Mischief Night, 1917

Mischief Night – like trick or treating, except with just the tricks. What’s not to like, if you’re a cheeky 13-year-old?

In Liverpool it mainly seems to involve eggs being thrown, especially at taxis for some reason. A taxi driver told me once that the contents of the egg damage the paintwork of the vehicle as they dry and so you have to wash them off straightaway, which makes October 30th a massive pain in the arse if that’s your job. It’s a bit of a gamble being on a bus too – a surprisingly loud banging sound on the window, then relief that it’s just an egg. Still, it’s better than when a gang of reprobates get hold of some stink bombs, lie in wait at bus stops, then chuck them in through the doors as they close and the bus moves off. It would be funny if you weren’t then stuck on a bus that smells of a million eggs. Although it does inspire some kind of “blitz spirit” among the bus passengers, who will suddenly feel OK about talking to each other.

The exact date of Mischief Night apparently differs depending on where you are in the world. Growing up in the south of the UK, I’d never heard of it until I moved to Liverpool, where Mischief Night is 30th October and is otherwise known as “Mizzy Night”. 30th October seems to be pretty standard in a lot of the US too. However, in the UK it originally was held the day before May Day, but after the Industrial Revolution holidays linked to the countryside dwindled in importance and Mischief Night moved to 4th November in most places, particularly taking hold in Yorkshire, where apparently it was particularly important to those 13-year-olds, participating in it being as a kind of rite of passage. Tasker Dunham, is this true? In Germany, it’s still held in May.

Through all the different dates, one thing is consistent. It’s the day before a notable even on the calendar – before May Day, April Fools Day, Halloween, or Bonfire Night.

Anyway, I’m sitting here hoping my house isn’t in for an egging tonight, and looking at some of the mischief seen in days gone by.

Mischief Night as it was in 1917, reported in the Burnley News. In Lancashire it used to be the night before April Fools Day, it says here. The author recounts the “wild pranks” he used to participate in as a young lad. “On this night, the boys used to take a kind of liberty or licence to do all kinds of silly mischief, upsetting rain tubs, tying doors fast and then knocking at the door, putting a sod over the chimney of some low cottage, so that the inmates were smoked out, and things of a similar character.”

There are some proffered explanations as to why Mischief Night even exists, and the differences even over the one county of Lancashire. In Southport it was held on 4th November, and was thought to reference the mischief of Guy Fawkes. In Goosnargh and Chippinge it was on May Day Eve, and came from “the mischief done by young men and women tearing off the branches of trees, and pulling up the new springing flowers to lay at each others doors to please or irritate each other according to the symbolic meaning conveyed.”

The most peculiar thing I have read is the rather elaborate tradition of Barton Moss in Salford, reported in a letter to “The Manchester City News” in 1885. “At Barton Moss a custom prevails, on the 4th of November, of scouring the neighbourhood in search of stray cats and dogs, and when a good supply is collected, the villagers assemble at midnight at the north-east corner of the Moss, and stretch a line between two trees. Each cat is then tied tail to tail with a dog, and the pair are then thrown over the line, where they are allowed to fight until first blood is drawn, when they are released, and another pair is thrown over in their place. This union of cat and dog is held to be symbolical of the infamous union of the Radcliffe family and Guy Faux. These “Mischiefs” as they are called, are generally attended by the young people of both sexes, even the fair daughters of the good families in the district not objecting to accompanying their gallant lovers to see the poor victims of the sport tortured. When the line is cut down parkin is distributed by the town crier, after which one solitary sky rocket is fired, and then all go home.”

Well, I don’t think covering a house in toilet paper beats that.

Here we are in Yorkshire in 1936, and the familiar cry of the fun being “carried a good deal too far.” Glass bottles being thrown, libraries having their lights turned out and washing pulled down from the lines. “Cannot something be done to moderate this so-called “mischief night” to which we must be the victims annually?” asks the writer of this letter? Apparently not.

Yorkshire Evening Post, 6th November 1936

Yorkshire Evening Post, 6th November 1936

A 13-year-old girl in Lincolnshire was arrested for “pushing over a brick pillar” in 1945. Her defence that she “just leaned on the pillar” before it fell over not being believed. I’m going to say that whatever this pillar was, it wasn’t very secure.

Lincolnshire Echo, 28th November 1945

Lincolnshire Echo, 28th November 1945

Hornsey in 1948, and there was trouble with 50 boys destroying seats on the Promenade. This was on Bonfire Night though, so they were a bit late.

Hull Daily Mail, 16th November 1948

Hull Daily Mail, 16th November 1948

Mischief Night still a problem in Yorkshire in 1953. Chief Constable Barnett warned the potential miscreants not to get up to criminal activity – “There seems to be a feeling among young people that they are at liberty to interfere with private and public property, and that there will be no repercussions. I shall be glad of the support of all adults members of the public in dispelling this erroneous idea.”

Yorkshire Evening Post, 24th October 1953

Yorkshire Evening Post, 24th October 1953

No luck though. As you can see from this screenshot of the Liverpool Echo in 2011, this tradition is not going anywhere, yet.

Liverpool Echo 31st October 2011

Liverpool Echo 31st October 2011

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2 Responses

  1. A post containing some kind of challenge! I don’t know about it being a rite of passage, but Mischief Night was certainly the 4th November in Yorkshire. To me, Halloween is watered down American claptrap. Mischief night was serious threat (I like your “trick or treat with just the tricks”). Rope together the doors of a row of terraces, then run along knocking. As one door opens another slams shut. Tie a button to a piece of string and dangle it from the window frame so it taps on the window in the wind. Just don’t let them see you hiding round the corner laughing. Of course, some took it too far, e.g. penny bangers in milk bottles. But you can’t get penny bangers any more. You don’t see many milk bottles either.

  2. Estelle says:

    Thanks! The button on a string is genius!

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