The humorous British-English phrase up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire means upstairs to bed.
In this phrase:
– the wooden hill is a metaphor for the stairs;
– the name Bedfordshire is a jocular extension of the noun bed. (Bedfordshire is a county of south central England.)
This use of Bedfordshire is first recorded in Scarronnides: Or, Virgile Travestie. A Mock-Poem. In imitation of the Fourth Book of Virgils Æneis in English, Burlesque (London: Printed by E. Cotes for Henry Brome, 1665), by the English poet and translator Charles Cotton (1630-1687):
Now when with rakeing up the fire
Each one departs to Bedford-shire:
And pillows all securely snort on,
Like Organists of fain’d Hogs-Norton 1.
1 The name Hogs Norton designates a fictional town renowned for its uncultured and boorish inhabitants; it has especially been used in the phrase Hogs Norton, where the pigs play on the organs and variants.
The name Bedfordshire is used as a jocular extension of bed in A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, according to the Most Polite Mode and Method now used at Court, and in the Best Companies of England (London: Printed for B. Motte, and C. Bathurst, 1738), by the Irish satirist, poet and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). Composed in the first decade of the 18th century, this book is a satire on the use of clichés: its purported author, Simon Wagstaff, assures “the Reader, that there is not one single witty Phrase in this whole Collection, which hath not received the Stamp and Approbation of at least one hundred Years”; indeed, in the following extract as in the rest of the book, the characters only use hackneyed phrases:
Lady Answerall. I’m sure ’tis time for honest Folks to be a-bed.
Miss Notable. Indeed my Eyes draws [sic] Straw 2.
[She’s almost asleep.
Mr. Neverout. Why, Miss, if you fall asleep, somebody may get a Pair of Gloves 3.
Colonel Atwit. I’m going to the Land of Nod.
Mr. Neverout. Faith, I’m for Bedfordshire.
2 Attested in the mid-17th century, the phrase to draw, gather, or pick, straws meant, of the eyes, to be sleepy.
3 A man who kissed a sleeping woman (or vice versa) won of her (or him) a pair of gloves; the English poet and playwright John Gay (1685-1732) evoked this custom in The Shepherd’s Week. In Six Pastorals (London: Printed and Sold by R. Burleigh, 1714):
Cic’ly, brisk maid, steps forth before the rout,
And kiss’d with smacking lip the snoring lout.
For custom says, Who-e’er this venture proves,
For such a kiss demands a pair of gloves.
The earliest use that I have found of the wooden hill as a metaphor for the stairs is from a letter published in The Morning Advertiser (London, England) of Tuesday 4th November 1856—the anonymous author recalled the time when a new tutor arrived at his school:
We had got Mr. Alluvial Alum—a stick of saltpetre-sugarcandy, which not one boy in the school could swallow. Everything was changed. The very atmosphere seemed impregnated by his frigid qualities and presence. For several months this gloom—darkness that was felt—prevailed.
But an unexpected opportunity for retaliation occurred, and in which the most silent and sedate joined. It was customary for our tutor to spend his evenings in the village, but it was his duty to return to the school-room to see us all off to bed. On several occasions it was observed that before we left our seats Alum was in the arms of Morpheus; and one night—l shall never forget it—Jim Jay, a first-class boy, proposed that he and myself, after all the others were safe up the wooden hill, should return into the school-room, and push Alum’s candle close to his whiskers. We did so, and decamped. In the morning Alum made his appearance, minus one whisker and a bunch of ringlets.
An identical metaphorical use of the wooden hill occurs in the following from Butler’s South Bucks Free Press. South Oxfordshire Gazette, and General Advertiser for Bucks, Berks, Middlesex, and Oxon (Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England) of Friday 30th June 1865:
Borough Petty Sessions,—June 26.
Before the Mayor, and T. C. Grove, Esq.
Stealing a watch.
John Webb was charged with stealing a watch from the person of William Lambourn, at the Half Moon public-house, on Friday evening.
William Lambourn deposed: I was at the Half Moon on Friday evening; prisoner said he wanted to buy a watch; I showed him mine, and he examined it, and said he believed it was a good watch; he offered me 13s for it, which I refused, and he offered 14s; he gave me back the watch, and said he should be in the town all the next day, and was sleeping there that night; the prisoner drank with me; I saw him unlace his boots, and he said “I am going up the wooden hill;” I afterwards fell asleep, and was awoke by Thomas Hearn, when the prisoner was gone; I soon after left, and as I was going away missed my watch; it was worth 9s 6d.
Both the wooden hill and Bedfordshire occur in the following poem published in Eddowes’s Shrewsbury Journal. And Salopian Journal (Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England) of Wednesday 22nd December 1880:
The Christmas Tree.
Up the stairs,
One at a time,
Hear the patter
Of tiny feet,
So light and fleet.
Up! up; up!
There’s pleasure above.
Romps and kisses
And loads of love;
The feast is done,
This is the way
To the realms of fun;
Up, then, children,
Up, with glee,
The wooden hill
To the Christmas Tree.
There’s a knock at the door
The Dustman comes;
Just time to snap
At the dragon plums,
Ere the little peepers,
Blue and grey,
Of its glittering fruit
Each branch is stripped,
The Union Jack
From the top has slipped,
The last light flickers,
And all is dark;
The folks are asleep
In old Noah’s ark.
Now toddle we,
Good-night, God bless you,
Green Christmas Tree!
Don’t Mention It!
There seems be a curse on the inhabitants of certain circles (writes Mr. Vaughan Dryden) which impels them to utter some exacerbating catch phrase with everything they do. […]
They cannot go to bed like sane people. No; they must talk about “going up the wooden hill” or say they feel like a trip to Bedfordshire.
The earliest occurrence that I have found of the phrase up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire is from the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Friday 25th May 1923:
The Wooden Hill..
Nixon Grey 4 tells us of the origin of his latest song, “Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire.” While he was on tour the landlady brought in his supper and, after a few words of conversation, said, “Well, now I must he off up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire.” Struck by the rhythm of the phrase, he went over to the piano and strummed out the melody, and the next morning he had the verses and chorus complete, as perhaps you will.
4 Nixon Grey (David McNeil – 1880-1952) was a Welsh songwriter, singer and stage comedian; he was nicknamed the Canary Comedian, after his bright yellow stage suit—this is a photograph of Nixon Grey, from the Sheffield Independent (Sheffield, Yorkshire, England) of Wednesday 27th January 1926:
In its edition of Wednesday 27th June 1923, The Era (London, England) mentioned that Nixon Grey’s Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire was a success:
At Finsbury Park the other week Nixon Grey was in excellent form, patrons at this house greatly enjoying his work. This week Nixon is back in town at the Stratford Empire, after a most successful time at the Empire, Nottingham, where he was topping the bill.
A few weeks ago Nixon wrote a new number, “Up the Little [sic] Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire.” This has proved a hit around the provinces.
In an interview published in the Sheffield Independent (Sheffield, Yorkshire, England) of Wednesday 27th January 1926, Nixon Grey explained again the origin of his song, Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire—that week, at the Sheffield Empire, he was performing in a pantomime titled The Forty Thieves:
I write most of my own songs, and get the ideas for them from all sorts of places. One of my best songs in this pantomime is “Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire,” which was suggested to me by hearing my landlady use the expression. It was a quaint way of saying “It’s bedtime,” and it struck me immediately that there was the germ of a delightful song in the phrase.
The English author George Sturt (1863-1927) recorded the phrase in A Small Boy in the Sixties (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927), his childhood reminiscences of Farnham, in Surrey, in the 1860s—this suggests that the phrase predates by several decades Nixon Grey’s song:
Going upstairs to bed was “Going up Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire.”
The phrase is still occasionally used—as in the following from the Evening Sentinel (Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England) of Saturday 5th June 1993:
A tale of the wooden hills . . .
After conquering three peaks in a day, charity mountaineer John Howard had only one thing in mind.
He just wanted to climb the wooden hills to Bedfordshire.
In under 24 hours, John had scaled the three highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales. In that order.
He felt as if he could sleep for a month. But climbing Ben Nevis (4406ft), Scafell Pike (3210ft) and Snowdon (3559ft) was a picnic compared to the challenge of getting a night’s sleep.
For John found himself sharing a room in a Welsh hotel with a man—one of the team’s volunteer drivers—who could have snored for England, Scotland and Wales put together.
Shadow home secretary Jack Straw 5 is anxious to foster a debate about the time that children go to bed. Good. It’s time that politicians started facing up to real issues. But where exactly does New Labour 6 stand on the question of the great British bedtime? Here things are less clear. Mr Straw is good at producing sound bites about the need for public discussion but he is much less bold when it comes to details.
Mr Straw admits that until he was ten he used to have to climb the wooden hill to Bedfordshire at 8pm, although he remained active under the covers—listening to Hancock’s Half Hour 7 he says.
5 John Whitaker Straw (born 1946) is a British Labour politician.
6 New Labour: the British Labour Party from 1994 to 2010, under the leadership:
– of Anthony Blair (born 1953), Prime Minister 1997-2007;
– of Gordon Brown (born 1951), Prime Minister 2007-10.
7 Anthony Hancock (1924-1968) was an English comedian who became famous in 1954 with the radio series Hancock’s Half Hour, which was later adapted to television (1956-61).