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Sam Plank update 44: April 2022

Gotcha! A history of April Fools' Day - and a Regency hoax

One of the great joys of writing historical fiction is the licence it gives me to read around my era – to explore topics that will probably never make it into a Sam Plank book (or a Gregory Hardiman one).  And so this month, given that this update is being delivered on 1 April, I’m sharing with you what I have learned about April Fools’ Day.  (Another reason for doing this is that I have looked at my list of possible topics and I can’t pick any of them without giving away crucial plot points from “The Notes of Change”, and as you are all going to rush out and buy it when it is published on 29 April, I don’t want to spoil the surprise.)

Some historians believe that April Fools’ Day dates back to 1582, when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar – and in the Julian calendar, the new year had begun with the spring equinox on around 1 April.  People who were slow to catch on that New Year’s Day was now 1 January and continued to celebrate it on 1 April were called “April fools”, and often had a paper fish pinned to their back to suggest that they were as gullible as a young, easily-caught fish (and in France you still call April fools “poissons d’avril”).  Another theory is that April Fools’ Day is the modern incarnation of the festival of Hilaria (which is Latin for joyful) that was celebrated in ancient Rome at the end of March by followers of the cult of Cybele – they would dress up in disguises and mock fellow citizens.  And still others think that April Fools’ Day marks the first day of spring (in the northern hemisphere) when nature fools us with changeable, unpredictable weather.

However it started, marking April Fools’ Day became widespread in Britain during the eighteenth century.  In Scotland it was a two-day event, starting with “hunting the gowk”, in which people were sent on ridiculous errands (gowk is a word for cuckoo bird, a symbol for fool) and followed by Tailie Day, which involved pranks such as pinning a fake tail or a sign saying “kick me” on people’s backsides.  In more modern times, perhaps the best-loved prank took place in 1957, when the BBC reported that Swiss farmers were experiencing a record spaghetti crop and showed footage of people harvesting noodles from trees.  (Be kind to us unsophisticated Brits: in those days, olive oil was sold only in pharmacies and used for the removal of ear wax.)

And (you’ll be relieved to hear) I can actually relate all of this to Sam Plank, as one of the greatest hoaxes in London history took place in Berners Street – the very street where Henry Fauntleroy had both his bank and his house in “Fatal Forgery”.  Sadly it was not on 1 April, but at about 5am on Monday 27 November 1809 there was a knock on the door of 54 Berners Street – an unassuming residential address.  It was a chimney sweep, who claimed he had been called to the address – the maid said they had not requested him and he went on his way.  A few moments later another sweep arrived with the same story, then another and another until the exasperated maid had sent away twelve in total.  But the sweeps were only the beginning.  Next came coal carts, each claiming they had a large order for number 54, something Mrs Tottenham, the owner, assured them she had not requested.  Hot on their heels came the cake makers, each carrying a ten-guinea wedding cake.  Then doctors began calling, then apothecaries, surgeons and lawyers, followed by vicars and priests to minister to the resident within who, they had been told, was dying.  Outside, a group of rather bemused undertakers waited with bespoke coffins.  By now the streets in the area were becoming congested, not helped by the arrival of fishmongers, bootmakers, shoemakers, haberdashers, milliners, butchers’ boys and a queue of pianos.  News travelled and the Governor of the Bank of England, the Lord Mayor of London and even the Duke of Gloucester arrived to gawk at the spectacle.

Opposite number 54 Berners Street stood Samuel Beazley, who handed his friend Theodore Hook a guinea.  Hook had undoubtedly won his bet: that, within a week, he could transform any house in London into the most talked-about address in the city.  To win, he had sent out 4,000 orders or requests, to tradesmen, professionals and dignitaries, requiring them to present themselves at Mrs Tottenham’s.  In the process he brought a large part of London to a standstill and triumphantly won his wager.  Later that day he retired to the country to avoid retribution.  In 1813, Hook became accountant-general in Mauritius but was later imprisoned for mismanagement of funds - do I feel another book coming on...?
Not looking like she has a great sense of humour... This is a statue of Cybele, made of Roman marble in about 50 AD - she's now in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles
A lithograph of the chaos caused in Berners Street by the hoax - drawn long after the event by Victorian lithographer Alfred Concanen
A contemporary (but perhaps more fanciful) caricature of the Berners Street hoax, drawn in 1810 by William Heath
Theodore Hook - mastermind behind the Berners Street hoax
The BBC's infamous spaghetti harvest
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