In the 1680s antiquarian John Aubrey was the first Englishman to mention the observance of April Fool’s Day. He stated that it was celebrated all over Germany, but folklorists assume that the holiday was imported from France, where seems to have been well-established by the 1650s. They also speculate that this mock-holiday arose to fill the gap as the tradition of sanctioning all kinds of misrule during the Christmas holiday season waned (think the cruel jokes perpetrated on Shakespeare’s Malvolio during Twelfth Night). In comparison, April Fool’s was a more civilized occasion for mischief-making, being confined to one day and the only kind of horseplay authorized was to trick others into making public spectacles of themselves.
In the eighteenth-century England, perpetrating hoaxes upon the unwary was ubiquitous on April 1, if we can believe contemporary writers. Age and class came into play because children were allowed to try and deceive adults and members of a higher class could impose on someone of a lower class. Making an April fool of someone was not below the likes of Jonathan Swift, who in 1713 sat up late with some friends cooking up a prank. Convincing someone to go on a wild goose chase (or sleeveless errand as it is also called) for things that didn’t exist, like pigeon’s milk or the biography of Eve’s mother, was a favorite ploy.
The first description of an April Fool’s sleeveless errand was described in a notice in the April 2nd 1698 issue of Dawk’s News-Letter: “Several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch [i.e. the Tower of London’s moat] to see the Lions washed.” One of the city’s great tourist destinations, visitors since the reign of Elizabeth I went the royal menagerie to gawk at caged lions, tigers, bears, elephants, etc. The lions were kept in the barbican called the Bulwark, which was renamed the Lion Tower. The fast-talking trickster would convince his gullible victim that every year on April 1 the lions were taken down to the moat for a bath. All one had to do to enjoy the spectacle was enter by the White Gate. Of course, there was no such gate or any wet lions… In the nineteenth century, the merry sometimes distributed fake tickets of admission.
In honor of the day, here are two accounts of washing the lions from two eighteenth century children’s books, which may be unknown in the literature on the holiday (they are reproduced from the British Library copies on Eighteenth-Century Collections On-Line). The first comes from the last chapter of Travels of Tom Thumb Over England and Wales (1746), where the intrepid little narrator confesses to being taken in by the story of the lions’ public grooming (he also mentions that the most common visitors to the Tower lions are pregnant women, who want to know the sex of their babies!) .
The second, more substantial description of washing the lions comes from chapter 8 of Richard Johnson’s The Picture Exhibition (1783). Here the narrator is a school boy, telling about the picture he drew of an April Fool’s prank in progress. He clearly disapproves of the scene he records and there is something distasteful about the watermen’s gratuitous cruelty towards the poor fellow from the country. While the tone of the narrator’s lecture about appropriate behaviour is too prosy for modern tastes, it should be said in his defense that he was expressing quite enlightened views at a time when blood sports were tolerated and jokes based on highly offensive gender and class stereotypes could be told without embarassment.