Ask people over a certain age about Hallowe’en in the UK, particularly in England, and they will tell you that, until recently, it seems hardly to have existed. For the most part, they will identify it as yet another American import. However, there’s a precedent in at least some parts of the British Isles which, until recently, has evaded serious academic study.
One of the features which once distinguished Hallowe’en from other festivals celebrated in the English-speaking world was the lack of sponsorship from a higher power. Unlike church feasts such as Christmas and Easter or politically motivated occasions like the American Independence Day and the British Bonfire Night, Hallowe’en was at one time very much ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’. 
However, with the realisation that there was serious money to be made selling sweets, creepy costumes and other lurid novelties to the young at this time of year, Hallowe’en too lost its vernacular innocence and ‘got into bed with’ retail giants on both sides of the Atlantic. 
But Hallowe’en is not the only autumn calendar custom. In parts of Yorkshire and elsewhere, young people still maintain a peculiar tradition independent of Church, state or corporate influence. It’s a tradition that certainly hasn’t lost its innocence – because it didn’t have any to begin with. This is Mischief Night.
Called variously “Mischievous Night”, “Mickey Night”, “Miggy Night” and occasionally “Danger Night”, the custom has been observed for at least the last 150 years on 4 November. This is the eve of Bonfire Night when the English traditionally commemorate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 with fireworks and public bonfires. 
On this night, the young people of various northern English towns have seen fit to wreak havoc at the expense of adult neighbours, seeming to believe that the law grants them immunity from punishment on this occasion. The catalogue of abuses is a long one, the simplest assault being merely to knock on a door and run away [see below], but there have been many more inventive alternatives.
An old favourite which has not altogether died out is for the young miscreants to steal a garden gate. This can then be hidden, cast into some hard-to-reach location (such as a shed roof) or swapped with a neighbour’s in the hopes of causing maximum confusion. Added to the consternation of the victim is the fear that their property will find its way onto the next night’s bonfire.
TRICKS, NOT TREATS
Although 21st-century mischief-makers tend to restrict their assaults to other peoples’ property, in former times offences against the person were more common. An old verse from Barnsley in 1850 sets out a recipe for a cruel but apparently widespread amusement in which the perpetrators use a heavy clothes prop (a common piece of backyard hardware in that part of the world) first to summon and then to assault some unsuspecting home owner before making a swift getaway.
And as late as 1901, a young woman of Kirkstall near Leeds, who was set upon by boys armed with sticks, was told “Oh, it’s ahl reight missus. It’s Mischief Neight, doan’t you knoa?” as if this excused them their brutality.
But for the most part, Mischief Night pranks have been less violent. One elderly gent, born in Carlton, West Yorkshire, in 1910, recalled with glee a trick from his youth whereby a needle and cotton were suspended against a window to provide a persistent but hard-to-trace knocking sound. Another of his antics involved placing a line of burning snuff at the foot of a front door in order to smoke the inhabitants out.
Another trick, recalled by women from a Leeds social group who were born in the late 1920s and early 1930s, was smearing treacle or syrup on door handles. They also recounted tying ropes between door handles on opposite sides of the narrow streets of old Leeds, knocking on the doors and then watching the befuddled householders working against each other in the attempt to open their own front doors.
Half the fun for the young participants is in watching out for the reactions of the adults to this assault on their homes and their dignity. And it seems that on almost every occasion, the mischief is directed at adults who are near neighbours (usually unpopular ones) and generally takes the form of an assault on their perimeter – doors, gates, windows – rather than on their person or the interior of the property. There have been no accounts of Mischief Night extending to pranks played against other children or directed against the perpetrators’ parents, as April Fool’s gags can often be.
So what is the origin of this odd, sometimes disturbing calendar custom? This is open to debate, but thanks to some recent studies a possible explanation emerges, with an unexpected connection to a very different calendar custom – that of May Day.
Several observers, writing in the 16th century, record that it was the custom in England to decorate the home with greenery and blossom in advance of May Day celebrations. Adults having more important things to occupy themselves with, this was often left to young people – indeed, in the reign of Henry VIII, Eton schoolboys were allowed out at 4am expressly to perform this function. 
But it seems that as well as bringing home greenery, they also amused themselves on May Eve by dropping off foliage and other things on the doorsteps of those they wanted to grant special favour to – or those whom they felt deserved a less pleasant delivery. Records suggest that in some places a complex rhyming system developed to communicate the feelings of the foliage dropper – so ‘wicken’ (mountain ash) if you wanted to liken the female occupant to a sweet chicken; ‘oak’, if you intended only a joke and so on. These were enshrined in little verses akin to the Magpie rhymes (“One for sorrow, two for joy…”) and would probably have been quite mystifying to the uninitiated. 
Now it happens that in Middleton, Lancashire, a 1790s description of the May Day delivery of suggestive flora is appended to an account of less wholesome activities: “Anyone having a grudge against a neighbour was at liberty to indulge it, provided he kept his own counsel.” In this account, our reporter, one Samuel Bamford, tells us that “On these occasions, it was lawful to throw a neighbour’s gate off the angles, to pull up his fence, to trample his garden, to upset a cart that might be found at hand, to set cattle astray, or to perform any other freak, whether in the street, house-yard or fields, which might suggest itself or be suggested.”
Bamford informs us that this May-time night of activities, good and bad, was termed “Mischief-neet”. In fact, some of the early records of a prank-playing Mischief Night with no floral element also give a May date, suggesting that the lure of misbehaviour overtook the gentler features of the night’s affairs, creating, in effect, a new calendar custom.  This leaves us with the mystery of how a May-time custom moved to November.
To address this, it would firstly be useful to remember that for busy parents preparing for a feast-day, when all needs to be ‘just so’, it would be normal to want the over-excited youngsters out of the way. Parents could easily go from “Get out from under my feet”, to “Go and make mischief for somebody else” and so despatch their own giddy offspring into the outside world on the eve of any exciting feast-day. Another date noted in the folk year for unfettered youthful ebullience is New Year’s Eve and there may be some significance to the fact that these are celebrations which would not merit a church service the following morning. There are records too of Hallowe’en itself having been a sort of Mischief Night in some areas and the eve of Hallowe’en still has these associations in certain places on both sides of the Atlantic.
So it may be that for the children of the North of England nights of mischief may have taken place throughout the year – perhaps just whenever the excitement got the better of them. This might be a sufficient explanation for the November date in itself, but can we account for the disappearance of the May version of the event? Perhaps. Because another important development occurred in English life between the era of May-time Mischief and the rise of its autumn equivalent – the Industrial Revolution.
THE MACHINE AGE
From the start of the 19th century onwards, big changes swept through British life: an early wave of economic depression accompanied the Napoleonic Wars, followed by a dramatic increase in mechanisation. The greatest effect was on where people lived. In 1800, one fifth of the English population were town-dwellers with the other four fifths living in the country – but by the early years of the 20th century, the proportions were reversed.
This change was enough in many cases to destroy the significance of the traditional May Day with its rural associations, but urbanisation affected attitudes to community too. The very idea of holidays changed – from a time to down tools and come together communally, to a time to get away, often to cleaner air and untarnished sunlight. Bonfire Night, though, was a festival which the new town-dwellers could more readily connect with and prepare for, and there were no corresponding days off work to tempt workers to the countryside or the coast.
So for the children of the North, for a while, the mischief nights may indeed have taken place on a variety of occasions in response to rising excitement or anticipation, but the dark autumn nights (not yet as chilly as later in the year) would lend cover and perhaps a certain magic to those who sought to cause trouble on the eve of Guy Fawkes’s Night.
It also should not be forgotten that the child’s grasp of the calendar is often far from perfect. If a childhood activity is appended to a date in the grown-up year, then that date has to be properly observed by the wider community to alert the kids to their opportunity. With May Day slipping out of folk consciousness, children perhaps needed a more concrete night of celebration to mark the time for their pranks. And this paved the way for what might be Mischief Night’s biggest contribution to global culture.
THE HUDDLED MASSES
In the study of calendar customs, it is always interesting to see how traditions adapt and change in order to guarantee their own survival. In the instance of Mischief Night, it is worth noting that many from Yorkshire and other areas where the tradition was observed travelled to Canada and the United States from the beginning of the 19th century right through the 20th. 
It would, of course, be strange if whole communities could be transplanted without taking some of their customs and beliefs with them, and in the Americas there is some evidence that the British Mischief Night (or at least a variant of it) emerged on the far side of the Atlantic during the 19th century. For instance, a newspaper article from Canada in 1889 makes it clear that at Hallowe’en on the streets and farms in the neighbourhood of Kingston, Ontario, “the boys” were occupied with uprooting vegetables, unhinging gates and shutters, tipping over outhouses and all manner of similar pranks – Mischief had settled on another autumn night. 
As with the Northern English equivalents, these actions were not normally directed at people, although on one occasion greasing the tracks for the streetcars threatened to cause serious harm to the passengers until sand could be applied to make them safe. But eventually the ‘treat’ eclipsed the ‘trick’ and, with influence from the Scots and the Irish settlers, the sanitised Hallowe’en we know today emerged.
THE END OF THE MISCHIEF?
In recent times, even in those parts of Yorkshire where the Mischief tradition continues still, there is a not-unwelcome feeling that the lure of Trick or Treat goodies is drawing the youths away from their night-time pranks. Where once the practice had been recorded across much of the north of the country – Derbyshire, Lancashire and as far east as Hull – with a few notable exceptions Yorkshire seems to be the last bastion.
However, the possibility that the modern Hallowe’en contains some vestige of the Mischief Night of old may bring a little comfort to the traditionalist when the Trick-or-Treaters come to call. It may cost him a few sweets, but at least his gate will still be there in the morning.
1 See Foley and O’Donnell: Treat or Trick?: Halloween in a globalising world from Cambridge Scholars’ Publishing, 2009.
2 E.g. “Halloween in a Material World: trick or treat?”, a paper by Sally McKechnie & Caroline Tynan of Nottingham University Business School published in the Journal of Marketing Management.
3 For a landmark study of childhood customs and the names they apply to them, see Iona & Peter Opie: The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, Paladin, 1977.
4 See Ronald Hutton’s excellent The Stations of the Sun (Oxford, 1996) for detailed accounts of Maytime customs in the British Isles as well a host of other traditional practices as they appear in the historical record throughout the year.
5 Various sources such as Harland & Wilkinson’s Lancashire Folk-Lore (1867) and Sidney Oldall Addy’s Household Tales with other Traditional Remains (1895).
6 See WH Chaloner, ed: The Autobiography of Samuel Bamford, 1967 which, as well as an account of life as a political activist of the 18th century, gives us insights into everyday life and superstition in Bamford’s part of the world.
7 Taken from Stanley Johnson: A History of Emigration from the United Kingdom to North America 1763–1912, Routledge, 1913.
8 See Nicholas Rogers: Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Oxford, 2002.
THE PRANK WITH MANY NAMES
The childhood practice of knocking on doors and running away is probably played wherever there are doors.
However, it is also the pre-eminent Mischief Night prank and has collected a folklore of its own. A study made of the activity in the 1950s identified over 60 different names for it in the UK alone. Here is a small selection:
Bing bang skoosh (Glasgow)
Black and white rabbit (Manchester)
Cheeky Nellie (Perth)
Jinksy Tat (Selby)
Knock down ginger (London)
Run away spider (Swansea)
Squashed tomato (Wolverhampton)
Tappit and skedaddle (Broughton Beck, near Ulverston)
Thunder and lightning (Sale)
Forteans will no doubt be aware of the panic caused by the broadcast of Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of the science fiction classic The War of the Worlds in 1938. What is often forgotten is that this was a Hallowe’en special. Orson Welles denied the broadcast was intended to cause such a panic; however, his apology to listeners tells a different tale:
“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that the War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theater’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night… so we did the next best thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the CBS.”
Notice the soaping of windows and stealing of garden gates? Welles is in effect telling listeners that he would like them to regard the night’s events as an enormous prank that should be forgiven in good humour. Or as they say in Yorkshire: “It’s nobbut the Mischief Neet.”