a linguistic investigation into hooliganism


hooligan - John Darcy - Lloyd_s Weekly Newspaper - 24 July 1898

A member of the Hooligan gang, John Darcy, aged 19, fatally stabbed Henry Mappin, a passer-by, in Oakley Street, Lambeth, London, on 15th July 1898. — illustration from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London) of Sunday 24th July 1898





hooligan: a rough lawless young person




The word first appeared in print in 1894 in newspaper police-court reports as a qualifier, with a capital H, of the nouns boys and gang. The earliest instance that I have found is from The Daily News (London) of Tuesday 24th April:

It was stated at the Southwark Police-court during the hearing of a charge against Charles Clarke of assaulting the police that the prisoner was the king of a gang of youths known as the “Hooligan Boys,” who paid to a secretary 2d. per week towards settling fines inflicted upon the members of the gang for assaults upon the police. The members were fined 2d. by the secretary if they were found without a belt or stick. A remand was granted that some of the prisoner’s companions may be arrested.

On the 29th of the same month, Reynolds’s Newspaper (London) said that Charles Clarke

was the “king of a gang of youths known as the O’Hooligan Boys.”

The same year, on Tuesday 7th August, The Morning Post (London) reported that

Harry Whettam, 19, described as a labourer, was charged with being disorderly and assaulting the police. […] The prisoner, the Magistrate was informed, was a “prominent member of the Hooligan Gang,” who, in spite of several severe sentences passed upon them, were still continuing to molest and assault anyone who came within their reach in South London.

The earliest instance of hooligan as a noun that I have found is from The Standard (London) of Wednesday 4th November 1896:


John Cannon, 28, a chimney-sweep, but who is a well-known pugilist, of Red-Cross-court, Borough, was charged with assaulting Ephraim D. Goodwin, a fish-curer, of Tabard-street. […] [Prisoner Cannon to Prosecutor Goodwin]: Is it not a fact that you were always following me with a gang to fight me? […]—Prisoner (to the Magistrate): he calls himself the “Champion of Kent—the Beer Eater,” and he won’t fight me unless he has twenty or thirty of the “Hooligans” with him (laughter).

The verb to hooligan is first recorded in The Pall Mall Gazette (London) on Thursday 28th July 1898:

The Hooligan gang looks after Southwark, it appears, and looks after that district so well that the opposition authority, typified by the Southwark police-court, was yesterday made aware that an important witness in the Mappin murder case had just been terrified into space. The information was acquired incidentally in the investigation of another complaint against Hooligan. A printer’s labourer had been Hooliganed with a knife somewhere near his left eye, and two ladies had threatened to “out” him altogether if anything happened to the Hooligan who did it. The complainant quite believed them.

One of the earliest occurrences of the noun hooliganism is from The Morning Post (London) of Monday 22nd August 1898, which denounced

the avalanche of brutality which, under the name of ‘Hooliganism,’—as applied to males both young and those more advanced in years—has cast such a dire slur on the social records of South London.

None of these early quotations gives any clue as to the origin of the word hooligan, which remains uncertain. In An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (London, 1921), the British philologist Ernest Weekley (1865-1954) wrote:

From a lively Irish family of that name in the Borough. This information was given to the author (circa 1896) by a house-surgeon at Guy’s who spent some of his time in patching up the results.

In The Romance of Words (London, 1922), the same author added:

The original Hooligans were a spirited Irish family of that name whose proceedings enlivened the drab monotony of life in Southwark towards the end of the 19th century.

Similarly, in A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (1966), Ernest Klein (1899-1983) wrote that the word is

probably from Hoolihan, Hooligan, name of an Irish family, whose members were notorious hoodlums.

Clarence Henry Rook (circa 1862-1915) gave a different version in The Hooligan Nights: Being the Life and Opinions of a Young and Impertinent Criminal Recounted by Himself and Set Forth by Clarence Rook (1899):


There, was, but a few years ago, a man called Patrick Hooligan, who walked to and fro among his fellow-men, robbing them and occasionally bashing them. This much is certain. His existence in the flesh is a fact as well established as the existence of Buddha or of Mahomet. But with the life of Patrick Hooligan, as with the lives of Buddha and of Mahomet, legend has been at work, and probably many of the exploits associated with his name spring from the imagination of disciples. It is at least certain that he was born, that he lived in Irish Court, that he was employed as a chucker-out at various resorts in the neighbourhood. His regular business, as young Alf puts it, was “giving mugs and other barmy sots the push out of pubs when their old swank got a bit too thick.” Moreover, he could do more than his share at tea-leafing, which denotes the picking up of unconsidered trifles, being handy with his fingers, and a good man all round. Finally, one day he had a difference with a constable, put his light out, and threw the body into a dust-cart. He was lagged, and given a lifer. But he had not been in gaol long before he had to go into hospital, where he died. There is little that is remarkable in this career. But the man must have had a forceful personality, a picturesqueness, a fascination, which elevated him into a type. It was doubtless the combination of skill and strength, a certain exuberance of lawlessness, an utter absence of scruple in his dealings, which marked him out as a leader among men. Anyhow, though his individuality may be obscured by legend, he lived, and died, and left a great tradition behind him. He established a cult. The value of a cult is best estimated by its effect upon its adherents, and as Patrick Hooligan is beyond the reach of cross-examination, I propose to devote a few words to showing what manner of men his followers are, the men who call themselves by his name, and do their best to pass the torch of his tradition undimmed to the nippers who are coming on.

But it is difficult to know whether Clarence Rook’s book can be trusted; Colin Mills, of the Department of Sociology, University of Oxford, explains that The Hooligan Nights “purports to be a piece of late Victorian London underworld reportage. It is not clear that it is anything of the sort and certainly the contemporary reviewers were sceptical”.

When the word hooligan became an addition to slang terminology, some contemporaries raised the question of its origin. The Illustrated Police News (London) of Saturday 27th August 1898 reported that the following conversation had taken place at the Southwark Police Court (Mr Paul Taylor is the magistrate):

The Magistrate: “We hear a great deal lately about Mr. Hooley, and also about the Hooligans, or the Hooligan gang. Do the Hooligans take their name from any particular person?”
A gentleman in court said he attributed the origin of the name to a comic song which was popular at the lower class of music-halls several years ago, and which was sung by the Brothers Hooligan.
Mr. Paul Taylor thought that it was a probable explanation. The influence of the music-halls could often be traced in unexpected directions.

This hints at the most probable explanation, which is that the name Hooligan in the sense of a member of a South London gang of young street rowdies was based on existing stereotypes of the Irish.

For example, The Era (London) of Saturday 22nd December 1894 said that at Sadler’s Well, a London music hall, was performed “a very funny sketch entitled The Social Undertakers”, in which there was a character named “Mr Patsey O’Hooligan, whose appearance is as disreputable as his conduct is discreditable”, and that “Mr Jerry Driscoll is exceedingly comical as the wild Irishman, O’Hooligan”.

This name was frequently used for comic theatrical characters at that time. For instance, the following is from The Lincolnshire Chronicle (Lincoln, Lincolnshire) of Friday 20th October 1893:

Temperance Hall.—[…] On Tuesday evening last a very good entertainment was gone through before a crowded audience […] concluding with a laughable dialogue, entitled “A Drop in the Dark.” Characters:—Benjamin Bodgers (a retired grocer), Mr. C. Nash; Edith Elston (his niece), Miss K. Boldra; Ralph Morton (in love with Edith), Mr. A. Cheffings; Danny O’Hooligan (Bodger’s servant), Mr. H. Green.

Likewise, on Sunday 31st December 1893, The Observer (London) reported that the previous week a second edition of “the diverting burlesque opera Little Christopher Columbus” had been produced:

Miss May Yohe […] was the favourite. Next in general favour was Mr. Lonnen, whose impersonation of O’Hooligan seems more and more comic at every performance.

As early as 1824, in More Blunders than One; or, The Irish Valet, a farce by the English playwright James Thomas Gooderham Rodwell (died 1825), a character named Larry Hoolagan was a drunken and rascally Irish servant. It was then conventional to name dramatic characters with words that indicated types of behaviour or temperament; this suggests that the name Hooligan or some such word was already in existence as slang, though not recorded in print, before the date of this play, and with something of the meaning it still has. According to B. A. Phythian in A Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1993), Hooligan is:

an English approximation to an Irish surname often rendered as Houlihan. The word stems from the rough behaviour associated with a number of Houlihans, probably immigrant labourers in the eighteenth century.

One thought on “a linguistic investigation into hooliganism

  1. Hi! I have several ancestors who were apart of the “Hooligans Gang” reffered to in the article featuring John Cannon, John went under the alias “Costy” not quite sure why but he was on and off friends with my ancestors who were also gangsters, Chris, Elijah and Thomas Selby, Chris went under the name Black Chris (Due to the fact he was half-black) and I also know of another member of their gang named either John or Tom Sullivan, He went under the alias of Big Ben or Big Tim depending on the publication. Another member of the Southwark Hooligan Gang was Charles Savage, i dont have much information on him though sadly, if you have any more knowledge on these gangsters id be very appriciative if you could contact me at MattiasThatch@gmail.com
    Thanks! -Matt


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