Chap-Books and Folk-Lore Tracts, Vol. 1 (of 5‪)‬

The History of Thomas Hickathrift

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There seems to be some considerable reason for believing that the hero of this story was a reality. The story tells us that he lived in the marsh of the Isle of Ely, and that he became “a brewer’s man” at Lyn, and traded to Wisbeach. This little piece of geographical evidence enables us to fix the story as belonging to the great Fen District, which occupied the north of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk.

The antiquary Thomas Hearne has gone so far as to identify the hero of tradition with a doughty knight of the Crusaders. Writing in the Quarterly Review (vol. xxi. p. 102), Sir Francis Palgrave says:—

“Mr. Thomas Hickathrift, afterwards Sir Thomas Hickathrift, Knight, is praised by Mr. Thomas Hearne as a ‘famous champion.’ The honest antiquary has identified this well-known knight with the far less celebrated Sir Frederick de Tylney, Baron of Tylney in Norfolk, the ancestor of the Tylney family, who was killed at Acon, in Syria, in the reign of Richard Cœur de Lion. Hycophric, or Hycothrift, as the mister-wight observes, being probably a corruption of Frederick.[ii] This happy exertion of etymological acumen is not wholly due to Hearne, who only adopted a hint given by Mr. Philip le Neve, whilome of the College of Arms.”

There does not seem to be the slightest evidence for Hearne’s identification any more than there is for his philological conclusions, and we may pass over this for other and more reliable information.

We must first of all turn to the story itself, as it has come down to us in its chapbook form. It is divided into two parts. The first part of the story is the earliest; the second part being evidently a printer’s or a chapman’s addition. Our reprint of the former is taken from the copy in the Pepysian Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and which was printed probably about 1660-1690; the latter is taken from the British Museum copy, the date of which, according to the Museum authorities, is 1780.

In trying to ascertain something as to the date of the story apart from that of its printed version, it will therefore be necessary to put out of consideration the second portion. This has been written by some one well acquainted with the original first part, and with the spirit of the story; but in spite of this there is undoubted evidence of its literary origin at a date later than the first part. But turning to the first part there are two expressions in this early Pepysian version which have not been repeated in the later editions—those of the eighteenth century; and these two expressions appear to me to indicate a[iii] date after which the story could not have been originated. On page 1 we read that Tom Hickathrift dwelt “in the marsh of the Isle of Ely.” In the earliest British Museum copy this appears as “in the parish of the Isle of Ely.” Again, on page 11 Tom is described as laying out the giant’s estate, “some of which he gave to the poor for their common, and the rest he made pastures of and divided the most part into good ground, to maintain him and his old mother Jane Hickathrift.” In the earliest British Museum copy the expression “good ground” is displaced by “tillage.” Now it is clear from these curious transposition of words in the earliest and latest editions that something had been going on to change the nature of the country. The eighteenth-century people did not know the “marsh” of Ely, so they read “parish”: they did not know the meaning of “good ground” so they read “tillage.” And hence it is clear that at the printing of this earliest version the fen lands of Cambridge and Norfolk had not yet been drained; there was still “marsh land” which was being made into “good land.”

2 January
miao long