Tales From The Nursery – Part Eight

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Hickory Dickory Dock

This unusual nursery rhyme goes “Hickory, dickory, dock, The mouse ran up the clock. The clock struck one, The mouse ran down, Hickory, dickory, dock.” However in the first printed version, as usual in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book of 1744, it appears as Hickere, Dickere, Dock. In 1765, in Mother Goose’s Melody, it appears as Dickery, Dickery, Dock.

The closeness of the opening line to the Westmoreland dialect for the eight, nine and ten – hevera, devera and dock respectively – has led some people to think that the origins of this rhyme lie with an old counting song. But why start at eight? The presence of a second verse makes the case for the rhyme being a counting song even more tenuous – Dickory, dickory, dare, The pig flew up in the air. The man in brown, Soon brought him down, Dickory, dickory, dare”. The second verse just continues the story of the first and the first line of the second verse has no relation to Westmoreland dialect.

A more persuasive theory, in my book at least, is that the rhyme alludes to the trials and tribulations of Richard Cromwell. Following the execution of Charles I in 1649 Blighty became a republic with Oliver Cromwell assuming the role of Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. Richard was Cromwell’s eldest son. It seems that Richard was a bit of a disappointment to the old fellow and was excluded from the Barebones Parliament of 1653, even though his younger brother, Henry, was a member.

Cromwell, to everyone’s surprise, not least because they thought they were in a republic, but in accordance with the constitution of the Protectorate, named Richard as his successor. But Richard, when he succeeded his father in 1659, had neither the support of Parliament nor the army and, to boot, inherited a national debt of £2 million. When he tried to introduce an austerity programme the army rebelled. Refusing the aid of the French king Cromwell was effectively forced out of power and Charles II was restored to the throne.

As Cromwell became increasingly unpopular he acquired nicknames such as Queen Dick, Tumbledown Dick and Hickory Dick. His rule lasted a year – the clock struck one – and then he was ousted – the mouse ran down. The story runs on into the troublesome second verse. The pig flew up in the air could symbolise his unexpected and astonishing rise and the man in brown – Charles II – was the man who brought him down.

Of course, there are some difficulties with this interpretation – Charles II was black-haired, for example – but, nonetheless I find the explanation somewhat more persuasive than others around.

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