Episode 50 - 500 Tarts and One Sexy Roman Emperor (Laughter Week)
Updated: Apr 17
Sam's Episode Notes: The Berners Street Hoax (or ordering every tradesman in London to one house), and the invention of the whoopee cushion.
I found an absolute doozy today – a practical joke so audacious it caused a national scandal and caused London to grind to a halt, as well as causing a LOT of annoyance to, well, pretty much everyone in London.
But first, a couple of honourable mentions. First, the Roman Emperor Elagabalus – who like all Roman emperors, was a measured sort of a chap. Ascending the throne in 218 AD, he liked to play fun practical jokes like literally hiding lions in cupboards, drowning people under rose petals, and hiring himself out as a prostitute. What? Yes.
Anyway, in a lighter moment he invented the whoopee cushion – having his dinner guests sit on inflated leather sacks which his slaves them surreptitiously pulled the plugs out of at different points during dinner. He was assassinated in 222AD, so clearly people didn't see the funny side.
My next honorable mention is for one of the greatest biological warfare pranks of all time. Not a fart in a can, but a shit on the lawn. In the late 1790s, Oxford University geologist William Buckland was experimenting with guano, or bat shit. Eventually it would come to be one of the greatest known natural fertilisers and wars would be fought over it, but right now it was just being discovered by Europeans. So one night, he snuck out and painted the word Guano in huge letters on Tom Quad, the huge and immaculately kept lawn in front of Oxford's Christchurch College. The next morning, the college staff noticed and very quickly cleared away the poo. But even after just a few hours, the fertiliser was so effective that for the next several years, the grass where guano was spelt out grew twice as fast as the rest of the lawn – so every couple of weeks the word guano would visibly reappear in several foot high letters. The only way they could have gotten rid of it would be to dig out the patch and re-seed it, which the groundskeeper couldn't bear to do – so a giant shit on the lawn it was!
So, on to my main story for today. And this is brilliant. It's the Berners Street Hoax of November 26th 1810. Now, for background, by 1810 London was the biggest and wealthiest city in Europe, and possibly up there among the biggest in the world. It had a population of over a million and was THE world hub for trade and industry. You could buy or hire pretty much anyone or anything you liked. And this hoax involves someone who did... And a woman who very much did not.
At 5am on the morning of 26th November, a Mrs Tottenham or Tottingham was sat at home at 54 Berners street in central London - a wealthy lady in a big house in a nice part of the city - when there was a knock at the door. No one was expected to be calling, so the maid was surprised to open the door to see a chimney sweep. She hadn't called for one, so sent him away. At 5.05, another knock on the door. Another chimney sweep. And another, and another. Once 12 chimney sweeps had turned up, the merchants began to arrive. Here's a quote from the London Annual Register: "Waggons laden with coals from the Paddington wharfs, upholsterers' goods in cart-loads, organs, pianofortes, linen, jewellery, and every other description of furniture."
Now, none of this had been ordered, but every single one had a letter requesting their presence. And there was more. More, and more, and more tradesmen began to turn up at the door. Quote: “Six men bearing an organ, wine porters with permits, barbers with wigs, mantua-makers with band-boxes, and opticians with their various articles of trade.”
There were also several cakemakers, each of whom had made a wedding cake, a number of doctors called in to deal with a number of different ailments, followed by a priest to give the lady of the house her last rites. A dozen pianos were delivered. Portrait artists arrived, dentists, people turned up with live chickens and livestock. At one point, a funeral cortage arrived with a made-to-measure coffin.
Then came the great and the good of London, all called to the address to meet with the lady of the house. And because it was a nice part of London and therefore she was clearly a lady of means, they all turned up: The Governor of the Bank of England, the Duke of York, The Lord Mayor of London and even the Archbishop of Canterbury arrived at the door. All clammering to get through the traffic of whoever these other people were to get to their appointment. In all, almost every single tradesman in London had been called out to 54 Berners Street. Mrs Tottenham was absolutely terrified, as, presumably, was her made. Everyone outside was furious, and there was an almighty traffic jam – almost every cart, hackney carriage and professional in London was packed into this one small street and no one could move an inch. And obviously, thousands of people came out to watch as well, which didn't help.
Eventually, the police had to be called in to cordon off central london. According to the morning post, quote: “Every Officer that could be mustered was enlisted to disperse the people, and they were placed at the corners of Berners Street to prevent trades people from advancing towards the house with goods. The street was not cleared at a late hour, as servants of every denomination wanting places began to assemble at five o'clock. It turned out that letters had been written to the different trades people, which stated recommendations from persons of quality. A reward has been offered for the apprehension of the author of the criminal hoax.”
So not only had the prankster ordered every tradesman in London to the house, they'd also put out job adverts. All carefully choreographed to cause the maximum disruption through the day.
When the police investigated, it turned out someone had printed thousands of identical calling cards with blank spaces for the name, profession and goods requested, had simply filled them in, and sent them off around the city. Presumably at huge cost and time to themselves.
And no one could work out who had done it, or why. The papers for the next few weeks were rocked by rumour and scandal about the hoax. There was apparently some political intrigue linking all the dignitaries who had turned up. There was apparently some greater message spelt out from what had been ordered and who had turned up when. The event made it into skits in music halls and the penny gaffs, as discussed in this podcast before.
And whilst all the newspapers were pretty quick to shake their heads and tut at the waste of time and money, they also found it absolutely hilarious.
But no one knew who. By 1812, though, a name had sprung up and was circulating in newspapers. Theodore Hook, a young socialite, writer of musicals, and notorious prankster, who had a habit of selecting his victims at random, and knew all the gossip of London.
In fact, in the 1830s he admitted it himself, writing about it in a semi-autiobiographical novel, Gilbert Gurney.
"There's nothing like fun — what else made the effect in Berner's Street? I am the man — I did it; sent a Lord Mayor in state, to release impressed seamen — philosophers and sages to look at children with two heads a-piece — piano-fortes by dozens, and coal waggons by scores — two thousand five hundred raspberry tarts from half-a-hundred pastry-cooks — a squad of surgeons — a battalion of physicians, and a legion of apothecaries — lovers to see sweethearts; ladies to find lovers — upholsterers to furnish houses, and architects to build them — gigs, dog-carts, and glass-coaches, enough to convey half the freeholders of Middlesex to Brentford. Nay, I despatched even Royalty itself on an errand to a respectable widow lady, whose concourse of visitors, by my special invitation, choked up the great avenues of London, and found employment for half the police of the metropolis."
In fact what he'd done is rented a room opposite the house, and with a few friends, written up to 4,000 letters in the week ahead of the prank, then just spent the day watching the chaos and giggling.
But why? Well, Tom, it was a bet. A week beforehand, he'd been walking past the house with a friend and told him: "I'll lay you a guinea that in one week that nice modest dwelling shall be the most famous in all London".
So there you go. The prank probably cost him hundreds of pounds, but he made his guinea.
Philogelos - the world’s oldest joke book
Well, this wasn’t a tricky one to research. I started by researching incidents of inappropriate laughter in history, inspired by Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles’s sniggering during a performance of Inuit throat singing in 2017 during a visit to Canada.
· Incidentally, throat singing isn’t supposed to be taken seriously. It’s actually a competition between 2 Inuit ladies to see who can last the longest keeping to a rhythm. Matches usually end in a few minutes when a lady can’t keep up, makes a mistake or starts laughing.
· It’s not too dissimilar to the noble Norman game, still practiced extensively in the English private school system, of ‘biscuit détrempé’ biscweet detrempay’, more commonly known a soggy biscuit.
Anyway, I rapidly stumbled across the oldest existing joke book, the Philogelos, and although it might be well known to listeners, I couldn’t resist discussing it for the following 2 reasons:
1. The jokes are very similar to modern stand-up jokes, just more 1970s.
2. Talking of 1970s, the only translation of the document includes commentary from Jim Bowen, of Bullseye fame
o “take a look at your prize! It’s a bullseye shopping spree at your local 1 pound shop, splash out on over 3 items with your 4 pound voucher”
o “Oooo let’s have a look at what you could have won; a selection of prosthetic limbs and broken umbrellas found at Waterloo train station.”
Anyway, the history bit, the book is attributed to two chaps; Hierocles and Philagrius, which translates roughly as Cannon and Ball. We know nothing of these two people.
The name Philogelos translates as, ‘my mother in law’, no, Love of Laughter.
It’s from around the 4th century AD and is from the Roman Empire and was originally written in Greek. It survives in a couple of manuscripts that are the better part of a thousand years old.
The majority of the jokes are aimed at, scholastikos, or students, who spend so much time studying that they have lost all common-sense.
Let’s pick out some of the best: