The Origin of "Hickory, Dickory, Dock"


"Hickory, dickory, dock.

The mouse ran up the clock.

The clock struck one,

The mouse ran down,

Hickory, dickory, dock."

Alana Mice


 Growing up, most people have probably heard some version of this nursery rhyme. But most people—like me—probably never knew the origin of it. As kids, we sing many rhymes like this without knowing what they mean (I can’t remember what age I was when someone told me what Ring Around the Rosie was actually about). Yet they remain a part of our culture as we then go on to sing them to our own children. One of the incredible things as adults, then, is the ability to contextualize these rhymes by learning more about where they came from. So nursery rhymes, like other forms of folklore, not only permeate throughout the culture from one generation to the next, they also serve as an expression of the history of that culture.

In the case of “Hickory, Dickory, Dock”, the rhyme expresses a part of history associated with a famous Devon site—the Exeter Cathedral. One of the many noteworthy parts of the cathedral is its large astronomical clock. The clock, explains the placard in front of it, dates back to the fifteenth century but was restored so that it still works today. It shows not only the hour, but also the age of the moon on any given day. However, while the design of the clock is fascinating, it is not the focus of the nursery rhyme.

According to an employee at the cathedral, in order to ensure that the clock would function, the clergy needed a method of keeping mice and rats from running up and down the clock ropes. So they built a cat door just below the clock, pictured to the left, in which one of the preacher’s cats could enter to scare away any rodents. When this story was circulated and people understood the purpose of the cat door (and why it was needed in the first place), it reputedly brought rise to the nursery rhyme.

During my visit to the cathedral, I didn’t notice any cats near the clock. But who knows, if you go perhaps you’ll see if animals are still being employed by the cathedral.