Hoaxes, if done well, often fool people—even those who are generally regarded as reasonably intelligent. One that caught out some Oxbridge educated people who ought to have known better, was the piece of tom foolery dreamt up in 1948 by a twenty-two year old Cambridge undergraduate who later became an MP. His name was Humphry Berkeley and he invented a public school called Selhurst whose head was a certain H. Rochester Sneath.
Berkeley tried an experiment with any undergraduates he came across. Steering the conversation towards the subject of where he went to school, Berkeley, when asked would reply: ‘Well, as a matter of fact I went to a school called Selhurst. The name was brilliant chosen. It had a plausibility about it, unless, of course, you knew that Selhurst Park was the home of Crystal Palace football club. Had you this knowledge you may have asked some probing questions, but doubtless in 1948 most Oxbridge undergraduates would not have been football fans. Anyway, Richard Boston takes up the story:
‘ Registering his questioner’s non-recognition of the name he would follow up with ‘ Haven’t you hard of Selhurst?’ Anxious not to cause offence his acquaintance would reply,’ Of course I’ve heard of it my dear fellow.’ After various such successful experiments Berkeley knew that he had found the perfect name for what he calls a minor public school of ‘ the third degree’.
The next move was to have some letter headings printed with words at the top reading ‘Selhurst School, Near Petworth, Sussex. From the Headmaster H. Rochester Sneath.’ At small expense but with considerable ingenuity, Berkeley was able to make a forwarding arrangement with the Post Office. ( Another ruse was to pretend that he was on staying holiday with an imaginary sister to whom letters should be sent .) Now he was in business.
The first letter was to the Master of Marlborough College. H. Rochester Sneath announced that the three–hundreth anniversary of the foundation of Selhurst was coming up , and that he was anxious to have the opportunity of entertaining Their Majesties on the occasion. ‘Perhaps you would be kind enough to let me know how you managed to engineer a visit recently from the King and Queen’. He also asked for any helpful tips about how to treat royalty.
Berkeley must have been delighted to receive the Master of Marlborough’s reply, which was predictably, and wonderfully, frosty. ‘ I did nothing to engineer the recent royal visit.’.
Berkeley, perhaps encouraged by the fact that the Head of Marlborough had bothered to reply at all, ventured further. He told the Head that a former French master at Selhurst has asked him for a reference to support his application for a post at Marlborough, but that he had refused. During his brief time at Selhurst five boys had to be removed from the school as the result of his undesirable influence. On one occasion the teacher was observed climbing a tree stark naked. The Master’s one sentence reply to this information was that the individual in question had not applied for a job at Marlborough.
Berkeley also wrote to George Bernard Shaw, who replied that at 91 he was too old. He had better luck with the recently appointed Head of Rugby School, a certain Mr Arthur fforde. After congratulating fford on his new job, Berkeley/Sneath offered some advice concerning the sexual habits of teenage boys. ‘ Remember that you are a man of the world…Do not be taken in by the hysterical outcries against homosexuality which appear from time to time in the press. I have found that most homosexuality amongst schoolboys is harmless, and you can afford to ignore what is in most cases a purely transitory phase. Do not quote me as saying this, because although I believe it to be true, you cannot say that sort of thing to parents.’ Arthur fford replied thanking Sneath for a letter ‘so closely packed with good and serviceable advice’.
Berkeley/Sneath also pursued the subject of sex education with J. F. Roxburgh, Head of Stowe School, who replied that ‘ The thing is best dealt with in as unemotional a manner as possible and without the element of mystery, hushed voices and vague allusions which so often make what a man says to a boy on these matters utterly unreal.’ Sneath also wrote to celebrated architect Giles Gilbert Scott, builder of Bankside Power Station ( now Tate Modern) inviting him to design a new House for Selhurst. Scott replied that he was too heavily engaged wit the rebuilding of the House of Commons to be able to begin work on such a scheme for the next twelve months.
So far, so good. Berkeley’s hoax had not gone so far as to ignite public opinion. When it did, he was unmasked. In a fake letter to the Daily Workeron 13 April it was announced that parents at Selhurst had objected to his scheme to introduce the compulsory study of Russian at the school and that the Board of Trade would not issue permits for the importation of Russian textbooks. In reply the Chief Information Officer of the Board of Trade disclosed the regulations regarding imports of foreign textbooks. Further pompous letters were fired from the University of London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. None of these supposedly intelligent people bothered to test the veracity of Sneath’s bogus claims. It was left to some journalists to blow Berkeley’s cover.
As a result Berkeley was arraigned by his college ( Pembroke ) and barred from visiting it for two years, which as Boston declared was ‘ a pretty severe ‘penalty ‘ by the standards of these post-Student Power days. He eventually went on to found a PR company and was subsequently elected an MP for the Conservatives. Berkeley never hid his homosexuality and in 1966, a year before the 1967 Act, his private members’ bill to legalise homosexuality was given a second reading by 164 – 107, but fell when Parliament was dissolved. Berkeley, a keen European, crossed the floor and represented Labour for a short while, then ended up as Social Democratic member, eventually losing his seat. At one point he was advised to retained the Sneath letters , which he did, eventually publishing them as The Life and Death of Rochester Sneathin 1974.
Boston speculates that this book inspired William Donaldson to try a similar stunt in 1979 – 80, when assuming the character of the fishmonger Henry Root, the letters he sent out to prominent people resulted in ( mainly ) pompous responses which he collected together as the Henry Root Letters, which became a huge best seller. However, all the evidence suggests that Donaldson’s masterpiece was inspired by The Lazlo Letters(1977) by the American comedian Don Novello. Who knows? Might Novello have been inspired by Berkeley’s book? At all events, The Life and Death of Rochester Sneathappears to have been the first book of its type, unless anyone in the Jottosphere knows better. [RR]