H. Rochester Sneath

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H. Rochester Sneath MA L-ès-L (born c. 1900, exposed 1948) was the nonexistent headmaster of the also nonexistent Selhurst School ("near Petworth, Sussex") who wrote many bizarre letters to public figures in 1948. Selhurst supposedly had 175 male students. In March 1948 several headmasters of British public schools began to receive letters from Sneath. The Master of Marlborough College, F. M. Heywood, was livid when Sneath asked how he had "engineered" a recent visit of the royal family. Next he received a letter in which Sneath warned that he should not hire a French teacher, 'Robert Agincourt', because he had climbed a tree naked. Finally, when asked to recommend a private detective and a competent nursery maid, Heywood wrote back, "I am not an agency for domestic servants. I really must ask you not to bother me with this kind of thing."

Sneath wrote to the Headmaster of Stowe School to ask if he should provide sex education for the school maids. He complained to the headmaster of Oundle School that the school chaplain was hopeless as a rat catcher. He asked Haileybury for a reference for a teacher who had a club foot and warts. Sneath even wrote to the headmaster of Eton to apply for his job. Some of the headmasters answered politely to a person they thought to be a fellow headmaster. One headmaster even recommended Selhurst to a parent of a prospective pupil.

George Bernard Shaw received an invitation to speak at an annual celebration at Selhurst (he declined). Architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was informed of the possibility of designing a new main building for the school (he declined as well). Conductor Sir Adrian Boult was invited to conduct the school orchestra (he was not enthusiastic, either). Two of Sneath's correspondents detected the hoax: one was Walter Oakeshott of Winchester College, who declined an invitation because he was attending a commemoration of a remote ancestor at Salt Lake City, Utah. The other was John Sinnott, Rector of Beaumont College. When invited to lead an exorcism, Sinnott requested a packet of salt "capable of being taken up in pinches" be ready for him.

Selhurst School and Rochester Sneath were the inventions of Humphry Berkeley, then an undergraduate student at Pembroke College, Cambridge University. Berkeley had ordered headed notepaper printed with Selhurst's name and initially arranged with the Post Office to have mail sent to Selhurst School to be redirected to him, although the Post Office later refused to redirect mail from a non-existent address. Sneath had to resort to asking correspondents to write to him care of "my sister Mrs Harvey-Kelly" at a Cambridge address (which was that of a fellow student).

On 13 April 1948 Sneath's letter was published in the Daily Worker, complaining of the difficulty in importing Russian textbooks for compulsory Russian lessons in his school. The News Review asked to interview Sneath to discover more about this unusual school, but Sneath's "secretary" "Penelope Pox-Rhyddene" claimed he was ill. The journalist then visited Petworth to discover that there was no Selhurst School there, and subsequently turned up on the doorstep of Berkeley's friend's lodgings. A story in the News Review on 29 April revealed that Berkeley was behind the hoax.

Berkeley was sent down (excluded from university) for two years. He was elected Conservative Member of Parliament for Lancaster in the 1959 general election. The Rochester Sneath letters were published in 1974 under the title The Life and Death of Rochester Sneath, together with illustrations by Nicolas Bentley.

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