by Julian Smith

Autograph letters by forgotten practical joker

The Dunedin Public Library’s Reed Collection contains five letters penned by the notorious perpetrator of the Berners Street Hoax.

The Regency-era public official, journalist, musician and popular novelist Theodore Hook (1788-1841) was a celebrated wit and mimic, who had an adventurous career. Yet if he is remembered at all today, it is as the instigator of perhaps the most gigantic hoax ever perpetrated in England, and which took place when Hook was 21 years old.

In 1810, a boarding-house keeper at 54 Berners Street, London, incurred Hook’s displeasure, and he and two companions spent several weeks writing some four thousand letters which were sent out to people from all walks of life, requesting them, under numerous pretexts, to call at the house on a certain day.

At 5am on the appointed day several chimney sweeps arrived, and the road was soon blocked with a number of heavy coal wagons. As the morning progressed, there arrived in the crowded street caterers with wedding cakes, tailors, bootmakers, undertakers with coffins and draymen with beer barrels. Surgeons arrived with implements for amputating limbs, chariots-and-four to take away wedding parties, attorneys to draw up wills, clergymen to minister to the mind and artists to paint portraits. All fought their way to the house for their bogus appointments.

About noon, 40 fishmongers arrived, each to fulfil an order for cod and lobsters, along with an equal number of butchers with legs of mutton. The climax occurred when the Lord Mayor drove up in the State carriage wearing a cocked hat and silk stockings.

During the proceedings, Hook and his companions were watching from an opposite window. Despite a fervent hue and cry to find the perpetrator, Hook had observed such precaution that he managed to evade detection. His involvement, however, was suspected by many who knew him, and he discreetly retired to the country for a while, under pretence of convalescence.

Hook’s brilliant social qualities – his conversation, wit and drollery, and talent for improvisation in music and song – gained him wide celebrity. He became a favourite of the Prince Regent, and, with no relevant experience, was in 1812 appointed Accountant-General and Treasurer of Mauritius at £2,000 per annum.

Despite the exuberance of his public life, Hook frequently found himself in financial low water, and grafted to earn a living by writing. His dual life of frothy surface and inner struggles took its toll and he died at 52, prematurely aged.

The donor of the Dunedin Public Library’s Reed Collection, Alfred Hamish Reed, purchased the five letters in Theodore Hook’s hand from the London dealer Reginald Atkinson in 1927.