‘in Dicky’s meadow’: meaning and origin

CONTENTS
MEANING
EARLY OCCURRENCES
ORIGIN
FOLK ETYMOLOGIES
 

MEANING

 

The British-English phrase in Dicky’s meadow, and its variants, mean in a difficult situation, in trouble. This phrase originated in Lancashire, a county of north-western England, on the Irish Sea.

For example, the following is from the column Day to Day in Liverpool, published 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”?

 

EARLY OCCURRENCES

 

The earliest occurrences of the phrase in Dicky’s meadow and variants that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From The Preston Herald (Preston, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 23rd June 1866:

MIGRATION OF SOUTHERN LABOURERS.—GREAT INDIGNATION MEETING AT HASLINGDEN.

On Thursday last a large meeting of factory operatives from Bacup, Stacksteads, Rawtenstall, Baxenden, Accrington, &c., met in the great square of the Market-place, Haslingden, for the purpose of hearing an address from their friend and advocate, the Rev. E. A. Verity, B. D., rector of Habergham, near Burnley, on the above subject. […] The Chairman said he had great pleasure in taking the chair upon such an occasion, and in presiding over so large and respectable a meeting of workmen. He deeply felt for them. […] It was cruel to snatch bread out of their mouths and give it to strangers. By a concerted plan of the Preston and East Lancashire masters, agents had been sent into the south of England to glean the sweepings of the agricultural counties, and the refuse of the city workhouses, and send them into Lancashire to fill the labour market, compete with the half-starved factory hand, and pull down wages.—(Cries of “Shame.”) […]
The Rev. E. A. Verity then rose and said: […] They take away the bread from your wives and children, and given [sic] it to strangers—not strangers who have come of their own free will—seeking work and craving food. Had this been the case they would have been welcome. But strangers purposely sent for, and shamefully deluded by false and abominable agents; and worse than all, 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.—(Sensation, and cries of we’ll see ’em in Dickey meadow first.)

2-: From Rochdale Petty Sessions, published in the Rochdale Observer (Rochdale, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 1st March 1873:

Careless Drivers.—Charles Whitehead was charged by P.C. Bennett with having been the driver of a one-horse cart on Tuesday night, at a quarter to eight, and not having control of the horse.—The officer stated that he saw the horse and cart coming along the road near Balderstone Church, and no one in charge of it. He stopped the horse and held it, and it was fully fifteen minutes (he timed it with his watch) before the defendant came up. Defendant said that what the officer stated was “noan true.” He was only a very short time away from the horse, when the officer came up and stopped it, which caused him (defendant) to exclaim, “It’s up Dickey Meadow now.” He called as a witness William Walker, with whom also it was “up Dickey Meadow,” as he was himself charged with a similar offence. Walker said that he and Whitehead were together for all he knew. They were only away about five minutes, getting something to drink.—Walker had now to shift from the witness-box into the defendant’s box, and was charged with being the driver of a two-horse lurry, at the same time and place as Whitehead, and not having control of the horses.—They were each fined 5s. and costs, or seven days.

3-: From the Blackpool Herald (Blackpool, Lancashire, England) of Friday 6th June 1884:

THE RECENT BOATING ACCIDENT AT BLACKPOOL.

On Tuesday afternoon, at the Queen’s Hotel, before W. Gilbertson, Esq., district coroner, an inquest was held on the body of a man found on the beach early on Monday morning, and said to be one of those unfortunate men who were drowned at the recent boating accident. […]
[…]
The Coroner considered that it was of no use continuing the inquiry until they had clearer evidence as to the identity of the man. It was, at present, simply a question which of the two witnesses they should rely on. Until the body was identified as one of the men who went out in the boat on the 24th May, they could not inquire into the accident itself. He had certainly become irrecognisable in a short space of time, only having been in the water about ten days. Of course it might be some one else. It would be, however, best to adjourn that inquiry, and in the meantime the police could make inquiries at the place where Ashton lived, in Blackpool.
A Juror said he was confident that the body he had seen was that of Tom Wade, another of the missing bodies.
The Coroner: Oh, indeed; we are in Dicky’s meadow altogether now.
It was finally determined to adjourn the inquest till four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon.

4-: From Blabs from a barber’s form, by ‘Tummy Tulip’, published on Saturday 9th July 1887 in The Widnes Examiner (Widnes, Lancashire, England), The St. Helens Examiner (St. Helens, Lancashire, England) and The Runcorn Examiner (Runcorn, Cheshire, England):

Aw wur theer t’ other neet, watchin’ owd Jemmy set one of his razors—id wur rayther soon for his customers—when Rutchut o’ Long Dick’s popt in, wi’ a puzzled look on his bristly face; Owd Jemmy cud see ther wur summat botherin’ him, so he sed, “Hello, Rutchut! wod ails thee? Tha looks as if tha’d bin i’ Dicky’s meadows, an’ cudden’d get eawt!”

In standard English:

I was there the other night, watching old Jimmy set one of his razors—it was rather soon for his customers—when Richard of Long Dick’s popped in, with a puzzled look on his bristly face; Old Jimmy could see there was something bothering him, so he said, “Hello, Richard! what ails you? You look as if you’d been in Dicky’s meadows, and couldn’t get out!”

5-: From Sum Lankisher Sayin’s (= Some Lancashire Sayings), by Tum o’ Dick o’ Bob’s, published on Saturday 27th December 1890 in The Blackburn Standard and Weekly Express (Blackburn, Lancashire, England), on Saturday 24th January 1891 in The Widnes Examiner (Widnes, Lancashire, England), The St. Helens Examiner (St. Helens, Lancashire, England), The Warrington & Mid-Cheshire Examiner (Warrington, Lancashire, England) and The Runcorn Examiner (Runcorn, Cheshire, England), on Friday 31st July 1891 in The Leigh Chronicle (Leigh, Lancashire, England), and on Saturday 1st August 1891 in The Wigan Observer, and District Advertiser (Wigan, Lancashire, England):

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.

6-: From a letter to the Editor, by G. Henry Roberts, published in The Preston Herald (Preston, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 7th February 1891:

Sir,—I take it there is no man more entitled to a respectful hearing than myself on the Ribble question.
I will not go over the matters relating to the subject which I have handled during the past five years. I have courted man’s favour; my only desire has been to lay the facts fairly before the people of Preston, and to endeavour that this town shall not be landed in “dicky’s meadow,” and all I have received has been kicks and no ha’pence;” but my greatest sin of all has been to design a permanent navigable deep sea channel to the Irish Sea when one was so badly wanted the people of Preston.

 

ORIGIN

 

The phrase in Dicky’s meadow is of unknown origin.

During the 20th century, in several Lancashire newspapers, the question of this origin was sometimes raised but never solved. 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.

One hypothesis is that the phrase in Dicky’s meadow originally referred to some local incident, now forgotten.

Another hypothesis is that the first element of the phrase is a folk-etymological alteration of the adjective dicky, also dickey, first recorded in the late 18th century and meaning: uncertain, hazardous, critical. This seems to be supported by the fact that, in early use, the first element of the phrase was not in the genitive case, i.e., was not suffixed with ’s.

Dicky’s meadow would therefore be the rural counterpart (so to speak) of Queer Street, an expression first recorded in the early 19th century and denoting an imaginary street where people in difficulties are supposed to reside, hence the fact of being in trouble.

In fact, Dicky’s meadow was paired 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.

 

FOLK ETYMOLOGIES

 

According to two popular theories, the phrase refers:
– either to the piece of ground on which the Battle of Wakefield was fought in December 1460, during the Wars of the Roses; Richard, Duke of York, was killed during this battle;
– or to the piece of ground on which the Battle of Bosworth was fought in August 1485, during the Wars of the Roses; King Richard III was killed during this battle.

Those theories claim that the phrase in Dicky’s meadow originally referred to the fact that ‘Dicky’ (i.e., either Richard, Duke of York, or King Richard III) met his death on a ‘meadow’.

But those theories are most probably a posteriori rationalisations, as there is a gap of about four centuries between the dates of the Battles of Wakefield and of Bosworth and the earliest recorded occurrence of in Dicky’s meadow. Additionally, the phrase originated in Lancashire, whereas Wakefield is in Yorkshire, and Bosworth is in Leicestershire.