It might have something to do with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or possibly the change in the French calendar in 1564 when the start of the year was moved from the end of March to 1 January.
Whatever the reason, we’ve been playing tricks on each other since at least the late 17th century (in 1698 unsuspecting tourists queued futilely at the Tower of London to see the ceremony of the Washing of the Lions) so let’s see what we can find on the internet about tricks and hoaxes.
Undoubtedly the most famous April Fool of all happened in 1957 when respected journalist Richard Dimbleby (father of Jonathan and David and reporter at many a royal wedding – you can check out his distinguished career at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ) narrated a short item on the BBC’s flagship documentary programme Panorama about the Swiss Spaghetti Tree harvest, thought to be the first ever television April Fool’s Day hoax.
“The last two weeks of March are an anxious time for the spaghetti farmer. There is always the chance of a late frost which, while not entirely ruining the crop, generally impairs the flavour and makes it difficult for him to obtain top prices in world markets. But now these dangers are over and the spaghetti harvest goes forward.”
Even the Director General of the BBC Sir Ian Jacob (yes, he’s in the ODNB too) was taken in and queried with the producer why spaghetti trees weren’t mentioned in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Would you have been fooled?
Surprisingly it took newspapers much longer to see the fun in April Fool’s Day and the undoubted King of Hoaxes is The Guardian whose supplement about the republic of San Serriffe from 1977 is still fondly remembered. Check out the News & Magazines section of the Westminster Libraries Gateway to websites for the complete Guardian archive. Search for articles on San Serriffe and you’ll even find the adverts including Access informing readers that credit cards were now accepted in San Serriffian shops. Now, of course, most newspapers produce their own April Fool and most of the fun is seeing whether they fool each other – amusingly the Guardian itself was taken in last year.
But for some people, hoaxes aren’t just for one day of the year. Today it seems baffling that anyone was ever taken in by Frances Griffith and Elsie Wright’s photographs of the Cottingley Fairies, especially since Elsie had worked in a photographic studio for several months but they took in some very famous people indeed. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a book, The Coming of the Fairies about the supernatural phenomenon as he saw it. Though the Illustrated London News (also available via the Gateway) did title its review of Doyle’s book ( September 16, 1922, p 444) Hoax or Revelation?
So clearly not everyone was quite so willing to believe in the little folk. Check out Elsie and Frances’ life stories in the ODNB and, while you’re there, why not have a look at Theodore Hook, ‘writer and hoaxer’ (there’s a job you never see advertised nowadays).
If you’re short of an idea for 1 April, why not see if you can recreate this joke:
“The most celebrated of Hook’s hoaxes was the Berners Street hoax of 1809. This hoax, aimed at a Mrs Tottenham, against whom Hook had grievances, was undertaken with two accomplices and was six weeks in preparation. Having falsely ordered a range of goods and sent out bogus invitations to dignitaries and notables, Hook and his accomplices watched from a room opposite as wagonloads of coal from the Paddington wharves, upholsterers’ goods in cartloads, organs, pianofortes, linen, jewellery, and all types of furniture arrived in unison at the woman’s Berners Street door. The lord mayor of London, governor of the Bank of England, chairman of the East India Company, and the duke of Gloucester were equally tricked into making an appearance. An amused crowd blocked the street for the entire day; yet, although he was suspected, Hook escaped without his involvement being proved.”
Publishing has always been a breeding ground for fraudsters.
An excellent recent book is Telling Tales : a history of literary hoaxes which has stories ranging from the tragic teenage poet and forger Thomas Chatterton (whose story is told in the ever-useful ODNB) to the Hitler diaries which formed the basis for Robert Harris’ book Selling Hitler and recent fictional ‘memoirs’ such as those by James Frey.
Older readers will remember the Henry Root Letters of William Donaldson who fooled many of the great and the good into answering meandering questions about the state of the nation.
Donaldson also wrote Brewer’s rogues, villains & eccentrics : an A-Z of roguish Britons throughout the ages which contains an excellent collection of practical jokers such as Charles Dawson who fooled scientists for 50 years with Piltdown Man and Horace De Vere Cole who, with the help of Virginia Woolf and others, persuaded the Royal Navy to welcome a delegation of ‘Abyssinian royalty’ in the Dreadnought hoax.
However you decide to fool your friends today, whether sending them to buy striped paint or telling them there’s no such word as ‘gullible’ in the dictionary, be assured you are part of a long and honourable tradition. Just remember there’s a difference between a hoax and a fraud!