Tag Archives: Battle of Bosworth

What Is The Origin Of (241)?…

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.

Tales From The Nursery – Part Twenty Eight


For want of a nail

This rhyme, or perhaps more accurately proverb, goes as follows: “for want of a nail the shoe was lost/ for want of a shoe, the horse was lost/ for want of a horse, the rider was lost/ for want of a rider, the message was lost/ for want of a message, the battle was lost/ for want of a battle, the kingdom was lost/ and all for the want of a horseshoe nail”.

What we have here is a lesson in causation; how a relatively trivial event – the unavailability of a horseshoe – caused a sequence of events which led to the loss of a kingdom. Each step along the way has a greater consequence. Perhaps it is an early example of chaos theory in action – you know the one where a great perturbation is caused initially by a butterfly flapping its wings.

The other didactic point that the proverb emphasises is that the ultimate consequence of the chain of events precipitated by the lack of a nail for a horseshoe was not and, probably, could not have been anticipated at the time.

The earliest variant of this proverb – and, interestingly it takes the causation route – is to be found in the German poet, Freidank’s, Bescheidenheit of around 1230, where he states, “the wise tell us that a nail keeps a shoe, a shoe a horse, a horse a knight who can fight and keep a castle”.

For those seeking to ascribe a historical event to the proverb, the favourite explanation surrounds the erstwhile car park resident, King Richard the Third, who at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 famously, or at least according to William Shakespeare, was unsaddled and shouted for a horse. “A horse, a horse, a kingdom for my horse”.

The problem, of course, is that Richard’s cry is probably apocryphal and, in any event, Shakespeare wrote his play in 1591. In 1507 Jean Molinet had written “by just one nail one loses a good horse”.  Tempting as it may be to see the demise of the unfortunate king as the progenitor of the proverb, there is too much evidence of its existence prior to Shakespeare’s play to make the connection. It may be that Shakespeare had the proverb in mind when he wrote the scene. Who knows?

Irrespective of its origin the proverb has an impressive track record. Our old friend Benjamin Franklin included a variant of the proverb in his preface to Poor Richard’s Almanac for 1758, replacing in true republican style, any reference to a king or kingdom with the rather anodyne and anonymous, enemy.

But the key to the real meaning and origin of the proverb rests with Samuel Smiles who in 1880 introduced us to a character called “Don’t Care” who was to blame for the catastrophe illustrated by the rhyme. What we have here is a cautionary tale for the youngsters showing that a moment’s carelessness or thoughtlessness can have tragic and catastrophic consequences, a lesson that is not unique to us here and is why it is a proverb that can be found elsewhere in the world.

Interestingly, the verse was framed and hung on the wall of the Anglo-American Supply Headquarters in London during the Second World War. Let’s hope they paid due heed to it!