Tom Tiddler’s Ground – 1861 – A Christmas tale
Tom Tiddler’s Ground is the title of an 1861 short story by Charles Dickens.
The phrase Tom Tiddler’s Ground appears in his novels David Copperfield, Dombey and Son and Nicholas Nickleby,
Tommy Tiddler’s Ground, is an ancient children’s game in which one player, ‘Tom Tidler’, stands on a heap of stones or gravel, and the players rush onto the heap, crying ‘Here I am on Tom Tidler’s ground’, while Tom tries to deflect or capture the invaders.
A Traveller asks ‘Why Tom Tiddler’s ground?’ and the Landlord explains it was because Tom scattered halfpences, for Tramps and the like, and they collected them. The children’s game took on the name. The Landlord was of the Peal of Bells alehouse
They were talking of Mr Mopes, who the Landlord called a Hermit, and when pressed described him as ‘An abominably dirty thing’. He suggested he should be put on the treadmill whether he be found, ‘in a pillar, or in a hole; whether on Tom Tiddler’s ground, or the Pope of Rome’s ground, or a Hindoo fakeer’s ground, or any other ground’.
The Landlord added that ‘There ain’t a doubt but what he has got landed property’. The Traveller asked how far away it was and was told around five miles. The Traveller says he will go there after breakfast and he later left to find the ruined hermitage of Mr Mopes.
Mopes had gained great renown for dressing himself in a blanket, covering himself in soot, grease and other matter. He had even appeared in the London papers.
His neighbours exaggerated their tales of him. One tale was that he had murdered his beautiful beloved in a fit of jealousy. Or, he was doing pemnance following a fatal accident, or under the influence of religion. Or, he held a mighty and awful secret. Or, that he was enormously rich, he was stupendously charitable, was profoundly learned, saw spectres, he knew and could do all kinds of wonders.
They could not agree on his age, or how long he had been there, he was between twenty-five and sixty years old, he had been a hermit from between seven and thirty years.
The Traveller pressed on collecting these stories as he asked for directions, he finally came to Tom Tiddler’s Ground. He sees a Tinker lying on the ground and bids him good day. The Tinker says it is his first time there. He adds that someone told him that if he wanted to see Tom he should go in at the gate.
The Traveller went to the gate. He looked it at an unglazed window and saw the hermit. In the dark kitchen or scullery he saw him lying on a bank of soot and cinders. A table had a litter of old bottles on it and a rat made a clatter among them then ran across the hermit to its hole. Its tail stirred the Hermit and he sprang to the window,
The Traveller thought him ‘A compound of Newgate, Bedlam, a Debtors’ Prison in the worst time, a chimney-sweep, a mudlark, and the Noble Savage!
The Hermit said, ‘Vanity, vanity, vanity! Verily, all is vanity!’ then asked the Traveller, ‘What is your name, sir, and where do you come from?’
The Traveller supplied answers and the Hermit asked, ‘Did you come here, sir, to see me?’ He confirmed that he did, knowing he liked to be seen. The Hermit said, ‘Then you have come to ask me why I lead this life. I never tell that to any human being.’ The Traveller said, ‘You will not be asked that by me, for I have not the slightest desire to know.’
The Hermit said, ‘You are an uncouth man.’ The Traveller said ‘You are another.’, Mr Mopes said, ‘Why do you come here at all?’ and the Traveller replied ‘I was made to ask myself that very question only a few minutes ago – by a Tinker!’ He added, ‘The Tinker won’t come in; for he says “What should I come in for? I can see a dirty man anywhere”.’
Mr Mopes states, ‘You are an insolent person. Go away from my premises.’ and returned to the floor, and refused to talk. But after a short silence returned to the window and said, ‘What? You are not gone?’
He orders the Traveller to leave . They argue about whether he is a nuisance, he says he has a gun. The Travller suggests he is displaying weakness, he is a young man and can change for the better.
Mr Mopes says. ‘I am justified in my purpose by the conversations I hold here; not a day passes but I am shown, by everything I hear and see here, how right and strong I am in holding my purpose.’
The Traveller lit his pipe and the Hermit said he did not like tobacco. The Traveller responded that he didn’t like dirt. He adds ‘I will stay here with my pipe to show you what a poor creature you are. The Hermit opined ‘You are arrogant and boastful.
The Traveller states his philosophy is that, ‘We must arise and wash our faces and do our gregarious work and act and re-act on one another, leaving only the idiot and the palsied to sit blinking in the corner.’ The Hermit bounced back and forth to his bed, but then resigned himself to the inevitability that the Traveller would not leave.
A young girl arrived and was startled by the Hermit, asking does it bite? The Traveller replied no, just bark. The Traveller looks at the Hemit, content in his victory.
The girl, Kitty Kimmeens, was from a nearby school, Miss Pupford’s College. The other pupils left to go home for the holidays, Kitty remained at the school, with her only companion being Bella, a housemaid.
Bella says her brother is ill, but she can’t go to him. Kitty urges her to go, she will be alright on her own. Left in the house Kitty decided to look all over it. She tried to engage herself with stitching. She thought about reading, but this did not engage her for long. She decided to put her room to rights but began to imagine the furniture as monsters. And so, she arrived at Tom Tiddler’s ground.
The Traveller described, ‘Miss Kimmeens is not a professed philosopher, sir,’ presenting her at the barred window, ‘but I apprehend there was some tincture of philosophy in her words, and in the prompt action with which she followed them. That action was, to emerge from her unnatural solitude, and look abroad for wholesome sympathy, to bestow and to receive.
‘Her footsteps strayed to this gate, bringing her here by chance, as an apposite contrast to you. The child came out, sir. If you have the wisdom to learn from a child, you cannot do better than imitate the child, and come out too- from that very demoralising hutch of yours.’
The sunset began, The Traveller took Miss Kimmeens by the hand and went to see the Tinker, who was working on some pot or kettle. They shake hands and the Tinker says to be careful the black comes off. The Traveller comments that he has been spending time with a black that does not come off.
The Tinker surmised he meant Tom. They convinced the Tinker that Tom was asleep and that he should take a look. He says that Tom is worse than he thought. The Traveller tells the Tinker what he has been doing, and the Tinker says you have wasted a day.
The three agree to leave, they will drop Kitty off at the school on their way, and then have supper at the Peal of Bells.
The Tinker provides the moral to the tale, he said ‘in his trade that metal that rotted for want of use, had better be left to rot, and couldn’t rot too soon, considering how much true metal rotted from over-use and hard service’.
Mopes, Mr (Hermit)