meaning and origin of ‘Hogs Norton’

The name Hogs Norton, also Hog’s Norton and Hogsnorton, denotes a fictional town renowned for its uncultured and boorish inhabitants. It has often been used in depreciative phrases suggesting that someone is a native or inhabitant of this town. These phrases have variously associated the name:
– with present-day Hook Norton, a town in Oxfordshire (Hogenartone, Hogenorthon, etc., in the 13th century, Hogesnorton in the 14th century),
– or with present-day Norton-juxta-Twycross, a village in Leicestershire (Hogge Norton in the 14th century, Hoggis Norton, Hogges Norton in the 16th century).

The first of those phrases is from The Enterlude of Youth, a morality play composed around 1565 and printed in London:

were thou borne in trumpyngton¹
And brought vp at Hogges norton
Bymy faith it semeth so
well go knaue² go

¹ The phrase to be born in Trumpington probably meant to be a fool. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1342-1400) set The Reeve’s Tale in this Cambridgeshire village.
² Here, knave means a commoner, a peasant.

In Strange Newes, Of the intercepting certaine Letters and a Convoy of Verses, as they were going Privilie the victuall the Lowe Countries (London, 1592), the English pamphleteer Thomas Nashe (1567-circa 1601) wrote:

If thou bestowst any curtesie on mee, and I doe not requite it, then call mee cut³, and say I was brought up at Hoggenorton, where pigges play on the organs.

³ Here, the noun cut is a term of abuse, perhaps from the noun use of the past participle of the verb cut in the sense of a common or labouring horse, which has been gelded or has had its tail docked.

In The Muses looking-glasse (Oxford, 1638), the English poet and playwright Thomas Randolf (1605-35) referred to the phrase Hogs Norton, where (the) pigs play (on) the organs:

But the great work in which I mean to glory,
Is in the raising a Cathedrall Church:
It shall be at Hoggs-Norton, with a paire
Of stately Organs; more then pity ’twere
The Piggs should loose their skill for want of practice!

A facetious explanation of this phrase occurs in Recreation for ingenious head-peeces, or, A pleasant grove for their wits to walk in of epigrams 700, epitaphs 200, fancies a number, fantasticks abundance: with their addition, multiplication, and division (London, 1654), by the English naval officer John Mennes (1599-1671):

Vpon Pigs devouring a bed of Penny-royall, commonly called Organs.
A good wife once a bed of Organs set,
The Pigs came in and eat up every whit,
The good man said, wife you your Garden may
Hogs Norton call, here Pigs on Organs play.

pennyroyal: either of two small-leaved plants of the mint family, used in herbal medicine

Pigs play on the Organs appeared as a proverbial phrase in A Collection of English Proverbs (Cambridge, 1678 edition), by the English naturalist and theologian John Ray (1627-1705), who explained that it referred to

A man so called at Hogs Norton in Leicestershire, or Hocks Norton.

However, there is apparently no documentary support for the claim that the Leicestershire village, or the Oxfordshire town, once had an organist so named.

In the same edition, John Ray recorded the following proverb relating to Oxfordshire:

You were born at Hogs Norton.

And he explained:

This is a village properly called Hoch Norton, whose inhabitants (it seems formerly) were so rustical in their behaviour, that boarish and clownish people are said to be born there. But whatever the people were, the name was enough to occasion such a Proverb.

The adjective clownish meant ignorant, stupid, rude, coarse.

Ray explicitly quoted the Church of England clergyman Thomas Fuller (1607/8-1661), who, in The history of the worthies of England (London, 1662), had written, about Oxfordshire:

You were born at Hogs-Norton.
This is a Village, properly called Hoch-Norton, whose inhabitants (it seems formerly) were so rustical in their behaviour, that boarish and clownish people are said born at Hogs-Norton.

According to William Carew Hazlitt (1834-1913) in English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (London, 1907), in The history of the most renowned Don Quixote of Mancha and his trusty squire Sancho Pancha (London, 1687), where the proverbs are anglicised, the English author John Phillips (1631-1706) wrote:

I was neither born at Hoggs-Norton nor at Taunton Dean, that I should be such a clown.

The Scottish novelist and poet Walter Scott (1771-1832) mentioned the phrase in two novels: Kenilworth; a Romance (1821), and Woodstock; or, The Cavalier (1826). Notes and Queries (London) of 13th January 1923 published the following, by a certain Charles J. Billson:

Sir Walter Scott was probably right in taking Hog’s Norton to belong to the same category as Gotham and other Boeotian homes of wiseacres and noodles. In the third chapter of ‘Woodstock’ he refers to “the noodles of Hog’s Norton, who trip, when the pigs play on the organ.” And in the ninth chapter of ‘Kenilworth,’ Hog’s Norton is given as the birthplace of the learned Magister Erasmus Holiday, who interpreted the proverb allegorically, as having reference to “the herd of Epicurus, of which litter Horace confessed himself a porker.” There does not seem to be any reason for thinking that Scott referred the saying to Hook Norton in Oxfordshire. It is probable that he heard it when he was visiting Sir George Beaumont at Coleorton Hall, in Leicestershire, where he also picked up other proverbs and phrases, of Leicestershire origin, which appear in the twenty-second and twenty-ninth chapters of ‘The Heart of Midlothian,’ and where he gathered some of the local colour of ‘Ivanhoe.’

In Ulysses (1922), the Irish author James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (1882-1941) used the phrase Hogs Norton, where (the) pigs play (on) the organs:

BLOOM: (Bitterly) Man and woman, love, what is it? A cork and bottle. I’m sick of it. Let everything rip.
ZOE: (In sudden sulks) I hate a rotter that’s insincere. Give a bleeding whore a chance.
BLOOM: (Repentantly) I am very disagreeable. You are a necessary evil. Where are you from? London?
ZOE: (Glibly) Hog’s Norton where the pigs plays the organs. I’m Yorkshire born. (She holds his hand which is feeling for her nipple) I say, Tommy Tittlemouse. Stop that and begin worse. Have you cash for a short time? Ten shillings?

On BBC radio from 1930 onwards, the English comedian and broadcaster Gillie Potter (Hugh William Peel – 1887-1975) conjured up Hogsnorton as an imaginary place to characterise and satirise. The following is from The Western Daily Press (Bristol, England) of 12th December 1930:

Gillie Potter Tells The Truth About Russia

In to-night’s vaudeville programme from London Regional Gillie Potter, the comedian who has reached great heights of popularity among radio fans, will commence “to tell the truth” in the first series of talks entitled “Heard at Hogsnorton.” To-night’s subject will be “the truth about Russia.”

In You’ve got to be a brave man to work in comedy, published in The Stage (London) of 31st January 1980, the English comedian, author and television presenter Barry Took (1928-2002) wrote:

Most comedy in the ’twenties and ’thirties was mainly in the hands of soloists, men like Gillie Potter whose accounts of the happenings in the fictitious village of Hogsnorton and of the local squire, Lord Marshmallow, were immensely popular, and whose invariable opening line, “Good evening England. This is Gillie Potter speaking to you in English”, soon made him a household name.

The Yorkshire Evening Post of 21st November 1951 reported that Gillie Potter complained that the B.B.C. had censored one of his scripts:


Unless the B.B.C. changes its mind about a ban on an item in Gillie Potter’s script for his “Hogsnorton” episode in the “Leisure Hour” programme, due to be heard tomorrow night, he will not broadcast.
Mr. Potter said today that part of his script dealt with the humorous review of an imaginary book called “The mouth-organ—it’s [sic] use and abuse,” by Sir Adrian Boult.
“One chapter about the history of the harmonica is entitled ‘from B.C. to B.B.C.,’” he said. “The B.B.C. has banned the letters ‘B.C.’ because they say they are a religious term.”
“I feel that this an insult to my art of comedy, and in those circumstances I feel that I cannot make the recording.”
                                                                                      “It’s absurd”
He thought it was absurd that the B.B.C. should object to the use of a term normally employed to indicate a period of time in history.
There were two other deletions from his script, but this one he considered to be the “last straw.”
Of the others one was a reference to “Holloway and Dartmoor,” and the second an inference that B.B.C. officials were found on licensed premises near Broadcasting House.
Both these items, said Mr. Potter, had been included in his radio shows some years ago.

 Holloway and Dartmoor are prisons in England.

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