Happy April Fools Day! April Fools Day is by no means a new invention. The day, in fact, has a long tradition including some truly dedicated pranksters. On this April Fools Day we’d like to draw your attention to some of these rascals, rogues, and disturbers of the peace. Even the Austen family was not without its antics.

First, some history:

The history of April Fools Day is a mystery. A common theory is that the holiday began with the transition to the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century. The new calendar made the New Year January first, but some people must have missed the memo and celebrated New Year on the old Julian calendar’s date— the beginning of April. These hapless individuals, the theory concludes, were the first ‘April fools’.

Other theories exist, including one based on Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer refers to ‘32 March’, but scholars disagree about Chaucer’s intentions in the line. In any case, the earliest April Fools Day prank on record is as follows:

The Washing of the Lions

This ticket for the Washing of the Lions on April 1st, 1857 directs the bearer to enter at the White Gate. A difficult task, as there is no such gate.

On the first of April, 1698, unsuspecting Londoners were excited to attend the annual ‘Washing of the Lions’ at the Tower of London. The crowd must have assembled, ready for a spectacle, but they would have waited a very, very long time. There was no washing of the lions ceremony, and the hapless spectators were victims of the earliest recorded April Fools Day prank.

In subsequent years the ‘Washing of the Lions’ hoax grew in popularity, occurring (or rather not occurring) almost every year. Dedicated pranksters sold tourists tickets to the event, featuring entrance at a gate that did not exist. The prank continued to flourish well into the nineteenth century.

A Regency Rascal

Theodore Edward Hook is our daring Regency prankster, a young man just out of school and (it would seem) missing those school years. In 1809, Young Hook decided to organise a large party for a Mrs. Tottenham of London. Unfortunately for Mrs. Tottenham, Hook didn’t inform her of the party she’d be hosting. On the day of the event, Mrs. Tottenham’s house was besieged by tradesmen and guests. These included both the Mayor of London and the Duke of Gloucester. A London newspaper wrote:

A HOAX.- This very malignant species of wit was yesterday most successfully practised at the house of Mrs. T––, a lady of fortune, at No. 54, Berners-street, which was beset by about three dozen tradespeople at one time, with their various commodities, and from the confusion altogether, such crowds had collected as to render the street impassable. … The Lord Mayor arrived in his carriage, but his lordship’s stay was short. … Berners-street was, by this time, in the greatest confusion, by the multiplicity of tradespeople, who were returning with their goods, and spectators laughing at them. … The street was not cleared at a late hour, as servants wanting places began to assemble at five o’clock…besides a coffin which was brought to Mrs. T––’s house, made to measure…there were accoucheurs, tooth-drawers, miniature painters, and artists of every description.

Susan Holloway has written a more extensive blog post about Hook’s intricate prank, which you can read here.

This painting of Chawton House holds the secret mark of twelve-year-old Mary Jane Austen, hidden among the bricks in the lower right corner.

Mischievous Mary Jane Austen

While we don’t know if the Austen family heard about Theodore Hook’s London escapade, we do know that the Austen family children were spritely and daring enough for their own roguery. Mary Jane Austen, daughter of Jane Austen’s brother Sir Francis William Austen, was especially rambunctious. Jane Austen described the then-nine-year-old Mary Jane in an 1816 letter to Caroline Austen: ‘I had an early opportunity of conveying your letter to Mary Jane,’ Austen writes, ‘having only to throw it out of [the] window at her as she was romping with your Brother in the Back Court.’

Mary Jane and her family moved into Chawton House in 1819, where Mary Jane committed her most audacious deed. To find it, one must carefully examine the 1740 painting of Chawton House by Mellichamp, which today hangs in our tapestry room. In the lower right corner, one can make out a faint inscription: ‘Mary Jane Austen 1819’. Whether the twelve-year-old vandal was ever punished, we can only wonder. But we all know that the best April Fools Day pranksters are the ones whose names we don’t know— those who were never caught at all.