Custom survived: Mischief or Mischevious Night

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Trick no Treat?

I remember sitting at home watching TV in early November, when suddenly it kept flicking over. Was I sitting on the remote? No. Was there something wrong with the TV? No! I opened the curtains and outside there was a young boy holding a TV remote. This was my introduction to mischief night, perhaps the most controversial of custom. Being a Southern I had never heard of it…we’re too soft for this sort of thing, it was a very northern thing. Opie and Opie’s (1959) map shows the strongest area being in Middlesborough and Leeds and these areas still are!

A night to remember!

The answer differs depending where you are. The majority of cases, it is the night before Guy Fawkes Night although in other parts of the county the name referred to the 31st October,  5th itself or even in many cases 30th April. Opie and Opie (1959) note of this custom:

“From coast to coast across northern England the eve of Guy Fawkes Day has become ‘Mischief Night’, a night of humour and hooliganism affecting most of Yorkshire, and parts of Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. On this night children are half under the impression that lawlessness is permissible. Householders’ front doors are repeatedly assaulted with bogus calls, their gates removed, their dustbin lids hoisted up lamp posts, their window panes daubed with paint, their doorknobs coated with treacle or tied ‘sneck to sneck’, their evening newspapers (projecting from letter boxes) exchanged, their milk bottles placed so that they will be tripped over, their house-numbers unscrewed and fixed on to other houses, their windows tapped their backyards turned upside down and possibly ransacked for tomorrow’s bonfires, their drainpipes stuffed with paper and set alight, and their porchlight bulbs considered legitimate targets for catapults. Both villages and in great industrial cities youngsters bent on mischief roam the streets in happy warfare with the adult world.”                                                                                           

The origins of the custom are unclear, it may arise from the Lawless hours of the 1700s it is first mentioned in 1830s as a name but this again was the 30th April.  This argument over the date continues with some claiming the 30th October and others, the majority, claiming the 4th November, of course this may be due to the change in the calendars. However, other customs around this time year had an element of trouble making by farm hands so it may be older. Indeed, it appears to have largely died out in the 1950s. A typical report noted in Sutton’s Lincolnshire Calendar reported from Tattershall in 1920s:

“We tied a button to a piece of cotton and attched it to someone’s wiondow. They kept coming out to see who was knocking on the window. Another thing we did was to tie two door knobs together across the street, that caused a laugh”

From Lincoln 1950

“A firework through a letter box…its not just just kids of today that misbehave, it went on in my day too.”

Indeed a correspondent recording the 1960s stated:

“We were living on the Ermine Estate in 1960 and some fool blew off a manhole cover ….he tied a bundle of bangers together and set them off under a manhole cover; it bloew into the air but luckily no-one was hurt!”

The forms of mischief varied from the amusing:

“We used to write on car winscreens with my mothers lipstick FOR SALE. Also leave a letter for the milkman in an empty bottle ordering 24 pints of milk, great fun, no harm done. “

To:

“We used to egg and flour stuff (and people), flood people’s gardens…One year we wrapped up some chaps conifers with toilet role and set fire to them…We ran off singing the tune to chariots of Fire. It was one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done!!!”

To the usual

“I would always get egged and floured by the local boys on miggy night and once had my skirt stolen and thrown up into a tree!”

Responses were not great. Another account states:

Once when we were kids, instead of knock-a-door run we tied a blokes door handle to a lamp post so he couldn’t get out before we knocked on the door and ran away, We thought it was funny but the bloke went mad and snapped his door in half to get out and I still feel terribly guilty to this day”

A night to forget!

It appears by the 1970s-80s the custom had died out in a number of places but not apparently in Yorkshire:

“Oh yes I remember those days well – A long row of terraced houses in Grimethorpe – we tied all the door handles with washing line and smeared dog muck on door steps and then one of us would run up the street knocking on the doors while the gang would be in the middle of the street shouting at those who tried to open their doors to chase us. When they cut the line they would have the dog muck on their slippers to tread back into their houses – and of course we would run off to egg peoples windows, cut TV aerials, swap garden gates, tie tin cans to cats tails (not nice – regret that one). It’s funny tho I now like in Doncaster and it don’t seem to be much of a thing here but I bet it’s still going strong in Barnsley.”

Penetrators thought that:

“When I was a kid I actually thought it was legal – ‘coppers can’t arrest you on miggy night’ That was the folklore….”

But local people did not and still do not think that and as noted in a Worksop police report in 2003:

“Angry residents and police have condemned ‘mischievous night’ yobs who damaged their homes. The vandals caused damage estimated at thousands of pounds during a Tuesday night wrecking spree. Up to 16 garden walls and gateposts were knocked over by the youngsters who targeted properties on and around the Water meadows area of Worksop. The gang knocked over a 30ft long section of wall in Mr Jennings’ front garden: ‘I couldn’t believe it. I looked out of the window shortly before eight and it was fine. Then my wife looked out of the bedroom window about half an hour later, it had been knocked over.” Mr Jennings was busy re-building the wall yesterday, but said that he knew of many other properties that had been affected, including his next door neighbour who had part of a wall knocked over and a tree in the front garden damaged. He also said another pensioner had some wheelbarrows stolen during the evening’s activities. Neighbour Mike Clarkson was helping Mr Jennings rebuild the wall. He knows all too well about the damage caused. His garden wall was knocked over last year. Police confirmed they had received six similar reports of vandalism on Water meadows, Robinson Drive and Dunstan Close.”            

It’s understandable when a Leeds perpetrator notes:

“The worst thing I ever did on this annual night of shame was to place a rather special smelly delivery in a post box, when it should have been in a toilet. Poor postman.”

Indeed, much of the activity of the mischief makers is seen a wanton vandalism and yobbish behaviour. The Worksop Guardian notes:                             

‘They should give them the birch. This isn’t mischief it’s vandalism,’ said Geoff Jennings whose home came under attack…..‘There are 16 that have been affected to a lesser or greater extent than my house,’ he said. ‘It’s wanton vandalism which is going to cost a fortune to fix, never mind the stress it’s causing us…..We’ve had people trick or treating which was quite innocent, but this kind of damage is no joke..’

An account at Skegby notes some of the activities which they stated giving the origin of the custom, to “Plan our mischievous deeds, just as Guy Fawkes and his conspirators did long ago” and may explain its popularity in Yorkshire where Fawkes was born and traditionally the 5th was not generally celebrated.

Mischief Night - getty

Gate hangs well! Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Picture Post/Alex Dellow

“We decided to tie door handles together at a terraced house on crown street. We must have been heard giggling and whispering by the occupant, because as we knocked on the doors, a hand grabbed the back of my coat collar and I was shaken and released. We took to our heels and as if our tails were on fire, the man’s voice ringing in our ears…needless to say the two us never played that trick again……Another trick was the bull roar, we would stuff paper up the drain pipes and light the paper and run away. The draught used the paper to make a terrific roaring noise as it burnt in the pipe…..We also went window tapping. This entailed creeping into a garden with a pin tied on the end of the thread of a bobbin of cotton and then tying a bobbin of cotton and then tying a button further down the thread. The ideas was to stick the pin into the wooden window frame run out the thread, so that the button was near the glass and feed out the remainder of the thread, as we went to hide behind the garden fence or wall, we would pull on the thread and the button would tap on the window. If the occupant of the house came out to look what was going on , we would huddle silently until they went in and then we would crack up with giggles of laughter”                                                                                          

The police notes:

‘Mischievous night is OK if the young people involved are supervised by adults,” said Sgt Jenny Antill. “But these kind of incidents are not in good humour. They are quite simply acts of criminal damage. We will take action against people responsible.’

Certainly, a report by Nottinghamshire police of Carlton, Langold and Blyth reports:

 “Your Local Beat Team is also pleased to report that three of the potentially worst nights of the year for ASB, namely Halloween, Mischievous Night and Bonfire Night, were very quiet in the Carlton in Lindrick area.”

Interesting a poster on the Sheffield Forum under the controversial title ‘Are all Estate dwellers Estate Scum?’:

“I was bought up on a council estate in the 1960s / 70s in Nottinghamshire – in a place called Warsop, near Mansfield. There were ‘bad uns’ and the neighbouring streets had a reputation, but there did seem to be more limits of behaviour – you might get a bin set on fire on Mischief night, but that would be it in terms of arson. Possibly because the community was quite well knit and if you DID torch someone’s car you might not live to see the following morning.”

Mischief Night is perhaps one of those most unusual of surviving traditional customs. In our rather ‘youth-phobic’ culture and obsession with anti-social behaviour one which is likely to die out, hopefully, though if the pranks are toned down, the tradition could return to the light hearted attitude the victims had back in the 1950s!

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