Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales | Annotated Tale

Note that only the "Fireside Nursery Stories" section of this book has been included in the database comprising 19 tales. COMPLETE! Entered into SurLaLune Database in November 2018 with all known ATU Classifications.

Tom Hickathrift

THE author of the renowned History of Tom Hickathrift prefaces his narrative with the following consolatory exordium:—

And if thou dost buy this book,       
Be sure that you do on it look,       
And read it o'er, then thou wilt say       
Thy money is not thrown away.

               In the reign before William the Conqueror, I have read in ancient history that there dwelt a man in the parish of the Isle of Ely, in the county of Cambridge, named Thomas Hickathrift, a poor labouring man, but so strong that he was able to do in one day the ordinary work of two. He had an only son, whom he christened Thomas, after his own name. The old man put his son "to good learning," but he would take none, for he was, as we call them in this age, none of the wisest, but something soft, and had no docility at all in him. God calling this good man, the father, to his rest, his mother, being tender of him, maintained him by her hard labour as well as she could; but this was no easy matter, for Tom would sit all day in the chimney-corner, instead of doing anything to assist her, and although at the period we are speaking of, he was only ten years old, he would eat more than four or five ordinary men, and was five feet and a half in height, and two feet and a half broad. His hand was more like a shoulder of mutton than a boy's hand, and he was altogether like a little monster, "but yet his great strength was not known."

               Tom's strength came to be known in this manner. His mother, it appears, as well as himself, for they lived in the primitive days of merry old England, slept upon straw. This was in character with the wretched mud hovels then occupied by the labouring population, not half so good as many pigsties are now-a-days. Now being a tidy old creature, she must every now and then replenish her homely couch, and one day, having been promised a "bottle" of straw by a neighbouring farmer, after considerable entreaty, she prevailed on her son to go to fetch it. Tom, however, made her borrow a cart-rope first, before he would budge a step, without condescending to enter into any explanation respecting the use he intended it for; and the poor woman, too glad to obtain his assistance on any terms, readily complied with his singular request. Tom, swinging the rope round his shoulders, went to the farmer's, and found him with two men, thrashing in a barn. Having mentioned the object of his visit, the farmer somewhat inconsiderately told him he might take as much straw as he could carry. Tom immediately took him at his word, and, placing the rope in a right position, rapidly made up a bundle containing at least a cartload, the men jeering him on the absurdity of raising a pile they imagined no man could carry, and maliciously asking him if his rope was long enough. Their merriment, however, was not of long duration, for Tom flung the enormous bundle over his shoulders, and walked away with it without any apparent exertion, much to the astonishment and dismay of the master and his men.

               After this exploit, Tom was no longer suffered to enjoy his idle humours. Every one was endeavouring to secure his services, and we are told many remarkable tales of his extraordinary strength, still more wonderful than the one just related. On one occasion, having been offered as great a bundle of firewood as he could carry, he marched off with one of the largest trees in the forest! Tom was also extremely fond of attending fairs; and in cudgelling, wrestling, or throwing the hammer, there was no one who could compete with him. He thought nothing of flinging a huge hammer into the middle of a river a mile off, and in fact performed such extraordinary feats, that it was currently reported throughout the country he had dealings with the Evil One.

               Tom Hickathrift, too, was a very care-for-nothing fellow, and there were very few persons in all the Isle of Ely who dared to give him an ill word. Those who did paid very dearly for their impertinence, and Tom was, in fact, paramount over his companions. His great strength, however, caused him to be much sought after by those who were in want of efficient labour, and at length a brewer at Lynn, who required a strong, lusty fellow to carry his beer to the Marsh and to Wisbech, after much persuasion, and promising him a new suit of clothes, and as much as he liked to eat and drink, secured Tom for this purpose. The distance he daily travelled with the beer was upwards of twenty miles, for although there was a shorter cut through the Marsh, no one durst go that way for fear of a monstrous giant, who was lord of a portion of the district, and who killed or made slaves of every one he could lay his hands upon.

               Now in the course of time, Tom was thoroughly tired of going such a roundabout way, and without communicating his purpose to any one, he was resolved to pass through the giant's domain, or lose his life in the attempt. This was a bold undertaking, but good living had so increased Tom's strength and courage, that, venturesome as he was before, his hardiness was so much increased that he would have faced a still greater danger. He accordingly drove his cart in the forbidden direction, flinging the gates wide open, as if for the purpose of making his daring more conspicuous. At length he was espied by the giant, who was indignant at his boldness, but consoled himself with the reflection that Tom and the beer would soon become his prey. "Sirrah," said the monster, "who gave you permission to come this way? Do you not know how I make all stand in fear of me? and you, like an impudent rogue, must come and fling my gates open at your pleasure! How dare you presume to do so? Are you careless of your life? Do not you care what you do? But I will make you an example for all rogues under the sun! Dost thou not see how many thousand heads hang upon yonder tree, heads of those who have offended against my laws; but thy head shall hang higher than all the rest for an example!" But Tom made him this impudent answer, "A dishclout in your teeth for your news, for you shall not find me to be one of them!" "No!" said the giant, in astonishment and indignation; "and what a fool you must be if you come to fight with such a one as I am, and bring never a weapon to defend yourself!" Quoth Tom, "I have a weapon here will make you know you are a traitorly rogue." This impertinent speech highly incensed the giant, who immediately ran to his cave for his club, intending to dash out Tom's brains at one blow. Tom was now much distressed for a weapon, that necessary accoutrement in his expedition having by some means escaped his memory, and he began to reflect how very little his whip would avail him against a monster twelve feet in height, and six feet round the waist, small dimensions certainly for a giant, but sufficient to be formidable. But while the giant was gone for his club, Tom bethought himself, and turning his cart upside down, adroitly takes out the axletree, which would serve him for a staff, and removing a wheel, adapts it to his arm in lieu of a shield; very good weapons indeed in time of trouble, and worthy of Tom's ingenuity. When the monster returned with his club, he was amazed to see the weapons with which Tom had armed himself, but uttering a word of defiance, he bore down upon the poor fellow with such heavy strokes, that it was as much as Tom could do to defend himself with his wheel. Tom, however, at length managed to give the giant [1] a heavy blow with the axletree on the side of his head, that he nearly reeled over. "What!" said Tom, "are you tipsy with my strong beer already?" This inquiry did not, as we may suppose, mollify the giant, who laid on his blows so sharply and heavily that Tom was obliged to act on the defensive. By and by, not making any impression on the wheel, he got almost tired out, and was obliged to ask Tom if he would let him drink a little, and then he would fight again. "No," said Tom, "my mother did not teach me that wit; who would be fool then?" The sequel may readily be imagined, and Tom having beaten the giant, and, disregarding his supplications for mercy, cut off his head, entered the cave, which he found completely filled with gold and silver.

                     [Footnote 31: In the original it is _lent the       giant_, the term _lent_ being old English or       Saxon for _gave_. The expression sufficiently       proves the antiquity of the version.]

               The news of this celebrated victory rapidly spread throughout the country, for the giant had been a common enemy to the inhabitants. They made bonfires for joy, and testified their respect to Tom by every means in their power. A few days afterwards, Tom took possession of the cave and all the giant's treasure. He pulled down the former, and built a magnificent house on the spot; but with respect to the land forcibly obtained by the giant, part of it he gave to the poor for their common, merely reserving enough to maintain himself and his good old mother, Jane Hickathrift. His treasure, we may suppose, notwithstanding this great liberality, enabled him to maintain a noble establishment, for he is represented as having numbers of servants, and a magnificent park of deer. He also built a famous church, which was called St. James's, because it was on that saint's day that he had killed the giant. And what was as good and better than all this, he was no longer called Tom Hickathrift by the people, but "Mr. Hickathrift," a title then implying a greater advancement in social position that can now scarcely be imagined.

               Like many other persons who have become suddenly possessed of great wealth, Tom was sadly at a loss to know what to do with his money; nor does this sage history condescend to inform us in what manner he expended it. He seems, however, to have amused himself rarely, attending every sport he could hear of for miles round, cracking skulls at cudgel-playing, bear-baiting, and all the gentlemanly recreations current in those days. At football he could scarcely have been a welcome addition to the company, for one kick from his foot, if he caught it in the middle, was sure to send the ball so great a distance over hedges and trees that it was never seen again. Tom was, also, one evening attacked by four robbers; but they sadly mistook the person they had to deal with, for he quickly killed two of them, made the others sue for mercy, and carried off their booty, which amounted to the large sum of two hundred pounds. One would have thought the Hickathrifts were wealthy enough before, but this addition to their store was, somehow or other, a source of great delight and merriment to Tom's aged mother.

               Tom was a long time before he found any one that could match him; but, one day, going through his woods, he met with a lusty tinker, who had a great staff on his shoulder, and a large dog to carry his bag and tools. Tom was not particularly courteous; it may readily be supposed that his unvarying successes had made him rather overbearing; and he somewhat rudely asked the tinker what was his business there. But the tinker was no man to succumb, and as rudely answered, "What's that to you? Fools must needs be meddling!" A quarrel was soon raised, and the two laid on in good earnest, blow for blow, till the wood re-echoed with their strokes. The issue of the contest was long doubtful, but, the tinker was so persevering, that Tom confessed he was fairly vanquished; and they then went home together, and were sworn brothers in arms ever afterwards. It happened, from the events that followed, to be a fortunate occurrence.

               In and about the Isle of Ely, many disaffected persons, to the number of ten thousand and upwards, drew themselves up in a body, presuming to contend for their ancient rights and liberties, insomuch that the gentry and civil magistrates of the county were in great danger. The danger was so great, that the sheriff was obliged to come to Tom Hickathrift, under cover of the night, for shelter and protection, and gave him a full account of the rebellion. The tinker and Tom immediately promised their assistance, and they went out as soon as it was day, armed with their clubs, the sheriff conducting them to the rendezvous of the rebels. When they arrived there, Tom and the tinker marched up to the leaders of the multitude, and asked them the reason of their disturbing the government. To this they answered loudly, "Our will is our law, and by that alone will we be governed." "Nay," quoth Tom, "if it be so, these trusty clubs are our weapons, and by them alone you shall be chastised." These words were no sooner uttered, than they madly rushed on the immense multitude, bearing all before them, laying twenty or thirty sprawling with every blow. It is also related, as something rather remarkable, that the tinker struck a tall man on the nape of the neck with such immense force that his head flew off, and was carried forty feet from the body with such violence that it knocked down one of the chief ringleaders, killing him on the spot. The feats of Tom were no less wonderful; for, after having slain hundreds, and at length broke his club, he seized upon "a lusty rawboned miller" as a substitute, and made use of him as a weapon, till he had quite cleared the field.

               The king of course received intelligence of these extraordinary exploits, and sent for the two heroes to his palace, where a royal banquet was prepared for their honour and entertainment, most of the nobility being present. Now after the banquet was over, the king made a speech, neither too short nor too long, but having the extraordinary merit of being much to the purpose. We cannot omit so remarkable a specimen of royal eloquence. "These, my guests," said the king, "are my trusty and well-beloved subjects, men of approved courage and valour; they are the men that overcame and conquered ten thousand rebels who were combined for the purpose of disturbing the peace of my realm. According to the character I have received of Thomas Hickathrift and Henry Nonsuch, my two worthy guests here present, they cannot be matched in any other kingdom in the world. Were it possible to have an army of twenty thousand such as these, I dare venture to assert I would act the part of Alexander the Great over again. In the meanwhile, as a proof of my royal favour, kneel down, Thomas Hickathrift, and receive the ancient order of knighthood. And with respect to Henry Nonsuch, I will settle upon him, as a reward for his great services, the sum of forty shillings a year for life." After the delivery of this excellent address, the king retired, and Tom and Henry shortly afterwards took their departure, attended for many miles by a portion of the court.

               When Sir Thomas Hickathrift returned home, he found, to his great sorrow, that his mother had died during his stay at the court. It can scarcely be said that he was inconsolable for her loss, but being "left alone in a large and spacious house, he found himself strange and uncouth." He therefore began to consider whether it would not be advisable to seek out for a wife, and hearing of a wealthy young widow not far from Cambridge, he went and paid his addresses to her. At his first coming, she appeared to favour his suit, but, before he paid her a second visit, her fancy had been attracted by a more elegant wooer, and Sir Thomas actually found him at her feet. The young spark, relying on the lady's favour, was vehemently abusive to the knight, calling him a great lubberly whelp, a brewer's servant, and a person altogether unfitted to make love to a lady. Sir Thomas was not a likely man to allow such an affront to go unpunished, so going out in the courtyard with the dandy to settle the matter, he gave him a kick which sent him over the tops of the houses into a pond some distance off, where he would have been drowned, had not a poor shepherd, passing by, pulled him out with his crook.

               The gallant studied every means of being revenged upon the knight, and for this purpose engaged two troopers to lie in ambush for him. Tom, however, according to the story, "crushed them like cucumbers." [2] Even when he was going to church with his bride to be married, he was set upon by one-and-twenty ruffians in armour; but, borrowing a back-sword from one of the company, he laid about him with such dexterity, that, purposely desiring not to kill any one, at every blow he chopped off a leg or an arm, the ground being strewed with the relics, "as it is with tiles from the tops of the houses after a dreadful storm." His intended and friends were mightily amused at all this, and the fair one jokingly observed, "What a splendid lot of cripples he has made in the twinkling of an eye!" Sir Thomas only received a slight scratch, and he consoled himself for the trifling misfortune by the conviction he had only lost a drop of blood for every limb he had chopped off.

               The marriage ceremony took place without any further adventure, and Sir Thomas gave a great feast on the occasion, to which all the poor widows for miles round were invited in honour of his deceased mother, and it lasted for four days, in memory of the four last victories he had obtained. The only occurrence at this feast worth mentioning was the theft of a silver cup, which was traced to the possession of an old woman of the name of Stumbelup, [3] and the others were so disgusted at her ingratitude to their kind host, that she would have been hanged on the spot, had not Sir Thomas interfered, and undertook the appointment of the punishment. Nor was it otherwise than comical, for she was condemned to be drawn through all the streets and lanes of Cambridge on a wheelbarrow, holding a placard in her hands, which informed the public,—

I am the naughty Stumbelup,       
Who tried to steal the silver cup.

               The news of Tom's wedding soon reached the court, and the king, remembering his eminent services, immediately invited him and his lady, who visited their sovereign immediately, and were received by him most affectionately. While they were on this visit, intelligence arrived that an extraordinary invasion had taken place in the county of Kent. A huge giant riding on a dragon, and accompanied with a large number of bears and lions, had landed on the coast of that unfortunate county, and was ravaging it in all directions. The king, says the history, was "a little startled," and well he might be, at such a visitation; but, taking advantage of the opportune presence of Tom Hickathrift, he solved the difficulty by creating him governor of the Isle of Thanet, [4] and thus making him responsible for the protection of the inhabitants from this terrible monster.

               There was a castle in the island, from which the country was visible for miles round, and this was the governor's abode. He had not been there long before he caught a view of the giant, who is described as "mounted upon a dreadful dragon, with an iron club upon his shoulders, having but one eye, the which was placed in his forehead; this eye was larger in compass than a barber's bason, and appeared like a flame of fire; his visage was dreadful to behold, grim and tawny; the hair of his head hung down his back and shoulders like snakes of an enormous length; and the bristles of his beard were like rusty wire!" It is difficult to imagine a being more terrible than this, but Tom was only surprised, not frightened, when he saw one day the giant making his way to the castle on his formidable dragon. After he had well viewed the edifice with his glaring eye, he tied the dragon up to a tree, and went up to the castle as if he had intended to thrust it down with his shoulder. But somehow or other he managed to slip down, so that he could not extricate himself, and Tom, advancing with his two-handed sword, cut off the giant's head at one blow, and the dragon's at four, and sent them up in a "waggon" to the court of his sovereign.

               The news of Tom's victories reached the ears of his old companion, the tinker, who became desirous of sharing in his glory, and accordingly joined him at his castle. After mutual congratulations, Tom informed him of his wish to destroy, without delay, the beasts of prey that infested the island. They started for this purpose in company, Tom armed with his two-handed sword, and the tinker with his long pikestaff. After they had travelled about four or five hours, it was their fortune to meet with the whole knot of wild beasts together, being in number fourteen, six bears and eight lions. The two heroes waited for them with their backs against a tree, and whenever they came "within cutting distance" they cut their heads off, and in this manner killed all but one lion, who, unfortunately, by an inconsiderate movement on the part of Tom, crushed the poor tinker to death. The animal was, however, ultimately slain by Sir Thomas.

               Sir Thomas Hickathrift had killed the giants, dragon, and lions, and he had conquered the rebels, but his happiness was by no means completed, for he was inconsolate for the loss of his friend. He, however, returned home to his lady, and made a grand feast in commemoration of his important victories. The history terminates with the following brilliant metrical speech he made on this festive occasion:

My friends, while I have strength to stand,         
     Most manfully I will pursue       
All dangers, till I clear this land         
     Of lions, bears, and tigers, too.

This you'll find true, or I'm to blame,         
     Let it remain upon record,—       
Tom Hickathrift's most glorious fame,         
     Who never yet has broke his word!


Tom Hickathrift belongs to the same series as Jack the Giant-killer, one of the popular corruptions of old northern romances. It seems to allude to some of the insurrections in the Isle of Ely, such as that of Hereward, described in Wright's Essays, ii. 91. Spelman, however, describes a tradition, which he says was credited by the inhabitants of Tylney, in which Hickifric appears as the assertor of the rights of their ancestors, and the means he employed on the occasion correspond with incidents in the following tale. The entire passage is worth transcription. "In Marslandia sitæ sunt Walsoka, Waltona, et Walpola. In viciniis jacent Terrington et St. Maries—adjacet Tylney veteris utique Tylneiorum familiæ radix. Hic se expandit insignis area quæ a planicie nuncupatur Tylney Smeeth, pinguis adeo et luxurians ut Paduana pascua videatur superasse. Tuentur eam indigenæ velut aras et focos, fabellamque recitant longa petitam vetustate de Hickifrico (nescio quo) Haii illius instar in Scotorum Chronicis qui civium suorum dedignatus fuga, aratrum quod agebat solvit; arreptoque temone furibundus insiliit in hostes victoriamque ademit exultantibus. Sic cum de agri istius possessione acriter olim dimicatum esset, inter fundi dominum et villarum incolas, nec valerent hi adversus eum consistere, redeuntibus occurrit Hickifrickus, axemque excutiens a curru quem agebat, eo vice gladii usus; rota, clypei; invasores repulit ad ipsos quibus nunc funguntur terminos. Ostendunt in coemeterio Tilniensi sepulchrum sui pugilis, axem cum rota insculptum exhibens."—Icenia, Descriptio Norfolciæ, p. 138. Hearne mentions this gravestone, and perhaps some Norfolk topographer will tell us if it now exists.


[1] In the original it is lent the giant, the term lent being old English or Saxon for gave. The expression sufficiently proves the antiquity of the version.

[2] The author is not very particular in his similes, but this appears to be quite peculiar to this history.

[3] This incident has been slightly altered, the original narrative being of a nature that will not bear an exact transcription.

[4] In the heading of the chapter in the original it is East Angles, now called the Isle of Thanet, an error which favours the supposition of the story having been adapted from a much older original.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Tom Hickathrift
Tale Author/Editor: Halliwell, James Orchard
Book Title: Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales
Book Author/Editor: Halliwell, James Orchard
Publisher: John Russell Smith
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1849
Country of Origin: England
Classification: ATU 650A: Strong John

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