Painting the Town Red: Melton Mowbray
6th April 1837

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Painting the Town Red: Melton Mowbray

The market square tells the story of Melton Mowbray better than I ever could.

Like many colloquialisms, the origin of the phrase "paint the town red" is hotly contested. The earliest known references in print date to the 1880s in the USA and even the first known reference in the UK (by no less a figure than Rudyard Kipling) places the use of the phrase in America. In all these cases however, the context of the usage makes it clear that phrase was already common parlance.

The people of Melton Mowbray however (and most certainly their local tourism office) lay claim to the true origin of the phrase. By their lights, the first instance of 'painting the town red' was a literal rather than metaphorical event. As they tell it, the Marquis of Waterford (or to give him his full title: Henry de La Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford) was in the area with a large and rowdy coterie of gentleman companions. After attending the races at nearby Croxton Park, the drunken party attempted to enter the town via the Thorpe End tollgate in the early hours of the morning - obviously very much the worse for wear and in spreeish spirits.

The tollkeeper refused to let the crowd enter upon which they broke into uproar. In an improvised display of contempt for the pettifogging (as they would see it) behaviour of the toll man, the crowd nailed the door to the toll-booth shut and painted the door red. Carrying the red paint into town, they celebrated their 'victory' by daubing various signs and windows in crimson paint, turning over flower pots and throwing signs into the canal. According to some versions of the tale, they even went so far as to daub members of the local constabulary who eventually arrived to restore order.

The following day, the now-sober Marquis was fined 100 for common assault on the constables.

While an alluring tale, one has to wonder how it was that the Marquis and his companions managed to acquire red paint in the early hours and why it was that the phrase 'paint the town red' isn't recorded in print until 50 years after the event that allegedly inspired it.

As an interesting side note, the Marquis of Waterford - who was apparently adjudged to have been of generally larkish temperament at the time - was one of the candidates put forward by early speculators as to the identity of Springheeled Jack. One assumes that his death in 1859 rules him out of later appearances by this most intractable of Victorian demons.

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 3rd November 2013 | © Weird Island 2010-2017
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