William Hickey was a rogue and a drunk, he wasn’t the first to have that proclivity

The mock funeral of William Hickey. The column was later revived

I WAS reading the memoirs of William Hickey last week, not the Daily Express Hickey but the 18/19th century diarist he was based on, a lawyer by that name who hand-crafted 750 closely written pages of his reflections of life. It was fascinating stuff about events; life on the streets; artists, statesmen; explorers, even thugs.

The truth was, of course, that Hickey himself was a rogue and a drunkard who was sent to India in disgrace and returned to Blighty to retire and write his memoirs. He was always on the tongues of high society and years after his death, Beaverbrook took on Tom Driberg, a penniless classics scholar from Oxford to write a column under the Hickey name in 1933.

An odd choice perhaps as Driberg was a communist and probably a Soviet spy. He later became a Labour MP. 

Other journalists followed such as Nigel Dempster, Christopher Wilson and our old friend Richard Compton Miller. According to Christopher, writing in The Oldie, there were 52 of them before him.

In his memoirs the real Hickey writes of Covent Garden and Fleet Street: "... gangs of rich young aristocrats drunkenly stalked the streets. Among these gangs were the Mohocks. They were greatly feared and one of their antics was to sexually assault women and force them into barrels to roll them down Ludgate Hill for fun." Imagine seeing that on the way to catch your late-night bus to Liverpool Station, eh?

The Mohocks would scar people, men or women who strayed into their path and even burn bits of them. Rape was common. And there were reports of murdering the poor. Even the Government was concerned about their behaviour, although it is said that some of the gangs were 'Minister’s sons on ‘a nightly rampage with their own code of honour.’

The Spectator wrote of them: “The Mohocks are violent, well-born criminals who take their name from the Mohawks who were cannibals in India and survived by plundering and devouring all the nations about them. They killed or disfigured their victims.”

Hickey writes: “In the winter of 1771, this set of wild young men made their appearance, who from the profligacy of their manners and their outrageous conduct in the theatres, taverns, and coffee houses in the vicinity of Fleet Street and Covent Garden, created general indignation and alarm."

He identified their leader as Rhoan Hamilton, “a man of fortune” and later an Irish rebel.

“Young men are forming themselves into clubs and associations for committing all sorts of excesses in the public streets and alike, attacking orderly pedestrians, and even defenceless women,” he said. "These clubs broke into different groups, such as the Nickers, whose delight it was to smash windows with showers of halfpennies; next were the Hawkabites; and lastly, the Mohocks.”

The Spectator revealed that: “Members prided themselves in tattooing; or slashing people’s faces with 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 attacked all who were in the streets.”

There were more horrors in their code. Tipping the lion was squeezing someone’s nose flat to the face and boring out the eyes with their fingers.

They had names for their members and antics too. The Tumblers turned women on their heads. The Sweaters surrounded their victims with the points of their swords and pricked them in “that part whereon schoolboys are punished until the blood flowed.”

Some people didn’t believe the stories about the gangs and put it down to sensationalism and the ‘Grub Street’ Press. But it was a known fact that author Jonathan Swift often feared walking down Fleet Street late at night and wrote of them in his memoirs.

He said: "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.

"I am told they cut people's faces every night. But they shan't cut mine. I like it better as it is."

Footnote: The more I dig, the more I uncover the grotesque history of an underworld of crime, torture, and prostitution in and around the Fleet Street back alleys, we could never have imagined in our golden time at the Black Lubyanka when we only crossed the street at night to go to the Old Bell or the Punch.


I can’t sign off on the subject of Hickey without a mention of the charming and brilliant former William Hickey, alias Christopher Wilson, now an author of note who I understand had a cocktail named after him at the Ritz. I feel sure Christopher won’t mind me picking up on a bit of his revealing piece in The Oldie magazine, about the stresses of being Hickey in the Black Lubyanka and the HR skills of Jocelyn Stevens.

Christopher wrote: “Stevens treated me no differently from any other Lubyanka wage-slave and when he told me to fuck off, I very nearly obliged. But then the worm turned. ‘No, you fuck off,’ I snapped, angrily feeling I was in the right. ‘No, YOU fuck off,’ shouted Jocelyn, ‘this is my office!’

“It was hard to argue with that, so I allowed myself to be ushered out by Jocelyn's resident nurse who'd rushed in to see what the racket was about. Quite soon afterwards, I fucked off out of the Daily Express for ever.

“It was never easy being William Hickey …”


The day the Sun wouldn't stand still

The total eclipse and Concorde in 1999

WE will be able to see a partial solar eclipse in Blighty on April 8 this year. How wonderful.

It takes my mind back to August 1999, when the country virtually came to a standstill, for almost an hour, as millions of people left their homes, offices and factories to watch the total eclipse of the Sun. Remember it? Even an Old Bailey judge adjourned a trial to put his eclipse glasses on.

It was the last eclipse of the millennium and the rush to watch the skies over the West Country where it would be best visible, led to the biggest power surge ever recorded and cost the nation £500 million in lost business.

More than a million people gathered in Cornwall and Devon for the once-in-a-lifetime event when the moon completely blocked out the sun, bringing an eerie darkness and silence to our planet.

But the story for me and my dear old friend, Alan Frame of this parish, starts a year earlier. We had both left the Express and I was helping Alan editorially as he had just bought The American newspaper in London.

The readership was primarily American tourists on holiday in the capital or living here. But Alan had another project up his long sleeve … and so did I. They seemed to dovetail nicely.

Alan knew all about the total eclipse the following year and he came up with the idea of renting land from farmers in the West Country to provide temporary campsites for eclipse chasers. Hotels and guest houses had already sold out for the event so this could be a real money spinner.

I was in the middle of a hardback book for publishers Andrei Deutsche on the story of the Total Eclipse called Moonshadow. It traced eclipses through time and what they meant to ancient civilisations right up until today. I was interviewing scientists, historians, and astronomers. Alan, of course, would have a ready-made audience for the new book at his camp venues.

For various reasons, the idea never got off the ground but because of our efforts, and my book, I was fortunate enough to be asked to take the trip of a lifetime … on Concorde to see and talk about the eclipse.

Two hundred passengers had paid £1,500 each to travel on two eclipse-chasing Concorde jets from the UK. Another would leave from France. The planes would chase the Moon's shadow over the Earth from a cloud-free 55,000-feet.

It was a unique way to view the last total solar eclipse of the millennium. The path of the Moon's shadow (umbra) would begin in the Atlantic and cross central Europe, Turkey, Iran and India, where it would end at sunset in the Bay of Bengal,

The Sun would still be going 650 miles per hour faster than us, but we would remain in the shadow and during that time, our ‘100 passengers on each plane would get the opportunity to swap seats to make sure that they're in the correct seat near a window to experience it all.' What an adventure.

On the big day, we woke at dawn to a champagne breakfast for the passengers at Heathrow’s Sheraton Hotel. Most of the eclipse chasers were pensioners and so excited, they weren’t hungry. But they lapped up the champagne, not all of whom were used to. The captain even joined the party for a glass of tonic water.

Soon we were wobbling up the Concorde steps to more champagne on board. But there was one thing that would spoil our day. We hadn’t realised just how small the supersonic plane’s windows were. They were tiny, not like the family jets we were used to when taking our T-shirts to the Costas.

As we drew near the time of totality 55,000 feet up on the edge of space over the Atlantic, passengers and stewardesses jostled each other and even curled up on the floor with their heads twisted against the glass to look up at space. Some were kneeling on top of others below the small seats in the long, narrow cabin. It was a bun fight. Luckily the champagne glasses had been taken away. Legs and bottoms were everywhere.

Sadly, one passenger later complained to the captain that because of the small windows and the angle, you could never get your eye in the right position to see totality while the plane was in level flight. “It was only when it did a few wiggles in the air that you could see totality!” he said. I think he was hoping to get his money back.

Luckily, I happened to be at the right window on one of these wiggles and so I saw about 10 seconds of totality. Still disappointing, as I’d hoped to see it for several minutes.

Another passenger reported: "We all struggled to see anything, getting on to the floor and into strange contortions. The pilot had to bank the plane to allow a glimpse of totality — and we saw the solar corona only for about half a minute!"

Everyone agreed on one thing though. It was a thrilling experience, and they would never have one like it again. The French Concorde crashed shortly after taking off the following year on a flight from Paris to New York, killing all 109 people on board and four on the ground. The plane was grounded for ever.

Fleet Street in the 1900s. The Great Manure crisis looms

Stuck in the sticky

THE Daily Express was born in the middle of a government dilemma, it seems and one that affected every member of staff going to work for Sir Arthur Pearson’s new title, along with other newspapers and trades. It was The Great Horse Manure Crisis.

The streets and pavements were awash with horse dung and urine. There was so much of it The Times predicted in 1894 that within 50 years the capital would be buried under nine foot of the muck. I often wondered what working on the Express was like during Edwardian times, the travel, the job, everything really. Now I know a lot more.

The day the Express doors opened in Fleet Street in the year 1900, there were more than 11,000 hansom cabs in the capital and 3,000 horse-drawn buses each needing 12 horses a day, which added up to 50,000 horses transporting people about. Thousands more were pulling drays and carts to deliver goods. 

The streets were awash with a carpet of muck, horses, carriages and people. And Fleet Street was one of the main thoroughfares to the West End; the Palace and the Embankment. Blighty was on its way to the predicted nine foot of muck.

Each horse produced up to 35lb of manure a day and up to four pints of urine. Men’s shoes; the hem of ladies skirts and boys’ socks and shoes were awash with a brown muddy mix and flies followed them into offices, shops, homes and our own newsroom I suspect, spreading diseases like typhoid fever in their wake.

Horse manure on the streets of New York

Apparently, the Conservative Cabinet of Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, struggled to find the answer to the growing problem. There was another worry, the smells in buildings and on the street. They were pungent. On top of that, came the corpses of horses, which added more horror to our daily lives.

The average life expectancy for a working horse was three years. But they were too heavy to remove from the streets when they dropped dead. So, they were left to rot and then the bodies could be easily sawn up after a week for removal. Rotting horse corpses were a familiar sight in Fleet Street and The Strand and the streets were poisoning its own people. 

Other cities around the world were having the same problem, especially New York, where a politician said in the Press: “In our great country all you need to build a town is to take a horse on to a plain and build houses around it.”

Just like the climate crisis today, the dilemma was debated at the world’s first international conference in the Big Apple. Its aim was to save our urban life … and keep the workflow going for commerce. It was covered by Fleet Street newspapers, but after three days, no solution could be found, and it broke up early in disarray as delegates violently disagreed on just about everything. A bit like a COP meeting, eh?

Everything was discussed in and out of the conference building. Around at the time was the idea of a diaper for horses. Entrepreneurs back in Blighty were quick off the mark of course, and quickly put full-page adverts in the national Press with pictures of steaming horse manure next to a large white diaper with patent-pending safety pins.

The idea was to offer franchises for businessmen with fields in the countryside to set up horse diaper collecting and cleaning companies. They would offer thousands of good paying ‘green’ jobs.

One advert said: “With just a fleet of horse-drawn carts and a big pond in the country, you too could own your own horse diaper cleaning and distribution business!”

To capture the public’s imagination the adverts had headlines that screamed: ‘The end is near… unless!’

The entrepreneurs lined up politicians, scientists, and academics who spoke with great certainty about the coming calamity… if the horse diaper was not deployed before it was too late. A bit like the end of the planet.

The Times highlighted another problem for the meeting: The horses had to be stabled, using up large areas of valuable land in the world’s inner cities and farms would have to produce more hay to feed them as the populations of both horses and humans grew. Some said urban life and the idea of working in the cities was doomed. The Express and other papers continuously ran the story being debated in the Commons.

But the Great Manure Crisis did provide some employment — gangs of “Sparrow Starvers” who swept the streets clear of manure for money from mayors and town civics. When it rained the men and boys swept away the manure that turned to water, and when it was sunny, they swept away the excrement dust.

Sadly, along with the disappearance of horse dung went the little sparrow, most closely associated with the capital city too. It had lost much of its food. It lived on oats from the horse dung. That’s where the gangs got their name. Today the almost total absence of the ‘cockney sparrah’ in London is much lamented by conservationists and ornithologists.

The end of the world never came to London as evolution eventually played its part in solving the problem on our streets at that time, thanks to Henry Ford, Karl Benz and others. The motorcar drove the crisis away. By 1910 there were nearly 7,000 motor cabs in London alone. The day of the horse diaper idea had died. But the hacks had cleaner shoes.

TERRY MANNERS will be back with a new six-part series of columns looking at the past and present in the Spring.

19 February 2024