accounts of 12,000 pounds. The debt and the subsequent cloud of suspicion followed him for the rest of his life.

Nevertheless he lived life to the full. He turned to writing. In 1820 he launched the newspaper John Bull; he produced nine volumes of stories from 1824-1828, and thirty-eight more novels and other works up til his death in 1841.

Amongst the things for which Hook was most remembered however, was his love of pranks, practical jokes and hoaxes. Wherever he lived, at all ages of his life, he could be counted on for foolishness. The betting book at White's Club must bear his name (I have not discovered if he was a member); and wagers must have been laid upon his japes. Stories of his most famous foolishness are contained in the 1883 publication, The Choice Humorous Works: Ludicrous Adventures, Bon Mots, Puns and Hoaxes of Theodore Hook, available as a download from Google Books.
Among the most famous of his practical jokes was the Berners Street Hoax in 1810. Contemporary newspapers were full of accounts of the event. It was a triumph of a joke, a masterful piece of planning, and even two hundred years later causes one to laugh.
At the time the offender was unknown, but Hook was many years later revealed as the perpetrator of the events, illustrated below. The chaos was apparently indescribable.

Poor Mrs. Tottenham must have been at her wits' end. She was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time. And all because of a whim of Theodore Hook's.

The whole event has become legend, but the Museum of Hoaxes has a most complete recounting of the day.

A similar hoax was perpetrated only a month and a half later. The Examiner of January 13, 1811 recounted that story:

I wonder if Hook was responsible, or if he had moved on to other lunancy...

Theodore Hook must have known Scrope Davies, of whom he puts me in mind, and all the other notables of the Regency. His name is largely forgotten now, but he is a model for all Regency rascals, fribbles, and Bond Street beaus. You can read more of his life in the 1872 volume by Timbs titled Anecdote Lives of Wits and Humourists available from Google Books.

'Til next time,


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