In Berners Street there now has as its most famous building the Sanderson Hotel in a building which was once the headquarters of the famous furnishing designers with whom it shares its name. Because the building is Grade II* listed the name was retained when converting it to its present use. The hotel’s guests might be surprised to discover that this quiet West End backwater was once the address of one of London’s most spectacular pranks.
Theodore Hook was an inveterate joker who while passing 54 Berners Street made a wager with his friend Samuel Beazley that he could transform the aforementioned house into the most talked-about address in London.
Under the pseudonym of Mrs Tottenham (Tottenham Street being a few yards distant) Hook sent out thousands of letters requesting deliveries, visitors and assistance.
On 27th November 1810 stationed in a house opposite the two watched as the ensuring chaos would bring a large part of London to a standstill.
The day started early as the maid opened the door at five o’clock to a chimney sweep, she would inform his and the other eleven that followed that their services were not required.
There then followed a procession of tradesmen delivering large quantities of coal, cake makers presenting wedding cakes, deliveries of potatoes, feathers, harpsichords, cranberry-tarts, fishmongers, shoemakers all trades were well represented.
Next to arrive were doctors, lawyers, vicars and priests along with The Lord Mayor summoned to the death-bed confession of someone within the house. Unsurprisingly undertakers carrying coffins arrived soon after.
The street was becoming gridlocked with confused tradesmen and bemused onlookers. Next to arrive were over a dozen pianos and accounts at the time reported ‘six stout men bearing an organ’ arriving.
By the afternoon the Governor of the Bank of England, the Lord Chief Justice, the Commander of the Chief of the Army and the Archbishop of Canterbury came to pay their respect to the ‘widow’ within, but Hook’s piece de resistance was the arrival of the Duke of Gloucester.
Many who knew Hook suspected he was the perpetrator, but he managed to evade detection and laid up for a week or two before embarking on a tour of the country.
Later having no knowledge of accounting but with a gift of improvising song (and do doubt his gift of the gab) he persuaded the Prince Regent to appoint him, at a salary of £2,000 a year, as Accountant-General of Mauritius where he spent five delightful years until his deceit was discovered along with a shortfall of £12,000. Returning to England he managed to evade prison and would go on to write many novels during his life and started the magazine John Bull.
Main picture: Sanderson Hotel from Fitzrovia News (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)