Origins of 'Painting the town red': Waterford, England & Alcohol-fuelled debauchery

Origins of 'Painting the town red': Waterford, England & Alcohol-fuelled debauchery

WE’RE GOING out tonight and we’ll paint the town red!

A common phrase that everyone has heard, used themselves, or had directed at them, unsympathetically, by their mammy as they hide under the covers until late on Saturday afternoon.

“Oh pet,” she says—again, unsympathetically. “You’re very tired aren’t you? I’d say you were out painting the town red,”

“Go away mammy,” you mutter, with your head pounding and your mouth tasting like an ashtray. “I’m not the 3rd Marquess of Waterford,”

Okay, maybe that last line isn’t as common as the rest of that scenario-- but it should be.

Ireland has a rich, ancient history, and though the first things that generally come to mind are the Famine and the Rising, the Georgian era in Ireland came with its own drama.

Not a lot of people know where the phrase “Painting the town red” came from, and why would they? We hear weird phrases all the time and tend to just roll with it.

But as it turns out, the saying has very strong links to Ireland-- it originated from the drunken actions of the 3rd Marquess of Waterford, Henry Beresford.

Lord Waterford was known to have a fondness for the drink and all the debauchery that came with it. The story goes that the ‘Mad Marquis’, as he was also known, was drinking—a lot-- with friends at the Croxton Races in England on April 6th, 1837.

When the drunken posse arrived at a tollgate, they demanded entry, but the toll keeper denied them passage, saying the Lord and his friends would have to pay to get through. Which is fair enough, right?

Obviously the Lord didn’t think so, as instead he picked up a brush and bucket of paint which were lying nearby to be used in repairs, and attacked the tollkeeper, painting him—you guessed it—red.

The Marquess of Waterford’s cronies picked up on the idea quickly, and together they held down and painted the tollkeeper, as well as a passing policeman who tried to help. With that done, they entered the town of Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire (without paying the toll) and nailed up the entrance.

Still armed with scarlet paint, the group of drunken hooligans painted the town red, metaphorically and literally. Their brushes found the walls, floors and doors of the town, and they rampaged through its streets, into marketplaces and alleyways, painting and destroying things as they went.

The Marquess got his friends to lift him up high so that he could paint a hanging sign of a swan: when the sign eventually fell over 150 years later, flecks of red paint were still found on the back.

The men rampaged for hours, trashing the Post office and the bank, and even worked as a team to overturn a caravan where a man was sleeping inside.

Throughout the alcohol-fuelled riots, policemen made several attempts to break it up—and were promptly held down and painted red, presumably being laughed at all the while. The riots continued until finally policemen were able to separate and subdue one of the posse, Edward Raynard. He was arrested and taken to prison—until Lord Waterford and his crew broke into the jail and beat the officers to a pulp until they agreed to free their friend.

We can only imagine the Absolute Fear that the Marquess of Waterford had when he woke up the next morning. That Fear, coupled with the hangover, and mixed in with flashbacks of painting the town, beating up policemen and breaking into prison, left the Lord with no choice but to offer to pay for the damages.

The Lord and his cronies were charged £100 each for their riotous actions, which would now amount to about £8000 pounds per person.

The 3rd Marquess of Waterford, Henry Beresford, kept up his mischievous actions for years after this, probably having gotten a taste for it when his drunken debauchery introduced an entirely new phrase to the English language.

He was suspected of being the original ‘Spring-heeled Jack’, a man who dressed up in feathers and claws and scared travellers in the woods around London before jumping away at heights of up to 9 feet, due to some contraption in his shoes which helped him jump far higher than your average human.

Whatever you think of Lord Waterford’s action the night he painted the town red, you have to admit—he’s a character.