Paint the Town Red

I found the following story during the course of my PhD research. I read Catherine Gore's Cecil (1841) (edited by Andrea Hibbard and Edward Copeland), which is a hilarious read if you don't mind her slipping into French, Italian, Latin and Greek whenever she damn well feels like it, making for hundreds and hundreds of endnotes please send help.


On page 89, Catherine Gore references the fashionable aristocratic hunting spot, Melton Mowbray, a Leicestershire town. According to its accompanying endnote (and the Melton Mowbray Town Estate site here), this town is the location where the phrase "paint the town red" originates, to indicate a rowdy night out.

In 1837, a bunch of wild young aristocrats came there to hunt and, bizarrely, decided it would be a great idea to run around Melton town center and cover everything in red paint: "After attending the Croxton Park Races, and consequently enjoying the ‘hospitality’ of local inns a large inebriated group [pretty sure we all suspected booze was involved], including the Marquis [of Waterford], arrived at the tollgate at Thorpe End. The toll keeper refused entry into the town until the tolls were paid . . . the unruly crowd with nails and tools barricaded the toll keeper into his house painting the gates red."

Question: why did they have nails, tools, and paint with them? Was this planned? Wikipedia says the town was undergoing repairs and had tools and paint lying around nearby, but I hate to rely on Wikipedia. Also, that's kind of a dull reason. Let's just all imagine they had even more debauched plans for the paint and tools but got sidetracked on redecorating.

". . . the Marquis’ party would not stop at the toll gate. Proceeding down the Beast Market (now Sherrard Street) they continued with their ‘decorating’. They painted doors, knocking over plant pots, rampaging through the Market Place and Burton Street.

Worst episode of Extreme Home Makeover EVER.

"This culminated in the Marquis being hoisted up on to the Swan Porch to paint the swan. This is commemorated in the coloured engraving by Henry Alken [see below].


"When the local constabulary of the time attempted to stop the Marquis’ shenanigans they were given a coat of paint also.

"The following day, the town was in uproar, some were red with rage, some with paint. When Waterford finally sobered up he was made to pay handsomely for the damage that had been done to people and property. The culprits were found not guilty of causing a riot, but were fined £100 each for common assault. His antics have given him infamy as we remember him with the saying today.

"There was a disastrous fire on 18 September 1985 and despite renovations to the Swan Porch, the original effigy of the Swan was restored and can still be seen today. During the restoration of the Swan the "Marquis" Red Paint was revealed."

I think we can all just be grateful that they didn't paint the town red with blood from their fox-hunting kills.

There is actually a bit of controversy regarding the origin of the phrase "paint the town red". According to  Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the phrase is "of American origin". The OED supports this, saying the phrase first appeared in 1883 in The New York Times. I suppose the phrase could be of American origin, but there's little doubt that it's inspiration comes from this single episode. Maybe the story just had a long gestation period before a snappy phrase evolved out of it.

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