Theodore Hook: Master Prankster

Theodore Hook (1788-1841) was a composer, author, and playboy in London. He went to school at Oxford and published many books. But above all else, he was well known for his practical jokes and hooliganism. One story tells of how Hook managed to skip payment for his coach ride. Upon seeing a friend outside the coach, he asked his friend to join him. But his friend had no cash either!

Approaching the house of a surgeon, Hook ran to the door. He explained in a terrible rush that the surgeon was desperately needed for his son and must come out immediately. The doctor was going to wait for his carriage when Hook exclaimed, “Don’t wait for your carriage! Get into mine, which is waiting at the door.” Hook did not follow the doctor into the carriage.

A signed portrait of Theodore Hook
A signed portrait of Theodore Hook

Hook and his friend Mathews were out fishing and rowing when they spotted a sign in a garden on the coast: Nobody permitted to land here — Offenders prosecuted with the utmost Rigour of Law. In a spontaneous moment of buffoonery, they landed. Hook taking notes in his notebook, Mathews shoving his walking stick into the lawn, and both “taking measurements” with fishing line. A city knight who lived in the house there opened the windows and, in shock, ran out to stop the men from destroying his garden. They explained calmly that they were surveyors from the Canal Company, and the new canal was going straight through this property. But they were in fact, “never more pained than with such a duty”.

Hook and Matthews surveying the garden
Hook and Matthews surveying the garden

Panicked that he would lose his garden, the man invited the supposed surveyors inside to speak further about the matter. He brought out food and drink for the men who remained steadfast in their intentions to dig the lawn. In a last attempt to sway their minds, he made another offer: “Really this businesss must be reconsidered — One bottle more, dear gentlemen” After finishing the second bottle, Hook stood up to his true (and well-known) identity in rhyme:

And we greatly approve of your fare,
Your cellar’s as prime as your cook;
And this clerk here is Mathews the player,
And my name, Sir, is — Theodore Hook.

None of this, however, reaches the magnitude of the “Berners Street hoax”. While walking with a friend (perhaps Mathews) he pointed at a small house to make a bet, “I’ll lay you a guinea that in one week that nice quiet dwelling shall be the most famous in all London.” Mathews took the bet. In the following days Hook wrote a thousand letters. Each letter requesting a delivery of goods or services to that address on a single day and time.

A cartoon depicting the intruding services
A cartoon depicting the intruding services

To simply list the people who arrive borders on the absurd, but I’ll do my best with the sources I’ve found. Among those he contacted were: attorneys, teachers, parliamentary philanthropists, doctors and surgeons, chimney sweeps, tailors, hair-dressers, preachers, fishmongers, and shoemakers. But in addition to the guests, deliveries were also made with wagons filled with books, potatoes, feathers, ices, wedding cakes, jellies, coal, prints, cranberry tarts, and a dozen pianos.  He even managed to convince more well-known officials to show: the Lord Mayor and his Chaplain of the City of London, Governor of the Bank of England, Chairman of the East India Company, a Lord Chief Justice, a Cabinet Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and His Royal Highness the Commander-in-Chief. It was total madness.

A depiction of the madness in the streets
A depiction of the madness in the streets

The tale is recounted by John Lockhart in his book Theodore Hook: a sketch:

But the tangible material damage done was itself no joking matter. There had been an awful smashing of glass, china, harpsichords, and coach-panels. Many a horse fell, never to rise again. Beer-barrels and wine-barrels had been overturned and exhausted with impunity amidst the press of countless multitudes. It had been a fine field-day for the pickpockets. There arose a fervent hue and cry for the detection of the wholesale deceiver and destroyer.

The roads were so congested that day, no person could begin to approach the area for entire cities surrounding it. Police officers, every one they could find, were brought in to help with crowd control. The officers were placed on street corners to informs vendors to turn away and leave. Hook remained at home for the next couple weeks claiming to be ill. A good choice as there was a reward offered for information on the prankster.x

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