Tom Hickathrift and the Ogre of the Smeeth - origins
What was the Smeeth?
The marshy area of the Smeeth
The Smeeth is an area of land between Wisbech and King's Lynn. At the time of the story, it was a wild area made up of 1572 acres of boggy marshland. To the south, Fenland surrounded it with reeds and large pools of water.
From very early times, the area was common land and belonged to the Seven Towns of the Marshland: Emneth, Walsoken, West Walton, Walpole, Terrington, Tilney and Clenchwarton.
The legend says that the Smeeth was once an area where you did not dare to go. This legend probably comes from very old times, before people wrote things down, when the boggy Smeeth would have been a dangerous area to travel in.
Did Tom Hickathrift really exist?
Tom as shown on the Tilney village sign
Tom may have been based on a real person. Locals believe that the story happened before the Norman Invasion. The local people had an argument with some new lords of the manors who were coming in, and who were not respecting the rights of the people to use the common land. During the fight, Tom Hickifric, a local person, who was very, very big, took a cart-wheel for a shield and an axle for a sword and helped fight off the overlords or invaders.
Over time, as with many stories, the story grew and took some ideas from folk tales and Tom became a giant and the invaders became an ogre living in the dangerous marshland. However, parts of the legend could be very old as his name could have been a corruption of Haccafrith, a deity worshiped by the Iceni.
In real life, Tom was probably not a giant - just very tall. There is a rumour that he is buried in the churchyard at Tilney All Saints (although there is no proof that the grave is Tom's). The stone covering the grave is about 8 feet long and, although the story says Tom had to be bent double to fit in, he was probably about 7 feet tall.
What is the Smeeth like today?
The Smeeth today
However true the story is, we know that the villagers kept their rights to the area of the Smeeth for many years and the area became a famous summer grazing ground. In the time of James I, a courtier told the king, 'that if overnight a rod was laid on the ground, by the morning it would be covered with grass of that night's growth'.
The area, however, still had its dangers. It had a lot of bad flooding and several times (in 1613, 1614 and 1617) the sea flowed over the Marshland, putting people's lives and property into danger.
After the enclosure laws of 1796, in the early to mid 1800's, the Smeeth, and the fen around it, was drained and divided up between the people who owned the common-rights. From this time, the Smeeth changed into what we see now. Today the Smeeth is an area of good arable land.
How did the story become known?
An example of a Chapbook
This story is based on a folktale. You can find similar folktales in other places. It is thought that travellers, or people moving to new areas, passed on the stories and they became part of the culture, often using local heroes or events.
The characters in this tale can be found in many folktales: the wicked ogre, the giant and the, not very bright, person who, even so, wins out in the end. Folktales often have a moral. In this story, success and wealth only comes to Tom when he stops being lazy and starts to work.
This story is just one of many told about Tom. It is one of the few English folktales to live on past the Puritan times, when some people thought it was wrong to tell stories. It was first written down between 1700-1800, along with other English folktales, such as Jack the Giant-Killer, in what were known as Chapbooks - little paper books sold by people called chapmen, or travelling peddlers, who went from village to village.
These little storybooks were usually sold for a penny or sixpence. They were very popular until the mid 19th century. Then lots more books were published. Some of these were English translations of European fairy stories, which became more popular than the British folk tales. Another version of Tom Hickathrift was printed in 1847 and Joseph Jacobs also included the story in his book, More English Fairy Tales, published in the early 20th Century.