Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 Mohocks in 18th Century London


This nocturnal fraternity met in the days of Queen Anne: but it had been for many previous years the favourite amusement of dissolute young men to form themselves into Clubs and Associations for committing all sorts of excesses in the public streets, and alike attacking orderly pedestrians, and even defenceless women. These Clubs took various slang designations. At the Restoration they were "Mums" and "Tityre-tus." They were succeeded by the "Hectors" and "Scourers," when, says Shadwell, "a man could not go from the Rose Tavern to the Piazza once, but he must venture his life twice." Then came the "Nickers," whose delight it was to smash windows with showers of halfpence; next were the "Hawkabites;" and lastly, the "Mohocks." These last are described in the Spectator, No. 324, as a set of men who have borrowed their name from a sort of cannibals, in India, who subsist by plundering and devouring all the nations about them. The president is styled "Emperor of the Mohocks;" and his arms are a Turkish crescent, which his imperial majesty bears at present in a very extraordinary manner engraven upon his forehead; in imitation of which the Members prided themselves in tattooing; or slashing people's faces with, as Gay wrote, "new invented wounds." Their avowed design was mischief, and upon this foundation all their rules and orders were framed. They took care to drink themselves to a pitch beyond reason or humanity, and then made a general sally, and attack all who were in the streets. Some were knocked down, others stabbed, and others cut and carbonadoed. To put the watch to a total rout, and mortify some of those inoffensive militia, was reckoned a coup d'├ęclat. They had special barbarities, which they executed upon their prisoners. "Tipping the lion" was squeezing the nose flat to the face, and boring out the eyes with their fingers. "Dancing-masters" were those who taught their scholars to cut capers by running swords through their legs. The "Tumblers" set women on their heads. The "Sweaters" worked in parties of half-a-dozen, surrounding their victims with the points of their swords. The Sweater upon whom the patient turned his back, pricked him in "that part whereon school-boys are punished;" and, as he veered round from the smart, each Sweater repeated this pinking operation; "after this jig had gone two or three times round, and the patient was thought to have sweat sufficiently, he was very handsomely rubbed down by some attendants, who carried with them instruments for that purpose, when they discharged him." An adventure of this kind is narrated in No. 332 of the Spectator: it is there termed a bagnio, for the orthography of which the writer consults the sign-posts of the bagnio in Newgate-street and that in Chancery-lane.

Another savage diversion of the Mohocks was their thrusting women into barrels, and rolling them down Snow or Ludgate Hill, as thus sung by Gay, in his Trivia:—

"Now is the time that rakes their revels keep;

Kindlers of riot, enemies of sleep.

His scattered pence the flying Nicker flings,

And with the copper shower the casement rings.

Who has not heard the Scourer's midnight fame?

Who has not trembled at the Mohock's name?

Was there a watchman took his hourly rounds

Safe from their blows, or new-invented wounds?

I pass their desperate deeds and mischiefs, done

Where from Snow-hill black steepy torrents run;

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:

So Regulus, to save his country, died."

Swift was inclined to doubt these savageries, yet went in some apprehension of them. He writes, just at the date of the above Spectator: "Here is the devil and all to do with these Mohocks. Grub-street papers about them fly like lightning, and a list printed of near eighty put into several prisons, and all a lie, and I begin to think there is no truth, or very little, in the whole story. He that abused Davenant was a drunken gentleman; none of that gang. My man tells me that one of the lodgers heard in a coffee-house, publicly, that one design of the Mohocks was upon me, if they could catch me; and though I believe nothing of it, I forbear walking late; and they have put me to the charge of some shillings already."—Journal to Stella, 1712.

Swift mentions, among the outrages of the Mohocks, that two of them caught a maid of old Lady Winchilsea's at the door of her house in the Park with a candle, and had just lighted out somebody. They cut all her face, and beat her without any provocation.

At length, the villanies of the Mohocks were attempted to be put down by a Royal proclamation, issued on the 18th of March, 1712: this, however, had very little effect, for we soon find Swift exclaiming: "They go on still, and cut people's faces every night! but they sha'n't cut mine; I like it better as it is."

Within a week after the Proclamation, it was proposed that Sir Roger de Coverley should go to the play, where he had not been for twenty years. The Spectator, No. 335, says: "My friend asked me if there would not be some danger in coming home late, in case the Mohocks should be abroad. 'I assure you,' says he, 'I thought I had fallen into their hands last night; for I observed two or three lusty black men that followed me half-way up Fleet-street, and mended their pace behind me, in proportion as I put on to get away from them." However, Sir Roger threw them out, at the end of Norfolk Street, where he doubled the corner, and got shelter in his lodgings before they could imagine what was become of him. It was finally arranged that Captain Sentry should make one of the party for the play, and that Sir Roger's coach should be got ready, the fore wheels being newly mended. "The Captain," says the Spectator, "who did not fail to meet me at the appointed hour, bid Sir Roger fear nothing, for that he had put on the same sword which he made use of at the battle of Steenkirk. Sir Roger's servants, and among the rest, my old friend the butler, had, I found, provided themselves with good oaken plants, to attend their master upon this occasion. When he placed him in his coach, with myself at his left hand, the Captain before him, and his butler at the head of his footmen in the rear, we convoyed him in safety to the playhouse." The play was Ambrose Phillips's new tragedy of The Distressed Mother: at its close, Sir Roger went out fully satisfied with his entertainment; and, says the Spectator, "we guarded him to his lodging in the same manner that we guarded him to the playhouse."

The subject is resumed with much humour, by Budgell, in the Spectator, No. 347, where the doubts as to the actual existence of Mohocks are examined. "They will have it," says the Spectator, "that the Mohocks are like those spectres and apparitions which frighten several towns and villages in Her Majesty's dominions, though they were never seen by any of the inhabitants. Others are apt to think that these Mohocks are a kind of bull-beggars, first invented by prudent married men and masters of families, in order to deter their wives and daughters from taking the air at unseasonable hours; and that when they tell them 'the Mohocks will catch them,' it is a caution of the same nature with that of our forefathers, when they bid their children have a care of Raw-head and Bloody-bones." Then we have, from a Correspondent of the Spectator, "the manifesto of Taw Waw Eben Zan Kaladar, Emperor of the Mohocks," vindicating his imperial dignity from the false aspersions cast on it, signifying the imperial abhorrence and detestation of such tumultuous and irregular proceedings; and notifying that all wounds, hurts, damage, or detriment, received in limb or limbs, otherwise than shall be hereafter specified, shall be committed to the care of the Emperor's surgeon, and cured at his own expense, in some one or other of those hospitals which he is erecting for that purpose.

Among other things it is decreed "that they never tip the lion upon man, woman, or child, till the clock at St. Dunstan's shall have struck one;" "that the sweat be never given till between the hours of one and two;" "that the sweaters do establish their hummums in such close places, alleys, nooks and corners, that the patient or patients may not be in danger of catching cold;" "that the tumblers, to whose care we chiefly commit the female sex, confine themselves to Drury-lane and the purlieus of the Temple," etc. "Given from our Court at the Devil Tavern," etc.

The Mohocks held together until nearly the end of the reign of George the First.

John Timbs
Club Life of London Vol. I
London, 1866