What links jam, string, dustbin lids, gate posts, bangers and November? If you’re of a certain age and grew up in West Yorkshire you might know.
Essential Equipment – photo by Jane Roberts
Of late I’ve found myself reminiscing about my childhood. This time of year, autumn, used to be one of my favourites. A nip in the air, the magical dark-by-teatime nights. A season full of promise and magic.
The magic started with the annual St Mary of the Angels torchlight procession. This took place on the first Monday night in October. In this annual Catholic witness of faith which started in 1951, we’d set off from church and process through the streets of Batley, following a loudspeaker van leading us in hymn singing and decades of the Rosary. I think it was church organist and high school teacher Mr Scanlon who was the voice behind the megaphone. We’d be brandishing paper torches with a candle shoved through the middle, illuminating our way to Batley market place. It had an element of danger, which added to the excitement for children. If the wind got up, your flickering flame risked igniting the entire paper structure. There was many a scorched torch and mini inferno en route. Consider a good proportion of the participants were infant and junior school kids, carrying naked flames. Health and safety eat your heart out.
The season culminated in Bonfire Night on 5 November. It was as much about the lead up too, with chumping (collecting wood for the fire), building the up the magnificent structure, and creating the Guy to burn in top of the pyre. I never did the ‘Penny for the Guy‘ thing though, trailing the effigy around in a cart to collect money to buy fireworks.
And yes, it was Bonfire Night, not week or month. We’d have a Hill family bonfire in the garden, with combined family fireworks. We’d rotate the venue. One year it would be our house, the next my dad’s sister or brother would host the event. I think later on, bonfire parties were all at my auntie’s house. All the cousins would be there, so a fun family gathering. We’d prepare traditional food – parkin, bonfire toffee, baked potatoes, maybe pie and peas. I remember one year we burnt all the grass in our garden. I think that was dad’s intention, because it was so overgrown. A scorched earth and start again policy. Another year at my uncle’s it was so wet the fire wouldn’t ignite. But that’s the stuff memories are made of. And only once Bonfire Night was done did the build up to Christmas begin.
In between the Torchlight Procession and Bonfire Night, there was Halloween: although that wasn’t the event it is today. No trick and treating. And no pumpkin. That was a very exotic and foreign gourd. No, we were tougher than that in Yorkshire. We carved our lanterns from turnips and swedes. Try hollowing one of those out. How we managed not to lacerate our hands in the process, heaven knows. Another one to give the health and safety obsessives nightmares. Maybe our torchlight procession attendance saved us? A kind of religious insurance protection.
Instead, our trick and treat night was more of the trick and trick variety: 4 November, the night before Bonfire Night, was deemed Mischief Night. When children roamed the streets smearing door knobs with jam or treacle; when gates would be removed from their hinges; when bin lids were tied to door handles, or door handles to neighbouring door handles; and where sprinting skills were tested to the limit by the dark art of door-knocking and running away.
Except my parents refused to let me play an active part. I could play out, but no annoying neighbours with pranks. So, imagine my surprise when talking to mum last week she described it as innocent fun. She even admitted being allowed to indulge in the door-knocking by her parents. And recalled some irate householder chasing the gang of door-knockers down a ginnel.
Surprise Number Two was the realisation that 4 November Mischief Night seemed to be particularly focused on the West Riding of Yorkshire. I always assumed children up and down the country celebrated the eve of Bonfire night in this manner. But no. Mr Arthur Blewitt, a former head-teacher, addressing the Woodbottom Parents-Teachers Association in 1952 stated:
“Mischief Night was unknown in the North Riding where he was brought up, and although he liked to regard himself as belonging to the West Riding, he certainly held these practices against the people there.”
Surprise Number Three was my assumption that it was a centuries old tradition. It turned out I was only partly correct. The custom of mischief-making does date back centuries, but the actual date varied over the ages. The roots can be traced back to Roman times and the festival of Saturnalia on 17-19 December, days marked by unrestrained disorder and misrule. No public business was undertaken, law courts and schools closed and perpetrators of mischief went unpunished. In Medieval and Tudor England the Lord of Misrule directed Christmas tomfoolery at Court, a state of events which lasted a full 12 days.
In 1888 John Horsfall Turner’s book ‘Yorkshire Folk-Lore’ included a piece about Mischief Night.
“The last night in April is devoted, as far as the peregrinations of the West Riding Constabulary will allow, to a queer custom…..There is an old saying that the first of April is the “fools” day, and that the last day of the month is the “devils”…Mischief night is a night supposed by the imps of mischief (rough youths) to be, under some old law or tradition, theirs, to do as they wish with. Their duty and pleasure combined is to go round in small gangs bent upon doing all the mischief they can, unobserved by anyone in authority, or the owners they assail…..Happily, the good old times in this respect are things of the fast-disappearing present, and “mischief neet” will soon live but in the remembrance of a few.”
So, in the 19th century Mischief Night in Yorkshire was held on the last day of April. And this seemed to be the case in other English counties too.
But by the 1890s tales started appearing in the Yorkshire press about the youths of Leeds considering themselves free of all social obligations on the eve of Guy Fawkes Day. One correspondent in the Yorkshire Evening Post on 5 November 1891 wrote he had “not heard of Mischief Night until recently“. But by 1894 the traditional liberties of “Mischief Night” were referred to. And from the early 20th century onwards the devilment perpetrated became a huge feature of the news, with the event described as “treasured in the traditions of the British boy” and a “harmless, almost necessary incident in a lad’s life.”
The mischief included the following:
- Soot bags flung in the faces of passers-by;
- Ropes tied across darkened streets. A refinement was for the rope to be tied between gateposts, the boys would knock on the householder’s door and he would be encouraged him to give chase to them, resulting in him ‘coming a cropper’;
- Gateposts taken off their hinges and hidden – sometimes even suspended from lamp posts;
- Spirit tapping, with trouser buttons suspended on string, fashioned to knock against windows;
- Ghosts were created from turnips and purloined sheets;
- Brooms lent against letter boxes, the door was knocked on and the householder clattered when they answered the knock;
- Doors in the street tied together so tightly they could not be opened;
- Boys dressed as girls and girls as boys, all wearing grotesque masks;
- Dustbin lids removed, hidden, rolled down the street or tied to door handles;
- Jam and treacle smeared on door handles;
- Raids to steal wood from rival bonfires;
- Bonfires lit in streets;
Of course, fireworks did play a part in the pranks, and occasionally it went too far. Bangers through letter boxes or thrown into shops was a particular favourite. In 1903 a small boy threw a lighted firework into a green-grocer’s shop in Hunslet. The shop sold fireworks and the missile landed in the enticing window display. Onlookers were treated to an unexpected, early pyrotechnic feast.
“Squibs and crackers fought for supremacy in the window: ‘bluelights’ and ‘Roman candles’ sizzled and spluttered in all directions, and in the end the window was blown out.”
The boy did not hang around to watch his handiwork. Two fire engines attended the scene, but fortunately their services were not needed.
In 1928 another firework incident occurred in a Burley Road shop in Leeds. The Misses Simpson owned the establishment. A firework was thrown in, landing on the counter containing a display of fireworks, igniting them. One sister was overcome by smoke, whilst the other had a hole burnt into her dress. The fire brigade attended, but once again their services were not needed as neighbours managed to carry the burning showcase out into the street.
A more serious incident took place in 1946, with the destruction of a car in the Meanwood area of Leeds after a firework was thrown into the garage.
Sometimes Mischief Night led directly to Court. Assault was not unheard of. In 1908 James Moon summoned Mary Ann Thomas of Otley for assault and the use of threatening language. Moon had suffered Mischief Night stone throwing at his door. He chased and caught one of the culprits, the adopted son of Mrs Thomas, admonishing him. She heard about it, marched round to Moon’s house, and kicked and thumped him unmercilessly.
In Bradford in 1925, the appropriately named John Noddle was fined for assaulting 10-year-old Philip H Jennings, banging his head against a wall and hitting him. Jennings was part of a gang who repeatedly knocked on the door of Noddle’s 70-year-old sick mother. The other boys escaped. Noddle’s mistake was not giving the boy a slight slap – that would have been acceptable.
Dissenting voices were heard though. Letters appeared in the papers complaining about this annual victimisation, with calls for protection from the authorities. Descriptions of wilful damage at Burley Rugby Union Football Club in 1936; Complaints that it was degenerating into gang warfare. Fears of the mayhem spilling over into Bonfire Night.
In 1937 Mischief Night was described as a minor orgy in parts of Leeds. A police official said:
“Many children seem to think that they can be hooligans on that night and the police will wink at it. We have all been children ourselves, of course, but there is a limit”.
That year complaints from around the city included a 70+ year-old woman who suffered the shock of a fire-cracker exploding in her letterbox; A road of over 100 houses in Adel where almost every house had its garden gate removed. Some were still missing, whilst others hung from lamp posts; In Kirkstall a motorist had a cracker thrown under his car. He said “I thought I had been blown up“.
Overall though, up to the late 1930’s Mischief Night was indulged, regarded as a grand old custom, part of an old tradition which should be cherished. Descriptions of ‘happy bands of black-faced small boys’ abounded. Children’s columns, such as ‘Children’s Corner’ in newspapers in the lead up to Mischief Night were full of tales about pranks, with the tongue-in-cheek warning
“PS – No MISCHIEF to-night – now REMEMBER, all of you”
Even ‘Leeds Mercury’s’ Alfie Apple got in on the act.
Alfie Apple on Mischief Night 1934
Mischief Night was a safety valve for kids. Phrases appeared such as:
“A little nonsense now and then
Is realised by the wisest men”
Adults were urged to “Try, remembering your own youth, to be as tolerant as you can.” Others admitted to taking their own pleasure in it “The boys enjoy their bit of mischief; and I – in my grim way – enjoy my bit of the chase.”
Both the First and Second World Wars put a temporary halt on Mischief Night. The black out and impact on bonfire night put paid to the tomfoolery. But unlike the indulgent tone post World War One, the 1940s marked a change in attitude to Mischief Night pranks. Mind you, some of the stunts now ranged from dangerous to downright sinister. In 1945 Seacroft Estate suffered particularly badly with descriptions of uprooted fences, doors battered with half-bricks and rocks; 600-700 milk bottles shattered and glass strewn all over; and most disturbingly the theft and killing of white pet rabbits, the corpses of which were scattered about the roadway. Calls for the police to be issued with good serviceable canes in the lead up to Mischief Night ensued.
The police did become far more pro-active. From October onwards, Leeds constabulary issued warnings about behaviour, with Leeds Chief Constable J.W. Barnett prominent in the papers.
In October 1947 the 999 system was introduced in Leeds. That year the Leeds City Police Force dealt with Mischief Night incidents via their new police operations room. 999 calls began to come in from 6pm. Within minutes police patrol cars were dispatched, and garden gates recovered and replaced. Other incidents that night included windows broken, warning lamps removed from roadworks, a gas lamp set on fire on the Scott Hall Road/Buslingthorpe Lane junction, and car tyres deflated in the Chapeltown and Moortown areas of the city. One child, seven-year-old Peter Norfolk, was treated in hospital for concussion after being struck by a bottle.
Leeds police put in place even more elaborate procedures to deal with Mischief Night mayhem in 1948. This included 40 police cars patrolling the city from 6pm until midnight – 17 of which were equipped with wireless communication!!!! On the outskirts special constables patrolled in their own vehicles. It marked their busiest night since the operations room’s inception, with the receipt of 56 emergency 999 calls. Incidents included the normal fireworks in letterboxes, deflated tyres and the removal of danger lamps from roadworks. And in one example of old-fashioned long since gone policing, the bobbies apprehended three boys who had thrown black paint on a door in Headingley. The policemen watched over the lads until they washed it all off – which took until midnight.
That year even the Pope was quoted as getting to the heart of the whole problem, when he said:
When to mischief mortals bend their will
How soon they find fit instruments of ill!
1949 saw yet another increase in Mischief Night 999 calls in Leeds – the grand total of 61. Some folk were now urging for the abolition of this tradition. The police urged youngsters to confine mischief to innocent pranks.
Jump forward to the early 21st century and I reckon the tradition has gone. I don’t think my daughter has heard about it. Now it’s Halloween and Trick and Treat that’s king, a far more benign custom. But it’s wonderful to recall the good old days, and customs of the past.
And what has this to do with family history? Well, I think the history of the times is as much a part of family history as building a tree. I love to know what was going on when my ancestors were alive. Sometimes we ignore our more recent family stories too.
And you never know, you may find a family member named. For example this newspaper report from Batley Borough Court in 1889 about a 5 November incident:
“LETTING OFF FIREWORKS IN THE STREETS…..Arthur Chappell, Charles Ottiwell , John Hill and Fred Smith were each fined 1s and costs.”
I wonder if this John Hill was my great grandad, age 16?
As a result of this post I’m now collecting information about which English, Scottish & Welsh Counties celebrated 4 November Mischief Night. It might be only a small area in the County participated – if so please let me know. Similarly, I’d love to know if certain places held it on another night (e.g. 30 April). I’ll update this post accordingly and hopefully by Mischief Night 2018 I’ll have an area map.
Those which celebrated Mischief Night
- East Yorkshire
- Merseyside (So far, the Liverpool area)
- Parts of North Yorkshire (Mr Blewitt may possibly have misinformed the Woodbottom PTA): villages between Pateley Bridge & Harrogate. Although another friend from Harrogate says they didn’t have it.
- West Yorkshire
Those which did not have a Mischief Night tradition
- Cambridgeshire (including the historic Ancient County of Huntingdonshire)
- Derbyshire (so far have been informed about South East of County)
 Shipley Times and Express – 12 November 1952
 Yorkshire Evening Post – 5 November 1891
 Yorkshire Evening Post – 6 November 1894
 Bradford Daily Telegraph – 5 November 1903
 Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer – 5 November 1903
 Leeds Mercury – 4 November 1936
 Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer – 4 November 1940
 Yorkshire Evening Post – 9 November 1940
 Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer – 5 November 1948
 Batley Reporter – 16 November 1889