April Fools? A history of British hoaxes

Jonathan Swift
Swift's April Fools' Day hoax was so effective it followed its victim to the grave - literally. Image: Jonathan Swift painted by Charles Jervas

Looking for ways to prank your family and friends this April Fools' Day? Here are three historical British pranks to inspire your seasonal shenanigans.

Herbert de Grassen and 'The Annual Washing of the Lions' - 1698

Regarded as the first recorded example of an April Fools' hoax in history, 'The Annual Washing of the Lions' captured the public in an unexpected way. A series of official-looking invitations were distributed to an unknown number of recipients in London. Boasting a bold red wax seal and a royal crest, the invitation from 'Herbert de Grassen' granted the ‘bearer and their friends’ admittance to witness the Annual Washing of the Lions.

When the invitations first went out you can imagine the intrigue and mystery surrounding them. Home to the very first zoo in London, the royal menagerie at the tower had a famed history dating back centuries and in its time had boasted exotic animals from leopards to polar bears. In fact, the first zoo in London was infamous. From the noise of roaring lions and the stench of accumulated filth to the countless staff who were mauled by the wild animals: the menagerie at the tower was a spectacle that most people wouldn’t have been party to. So to receive an invitation of this kind would have surely set hearts and imaginations racing.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any evidence showing how many people arrived to witness this prestigious event on the day, but you can imagine the combined disappointment and embarrassment of anyone who eagerly presented their invitation at the White Gate that morning.

Eventually, the menagerie was moved from the Tower of London to its current location: London Zoo in Regents Park. The only remaining animals are the iconic ravens that still live at the tower and are often up to mischief of their own making.

Isaac Bickerstaff Esq. and his Predictions for the year 1708

Better known as Irish satirist and author Jonathan Swift, Isaac Bickerstaff’s Predictions for 1708 was so effective it followed its victim to the grave quite literally. Known for his sarcastic and dry satire, Swift was a noted fan of April Fools' Day and liked to use it to his advantage. However as Isaac Bickerstaff Esq. he took pranking to a whole new level.

In January 1708 a new Almanac went on sale in London titled Predictions for the year 1708 by Isaac Bickerstaff. Almanacs have been published throughout history predicting everything from astrology and significant agricultural dates, to sports predictions. A popular form of literature at the time, many of its readers were shocked to find that one of the dates of note in the book was the death ‘by raging fever’ of famous astrologer and popular almanac author John Partridge on March 29th at exactly 11pm. Gripped by the intrigue of such a prediction, many didn’t realise that this incendiary new piece of literature was in fact Swift laying the foundations for the mother of all April Fools' pranks.

Fast forward a few months and a new pamphlet began circulating around London. Titled ‘The Accomplishment of the First of Mr Bickerstaff’s Predictions’, the pamphlet announced that, while he had been off in his estimation by four hours, Bickerstaff’s prediction had been accurate and John Partridge had passed away at 7:05 the night before. As he drew his last breath it was written that Partridge had confessed to being a fraud. To ensure that the hoax was as realistic as possible Swift even wrote a eulogy to the recently passed Partridge. The news began to filter through London and by April 1st it was common knowledge that Partridge was deceased. Common knowledge to everyone except for John Partridge himself - who was very much alive.

Enraged at this false reporting of his death, Partridge penned a pamphlet in which he declared that he was very much alive and well and that Bickerstaff was a fraud.

Doubling down on his efforts to out Partridge as a charlatan, Swift penned a final pamphlet stating that Partridge had to be dead because 'no man alive ever to writ such damned stuff as this' (referring to Partridge’s most recent almanac).

Not only did Swift's ingenuity succeed in severely irking Partridge, but it also discredited him and his almanacs. Partridge eventually stopped penning his almanacks and lived with the effects of Swift's hoax for the rest of his life.

The Bottle Conjuror - January 1749

Okay, so this isn’t an April Fools' specific hoax, but we would be remiss to not include such a ludicrous example of a prank going wrong. A true unexplained mystery, the creator of this hoax is still unknown 250 years later. Some believed the originator of the prank to be Samuel Foote, whilst others blamed the owner of the theatre - both of whom denied any involvement whatsoever. Many fingers have been pointed, but with the fallout of this prank ending in riot and destruction, it’s not surprising no-one ever owned up to it.

In January 1749 a rather bizarre and sensational advert appeared in newspapers across London. Appearing at the Hay-Market theatre on Monday 16th January was ‘a person who performs several most surprising things’ and the people of London were invited to witness his abilities in person (for a fee, of course). Among the miraculous abilities the mysterious showman boasted, the one that captured the minds of the London public was the ability to place a common wine bottle on the table, insert himself into the wine bottle, and then sing while the audience passed the bottle around.

Whilst you’d be forgiven for thinking that many letters to the editor were written to complain about the blatant nonsense being advertised, when the theatre opened on Monday 16th January, it opened to a packed house.

When the lights came up at 7pm, the huge audience began to feel a little restless. There was no music or support acts to entertain the crowd as they waited for the Bottle Conjuror. Pretty soon it became apparent that no act was going to appear and that the audience members had been swindled. What happened next was probably not what the prankster had intended: riot. Whilst most made a hasty exit, the more irate audience members proceeded to gut the theatre and create a bonfire in the street outside using the spoilage of their destruction.

The joke went viral, and newspapers took every and any chance to exploit the story for their own gain.

Written by:

Jo Rowan