“‘Whipping-Toms’ began at one o’clock. Two, three, or more men, armed with cart-whips, and with a handkerchief tied over one eye, were let loose upon the people to flog anyone within the precincts of the Newark, a bellman giving the signal for the attack. They were not by custom allowed to whip above the knee, and anyone kneeling down was spared.”
So writes Thoresby in his 1791 The History of Leicester. A topical post perhaps what’s in the cinema! In Leicester city centre is a rather strange plaque which records the bizarre Shrove Tuesday custom of Whipping Toms. Why would these men whip people? Another account explains why:
“This was known as the ‘Whipping Toms’. It began with the primeval game of hockey, played between two crowds of men and boys armed with sticks having a knob or a hook at the end, and were played with a wooden ball, the ends of the Newarke forming the goals. At about 1 o’clock in the day appeared the ‘Whipping Toms’; three of them were in blue smocked frocks and carrying long wagon whips, with whom were three men carrying small bells. They proceeded to drive out of the Newarke the crowd of men and boys who had been playing the game of hockey.”
One of the theories purported for the origins of the custom is that it commemorated the expulsion of the Danes from Leicester in the 10th century. Although unlikely a connection with the Danish custom of Hocktide is perhaps more likely as the custom involved the extortion for money as well. – two pence which many gladly gave! However, the date is confusing!
The Whipping Toms also liked to line people up and whip up and down the line. Often people attempted to avoid the whipping by wrapping material around their legs. However, the whipping clearly got out of hand and the ‘victims’ would attempt to protect themselves with sticks and fight back. Unsurprisingly it often got a little out of hand as the author above notes:
“This proceeding, as may well be imagined, soon resulted in what would be described in more modern language as ‘a certain liveliness’, and the disorder became so great that about the year 1846, the corporation obtained parliamentary powers to bring it to an end.”
On the 16th February 1847 an Act of Parliament officially ended it and the last Whipping Toms put up a valiant fight – quite literally – but it was gone. Today the only record is the plaque on one of the corner pillars of the railings surrounding the De Montfort University’s Hawthorn Building.