This morning at 7.32am, there was a knock on my door. It was not only too early, but also unexpected, and I mumbled ancient curses under my breath.
Yet, I was able to relieve DPD of the package and, now that we’ve decided all those signatures for delivery were a waste of time as we all knew but felt impotent to affect, send DPD away happily and swiftly.
But imagine the annoyance of Mrs Tottenham, who, at 5am, two-hundred-and-eleven years ago last week, opened the door to a chimney sweep who she had not requested the dawn company of. Having shooed him back from the door, she and her maid were astonished to receive eleven further sweeps, who all appeared to want to render her stacks clear and ready to draw smoke.
Though this turn of events was devilish perplexing to Mrs Tottenham and the staff, it was both a source of immense kudos, and hope for a bet well-won, for the man hiding across the road, and watching through the shutters of the house directly opposite 54 Berners Street, in London’s West End.
This man was Theodore Edward Hook, and he certainly lived a full life.
Born in the same year that the duplicitous Scot William ‘Deacon’ Brodie was being sought for the massive reward of thirty-thousand pounds in the 1788 equivalent, Hook was known as a ‘man of letters’, engaged in literary pursuits, like playwriting, composing, and corresponding.
His youth was spent studying at Harrow, then Oxford, and he was duly regarded as a genius for his ability to score an entire comic opera, The Soldier's Return, at the age of sixteen.
That penchant for improvisation and comedy doesn’t seem to have waned at all, as we find him crouching behind those shutters in Berners Street, watching the fervent activity.
When the servants had dispersed the sweeps, along came a procession of delivery vehicles carrying large quantities of coal, hoping to offload a sack or two on the unnerved Mrs Tottenham. They were likewise sent packing, only to be replaced by one dozen pianos and their makers, hoping to charm the household. And, following close behind, "six stout men bearing an organ".
Much in the same way Hook, who still crouched in hiding across the road, delighted the Prince Regent, George Augustus Frederick, or George IV, who was so taken with Hook's musical agility, that he gave him the office of accountant-general and treasurer of, of all places, Mauritius, with an annual salary of about two-hundred thousand British pounds in 1800 equivalent.
Hook held this post for four years, during which he was the center of attention of dance and song and laughter for the island, and his reign of frivolity only came to an end, rather abruptly, when around one-million pounds in today’s money went missing from the accounts, and he was held responsible.
Meanwhile in Berners Street, the confectioners arrived, with cakes and delicacies for the bewildered Mrs Tottenham. To precede the cakes, fishmongers brought fresh fish, kept cold on beds of ice, butchers brought meat, hung on pegs and carried high for the household cook to choose from, and the finest grocers in town brought the most lush fruit and vegetables, organic and unwaxed.
After being dragged back to England to answer for the missing monies, and apparently being released to repay as best he could, Hook went into a sort of reclusion, and wrote magazine articles to support himself. In 1820, he was able to launch his own publication, the John Bull, which espoused the virtues of Toryism with wit and criticism, and became quite popular, with a large circulation and a solid income, which he enjoyed without attempting to pay off any of the Mauritius or other debts. And, inevitably, Hook found himself hauled back to answer for his ways, and this time locked in a sponging-house, a temporary confinement for eluding debts, prior to being incarcerated indefinitely in a debtors prison.
Back in Berners Street, it was the turn of the professionals to appear on the scene. Doctors and lawyers arrived to aid Mrs Tottenham in matters of health and law, and a vicar pitched up to offer spiritual support and prayer. He was followed by a priest whose purpose, he said, was to administer last rites to a dying occupant.
One suspects Mrs Tottenham was about at her wits end by this point.
You may have thought that Hook was at a similarly-low ebb, but not at all. In fact, he seems to have been energized by the lack of stimulation and was able to write nine volumes of stories in the four years he was there, and titled it Sayings and Doings. He then, once liberated from the chains of financial limbo, spent the remaining years of his life authoring an incredible thirty-eight more books, including Maxwell in 1830, a biography of his friend, Reverend E Cannon, Love and Pride in 1833, Gilbert Gurney in 1835, and a follow-up in 1837, Jack Brag the same year, and Peregrine Bunce five years later.
Of course, before that, Hook is winning the bet he made with his friend, Samuel Beazley, that he could ‘transform any house in London into the most talked-about address in a week’, and it’s about to go beyond even Hook’s expectation.
After the tradesmen and the craftsmen, the professionals and the clergy, up to the front door of Mrs Tottenham’s home came none other than the Governor of the Bank of England.
Mrs Tottenham and her household staff were perplexed. But Hook’s work sending out thousands of invitations in the days prior had not yet reached its zenith
After the Governor left, up rolled the Archbishop of Canterbury, seeking an audience with the lady of the house, and a cup of tea, one suspects.
But the day wasn’t over just yet.
Because a carriage approached with none other than the Lord Mayor of London, hoping to gain entry to the esteemed house and discuss his latest proposals for the great Capital.
Mrs Tottenham could be forgiven for feeling slightly overwhelmed with all these visitors, and Hook satisfied that he’d won this bet, hands down. Berners Street had become a throng of activity, and every policeman in the neighborhood was called upon to keep peace and disperse the crowds gathering for the spectacle, and the hopefuls praying to do any sort of business with the great house of Tottenham.
At some point during the heaving chaos, Hook managed to evade those seeking the person responsible for this astonishing hoax, and disappeared for a while, before returning, as we know, to live a full and varied life, which included receiving the first ever postcard, which he sent to himself in 1840.
As Hook was leaving, by means of a clever disguise maybe, one final guest was arriving at 54 Berners Street.
And, as Mrs Tottenham mopped her furrowed brow and the staff stood confused and dazed from the day’s event, there came a knock at the door. A strong, purposeful knock. A knock of some considerable portent. Mrs Tottenham, exhausted and weary, flung open the door, ready to give this final visitor a piece of her discombobulated mind, only to find the ‘grand old’ Duke of York standing on her steps.
Hook had, without doubt, won this particular gamble.
But he didn’t win them all. He died penniless and still in debt in 1841, and the State seized anything of material value he may have possessed. What they couldn’t seize was Hook’s amazing persona; his literary genius, his musical acumen, his talent for a good line and a practical joke. Such a great figure of the period that he was said to have inspired the characters of Lucian Gay in Coningsby, and of Mr Wagg in Vanity Fair.
In the end, Hook was probably sunk by his inability to pursue one of those ridiculously obvious careers, and stick with it despite his intellect and energy and sense of adventure, having early on pepertuated one of the most momentous hoaxes of Georgian London, or any era or place, for that matter.
And, his own biography, which he never quite got round to writing, might’ve ended up being his greatest story of all, and no doubt we would certainly have fallen for his contagious charm, Hook, line, and sinker.
picture by Kampus Production