In Dicky’s meadow
I was born in Lancashire and I still have some slight vestiges of that distinctive accent in my everyday speech, principally the flat a in words such as grass and bath which mark out the northerner from those from the south. I also retain some Lancastrian phrases like in Dicky’s meadow, fortunately one that I have not had to utter too often.
The Day to Day in Liverpool column in the city’s Daily Post and Mercury of March 20, 1916 gives us a charmingly succinct explanation of the phrases meaning; “No, that would land us in Dicky’s meadow. What does that expression mean? was the natural query. The clerk’s interpretation was that the saying implied a state of difficulty or trouble. He learned it in his boyhood, but he knew nothing it as to its origin”.
The column took pains to point out that the clerk was born and educated in mid-Lancashire as opposed to Liverpool and so it can be assumed that the phrase was unknown to or at least rarely used by Liverpudlians. It also reveals that Liverpool has never really considered itself to be part of Lancashire and most Lancastrians are happy for that to remain so.
That it was a phrase originating in Lancashire is confirmed by a quaint article found in The Blackburn Standard and Weekly Express of December 27, 1890, entitled Sum Lankisher Sayins. It is written in Lancashire dialect or, at least, a phonetic representation of it. The piece about Dicky’s meadow begins; “It’s a quare shop to find yo’rsels in, is Dicky’s meadow, becos ther isn’d th’ ghost ov a chance on yo’ geddin eawt ageean when wonst yo’ve getten in”. The nightmare for all good working folk of the time was to get in such financial straits, either because of lack of work or sickness, often the two went hand-in-hand, that they ended up in the workhouse. Dicky’s meadow was a more pleasing synonym for that grim place.
But who was Dicky?
There is a temptation in etymological searches to assume that a phrase bearing a name alludes to an actual character. Dicky’s meadow is one such case. One theory goes that the Dicky is Richard, Duke of York, who was killed in one of the major battles of the War of the Roses, the Battle of Wakefield, on December 30, 1460. His demise shows that the Duke was really in a difficult situation and historians conclude that he was ill-advised to engage with troops loyal to Henry VI on that field at Sandal Magna.
But there a couple of reasons why this derivation is unlikely. The first is that there is such a long passage of time between the battle and the phrase emerging in mid-nineteenth century Lancashire that it smacks of convenient retro-fitting. And Wakefield is in Yorkshire. The rivalry between Lancashire and Yorkshire is legendary, easily surpassing that between Liverpool and the rest of Lancashire. Why would Lancastrians reference a place in Yorkshire, although you can see the attraction from a pejorative perspective? They may just as easily have referenced the car park attendant, Richard III, who came to a sticky end in the fields of Bosworth in 1485.
There may be a more prosaic explanation at hand. In the early nineteenth century dicky or in its alternative form dickey was an adjective used to describe something that was uncertain, hazardous, or critical. Interestingly, the Preston Herald of June 23, 1866 reports that a crowd of workers, protesting at the importation of labourers from the south, shouted, “We’ll see ‘em in Dickey meadow first”. Whilst it may be a misprint the use of Dickey as an adjective rather than the genitive of a person’s name may suggest that it isn’t necessary to consider identifying a real person. Dickey was indicating that it was simply a terrible position to be in.
There is a more widely used phrase to indicate being in dire straits, queer street. The Burnley Express on October 23, 1920 joined the two; “we shall never be anywhere else nor I’Queer-street or Dicky’s meadow under t’present system”. The inevitable conclusion is that Dicky’s meadow is the Lancastrian version of Queer Street.