The Bullingdon Club, a drinking and dining Club at that rather minor university in Oxfordshire, has gained some notoriety in recent years because amongst its membership it counted the current Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Mayor of London. Its members drank to excess and carried out minor acts of vandalism which would earn the likes of you and I an ASBO. There has always been a propensity amongst our betters in the first flush of their youth to associate together with the intention of drinking and terrorising the honest citizenry. Perhaps the most notorious such group was the Mohocks.
The Mohocks, flourishing at the start of the 18th century and meeting in the Fleet Street area of London, took their name from the Native American tribe, the Mohawks, who were considered to be the most fearsome of the tribes vainly trying to protect their homeland from the onset of what we term “civilisation”. The President was known as the Emperor of the Mohocks and he was distinguished by a crescent tattoo on his forehead. Ordinary members of the club were known as Young Bloods or Bloods and the adjective bloody which prior to the 19th century had not assumed its now imprecatory connotations is thought to have owed its origin to their antics.
The rules and orders of the club were pretty simple – they, according to contemporary reports, “took care to drink themselves beyond reason or humanity” – sounds good so far – and their avowed design was to cause mischief. A particular and prime objective was to put the night watch, the early version of the Old Bill, to flight.
But, of course, one man’s mischief is another man’s hooliganism and it is quite clear that during their heyday the Mohocks terrorised the parts of London they frequented. They bludgeoned and beat their victims, sometimes drawing blood by cutting faces or slitting nostrils. A popular trick was to put their sword through the side of a sedan chair in the expectation of skewering the poor occupant inside. Night watchmen bore the brunt of their attacks and a certain John Bouch was attacked on Essex Street by around twenty bloods armed with swords and sticks, intending to nail him up in his watch house and roll him about the street.
Their notoriety was such that they received (dis)honourable mention in John Gay’s satirical poem of 1716, Trivia, “who has not trembled at the Mohocks’ name?/ Was there a watchman who took his hourly rounds/ Safe from their blows or newly invented wounds?”
According to contemporary accounts, they particularly enjoyed putting women into barrels and rolling the unfortunates down Snow Hill or Ludgate Hill. Gay reports, “How matrons, hooped within the hogshead’s womb,/ were tumbled furious thence; the rolling tomb/ o’er the stones thunders, bounds from side to side”.
By 1712 enough was enough and the authorities offered the princely sum of £100 for their capture. But these were gentlemen with money and family connections who could buy their way out of trouble and so few were apprehended and even fewer were held to account for their crimes. The Club was not disbanded until near the end of George the First’s reign.
There is nothing new under the sun, it seems.