Monday 28 February 2011

Paint the Town Red

To paint the town red: To have a bloody good night out.

I’ve had a few decent nights of drinking over the years, but none of them have been so impressive as to coin a popular and lasting phrase (not yet, anyway).

Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford, at one point a Lord and another Earl of Tyrone, is the protagonist at the heart of the phrase and, it seems, one of the great drinkers of Victorian times. Nicknamed the 'Mad Marquis', contemptuous of many, especially women and the police, he once rode a horse in the Grand National (coming last), is thought to have been the perpetrator of Spring Heeled Jack, a character of high-jumping Victorian folklore, and was a lively drunk who liked a brawl or a bet.

The famous phrase was born after a successful shoot one day in 1837 when the Marquis and his mates were celebrating in Melton Mowbray in what seems to have been an especially heavy session, one which ended with the town a new and livelier shade after they literally painted parts of it red, including, if the above image is to be believed, the White Swan pub sign, the post office, the toll gate and a few watchmen or toll keepers (who we can also assume lost a drunken scuffle with the finely dressed young men).

I think it's a great story; one legendary night out and almost 200 years later people are still using the phrase it coined. 

I’ve been interested in popular phrases and their links to the pub for a while now (always looking for a book or blog idea...) and it was Ian Marchant’s fantastic The Longest Crawl which told me this story (plus some extra searches here and here). What other common phrases originated around the pub or drinking? I’ve found cock and bull, wet your whistle, mind your Ps and Qs, gone for a Burton and one for the road, but what else?

There is another potential origin of the saying which states it comes from the US about 50 years after the reputed Marquis but this is nowhere near as interesting a story as a few chaps dressed in fine silk lording around with paint pots (and probably pint pots), so I’m choosing to believe the more interesting of the two.


  1. Ahhhh well, its with stories like this one that bring a smile and the charm to the history of pubs and England. Its just another thing thats made them what they are.

  2. While the Marquess of Waterford and his pals were certainly involved in a red paint incident in Melton Mowbray in 1837, and it's a great story, sadly, as The Phrase Finder points out, the first known uses of the phrase "paint the town red" are (a) not until the early 1880s, long after the Marquess's death, and (b) American. Indeed, the Fredericksburg Daily News of November 14 1884 has an entirely different origin for the phrase, supposedly from the activities of an advertising man for a minstrel show who would "paint the town red" with bright red posters everywhere promoting Callender's Minstrels. So I fear the jury has to rule against the Marquess …

  3. This is the type of anti social drink related incidents that is clearly related to preloading. I bet they had been down "ye olde Tesco" for a shillings worth of Stella.

  4. Martin - Could it be that the event dates to the Marquess even if the first use of the phrase doesn't? The painting at the top supposedly dates to 1837... I'll stick to the story of the Marquess (for more interesting than the minstrel show!) until the jury has undoubtable evidence!