Weird Norfolk: A giant, an ogre and a legend that has survived for centuries

Tilney All Saints village sign. Picture: Ian Burt

Tilney All Saints village sign. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

When the giant from the marshes met the ogre from the Fens, the ensuing battle was brutal and bloody and led to the creation of a legend passed down by families for hundreds of years.

The grave of Tom Hickathrift inside the grounds of All Saints Church at Tilney All Saints. Picture:

The grave of Tom Hickathrift inside the grounds of All Saints Church at Tilney All Saints. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

He was the marshland giant who battled the Ogre of Smeeth and who chose his final resting place by hurling a stone football.

The story of Tom Hickathrift stretches back through English folklore to before the Puritan times when many such tales were lost – first written down in the 1631, it was passed down through generations via chapbooks, little paper pamphlets sold by travelling peddlers for a penny or sixpence.

It is believed the story, shown on Marshland St James' village sign, is based in fact and that Tom may well have been a real person, possibly one who lived before the Norman invasion, when locals were arguing with new lords of the manors who were riding roughshod over the rights of the people to use common land.

During the fight, Tom Hickifric, who was outlandishly and unusually tall, took a cart-wheel as a shield and an axle for a sword to help fight off the overlords - in the words of John Weever, who recounted the tale in Ancient Funerall Monuments of 1631: '…perceiving that his neighbours were faint-hearted and ready to take flight, he shooke the Axell-tree from the cart, which he used instead of a sword and tooke one of the cart wheeles which he held as a buckler; with these weapons…he set upon the…adversaries of the Common, encouraged his neighbours to go forward, and fight valiantly in defence of their liberties.'

The grave cover from Hickathrift's grave, inside All Saints Church at Tilney All Saints. Picture: Ia

The grave cover from Hickathrift's grave, inside All Saints Church at Tilney All Saints. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant


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Over time, the story was embroidered: Tom became a giant and the invaders became an ogre who lived in the dangerous boggy marshland of Smeeth, the area of land between Wisbech and King's Lynn which historically belonged to the Seven Towns of the Marshland, Clenchwarton, Emneth, Terrington, Tilney, Walpole, Walsoken and West Walton.

In a chapbook printed between 1660 and 1690, The History of Thomas Hickathrift tells how Tom would drive his brewer's cart between King's Lynn and Wisbech but, because of a fierce and man-eating ogre that lived in the Marshland, had to make a long detour.

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Tired of elongating his journey, Tom decided to risk the shorter route and thus incurred the ire of the ogre, who raced to block his path, bellowing: 'Do you not see how many heads hang upon yonder tree that have offended my law? But thy head shall hang higher than all the rest for an example!'

Tom gave the ogre a rude answer which sent him running to his lair to find his club, upon which Tom fought the 12-foot beast with the axle and wheel-shield, finally triumphing and slicing off his head, becoming a hero and eventually being knighted for his bravery.

The second 'Hicklethrift Candlestick' outside the south porch of All Saints Church at Tilney All Sai

The second 'Hicklethrift Candlestick' outside the south porch of All Saints Church at Tilney All Saints. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

Both tales survived until the beginning of the 20th century until the more thrilling ogre story took prominence.

Many tales surround Tom, from him choosing the spot where he was buried by hurling a stone boulder like a football (his gravestone bears his heraldic emblem, a circle with a line over it which symbolises the axle and wheel he used to kill the dreadful ogre) to him moving the tower away from the church in West Walton.

Some say he became rich from treasure he took from the ogre's lair and that he shared his wealth with villagers, another that a tinker challenged him to a competition whereby he had to dance with a broom – the tinker won and the pair became firm friends and are shown together on the back of the Marshland St James sign.

Damage at Walpole St Peter's church is said to have been caused by a game of football held between Satan and Tom and a carving outside the church is said to be Hickathrift and remnants of a cross found in Tom Hickathrift's Washbowl, a hollow close to what is now Hickathrift's Field, are said to be the giant's candlesticks, two of which can be found at Tilney All Saints' churchyard while another forms the base of the village sign.

A carving on St Peter's Church at Walpole St Peter that is said to be of Tom Hickathrift. Picture: I

A carving on St Peter's Church at Walpole St Peter that is said to be of Tom Hickathrift. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

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