The meaning of the phrase in Dicky’s meadow was explained in the column Day to Day in Liverpool, in The Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Monday 20th March 1916:
When a Liverpool warehouseman’s clerk, a man born and educated in mid-Lancashire, was asked, on Saturday, if his employer could rearrange his stock of goods in a certain way, the reply was: “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 as to its origin. Who was “Dicky”?
All of the first recorded occurrences of the phrase in Dicky’s meadow, from the 1860s onwards, are found in Lancashire newspapers. It even appeared in the column titled Sum Lankisher Sayin’s (= Some Lancashire Sayings), published in The Blackburn Standard and Weekly Express (Blackburn, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 27th December 1890:
AW’M BEAWN TO BE I’ DICKY’S MEADOW
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; ther’s no gate as yo’ con unlock an’ ged eawt by like yo’ con ged eawt ov a ordinary meadow, an’ ther’s no steel as yo’ con gooa o’er or through, an’ though Dicky’s meadow is hedged o’ reawnd yo’ll nod find a gap o’ ony sooart in id. Neaw there’s theawsands o’ fooak trespasses i’ Dicky’s meadow ev’ry day, though ther’s lots as doesn’d know th’ way theer, an’ for onybody as doesn’d aw’ll give ’em full directions heaw to ged theer: but fost ov o’ aw want to say as ther’s no fleawers grows theer—sooa no bees gooas theer after mekkin’ honey—an’ as yo’ corn’d mezzer thad meadow as yo’ con others, an’ last ov o’ aw dorn’d know th’ owner o’ th’ meadow, nobbut as he’s co’d Dicky, an’ as th’ meadow hes bin Dicky’s meadow for generations neaw. Here’s th’ directions for yo’, yo’ wimmen:—Abeawt an heaur afoor yo’r husband an’ fam’ly comes hooam to dinner, gooa into th’ next door an’ hev a two heaurs chat wi’ th’ woman as lives theer, au iv yo’ dorn’d find yo’rsels i’ Dicky’s meadow after ramblin’ on o’ thad time aw’ll be shot. Iv th’ woman next door hes a husband an’ fam’ly comin’ to ther dinner, too, hoo’ll be a mate for yo’ i’ th’ meadow—thad is, iv hoo reciprocates yo’r gossup.
in standard English:
I’M BOUND TO BE IN DICKY’S MEADOW
It’s a queer shop [= place] to find yourselves in, is Dicky’s meadow, because there isn’t the ghost of a chance on you getting out again once you’ve got in; there’s no gate that you can unlock and get out by like you can get out of an ordinary meadow, and there’s no stile that you can go over or through, and though Dicky’s meadow is hedged all round you’ll not find a gap of any sort in it. Now there’s thousands of folks who trespass in Dicky’s meadow every day, though there’s lots that don’t know the way there, and for anybody that doesn’t I’ll give them full directions how to get there: but first of all I want to say that there’s no flowers that grow there—so no bees go there after making honey—and that you can’t measure that meadow as you can others, and last of all I don’t know the owner of the meadow, except that he’s called Dicky, and that the meadow has been Dicky’s meadow for generations now. Here’s the directions for you, you women:—About an hour before your husband and family come home to dinner, go next door and have a two-hour chat with the woman that lives there, and if you don’t find yourselves in Dicky’s meadow after rambling on all that time I’ll be shot. If the woman next door has a husband and family coming to their dinner, too, she’ll be a mate for you in the meadow—that is, if she reciprocates your gossip.
During the 20th century, the phrase was mentioned in several Lancashire newspapers, the question of its origin being sometimes raised but never answered. For example, on Tuesday 28th January 1941, The Lancashire Daily Post (Preston, Lancashire, England) published the following letter from a certain W. A. Hodgetts:
Sir—I have read with much interest the article on “Quaint Sayings” in your issue of January 23rd. I shall be glad if your contributor or one of your readers can inform me how the saying “I shall be in Dicky’s meadow” originated. It evidently refers to getting into some difficulty.
A variety of willows was named Dicky Meadows supposedly after the Lancashire man who first cultivated it, but this doesn’t seem to be related to the phrase.
According to a popular theory, the phrase alludes to the meadow where the Battle of Wakefield, during the Wars of the Roses, took place in December 1460. Richard, Duke of York, was killed during this battle, and the supposed link with the phrase, which refers to getting into trouble, is that Richard (‘Dicky’) was ill-advised to fight there.
But this theory is most probably an a posteriori rationalisation, as there is a gap of four centuries between the date of the Battle of Wakefield and the earliest recorded instance of in Dicky’s meadow. Additionally, Wakefield is in Yorkshire whereas the phrase is first recorded in Lancashire. It would be more likely that the phrase originally referred to some local incident, now forgotten.
A better explanation is that the first element is a folk-etymological alteration of the adjective dicky, also dickey, which appeared in the early 19th century and means uncertain, hazardous, critical, and that the phrase is, so to speak, the rural counterpart of Queer Street, an expression, also dating from the early 19th century, meaning an imaginary street where people in difficulties are supposed to reside, hence the fact of being in trouble. Two facts seem to support this explanation:
– First, the use of the forms Dickey meadow and dickey meadow. In fact, one of the very first recorded instances of the phrase, in The Preston Herald (Preston, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 23th June 1866, is in Dickey meadow. An article gave an account of a meeting of Lancashire factory operatives about a concerted plan consisting in sending southern labourers “into Lancashire to fill the labour market, compete with the half-starved factory hand, and pull down wages”. During this meeting, an orator said to the assembled workers:
Your masters now call upon you, under threat of dismissal, and perhaps a wholesale lock-out, to teach these apprentices of 21 and 30 years of age, how they may steal the bread out of your mouths and reduce the wages in your pockets.
To which the crowd replied:
We’ll see ’em in Dickey meadow first.
– Secondly, the coupling of Dicky’s meadow with Queer Street in the following from the Burnley Express (Burnley, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 23rd October 1920:
Wot we want, yo’ know, is […] to put an end to all this imperial an’ municipal gawnlessness, to put party politics on one side, end jobbery an’ profiteerin’, an’ work for th’ general good. We shall never be onywheere else nor i’ Queer-street or Dicky’s meadow under t’present system, an’ Queer-street isn’t a comfortable or happy place to be in. An’ we’ve been in it a long while neaw.