Four limericks and a carving

Charles Lutwidge Dodgsonlater known as Lewis Carroll, wrote his first limericks in 1845, aged thirteen, a year before Edward Lear popularized the form in A Book of Nonsense. Dodgson’s precocious compositions were included in “Useful and Instructive Poetry”, the first of a series of family magazines that he produced for the entertainment of his brothers and sisters over a period of ten years. Here are two examples:

There was once a young man of Oporta

Who daily grew shorter and shorter,

The reason he said

Was the hod on his head,

Which was filled with the heaviest mortar.


His sister named Lucy O’Finner,

Grew constantly thinner and thinner,

The reason was plain,

She slip out in the rain,

And was never allowed any dinner.

Only five limericks composed by Dodgson as an adult have survived. One was included in a letter to Véra Beringer, a young actress on holiday on the Isle of Man, saucily playing on the phrase “I love man”, and has been widely reproduced since; but the other four have never before been published, having apparently been overlooked. They are contained in an unpublished journal kept by Dodgson’s lifelong friend and colleague at Christ Church, Oxford, Thomas Vere Bayne (1829–1908).

Dodgson, the oldest boy in a family of eleven, grew up in the rural isolation of Daresbury, Cheshire, where his father was the rector. Bayne, the son of the headmaster of nearby Warrington Grammar School, was one of his few regular companions of a similar age. Bayne enrolled at Christ Church in 1848 and his surviving journals span the years 1886 to 1900. Most entries consist of inconsequential observations about the weather, or unremarkable walks or meals with colleagues and friends, but tucked away at the back of one volume are the four limericks, “written by CLD in or about 1856”.

All four limericks are in Bayne’s hand and refer to identifiable Christ Church contemporaries, though the names were tactfully omitted in the original:

There was a Greek Reader named [Stokes]

Who indulged in the mildest of jokes:

But they had not a bit

Of the genuine wit,

So he had to enforce them by pokes.

Edward Stocksc1823–63.) was a Christ Church don until 1860, by which time he had been appointed as the vicar of Staines, where he remained until his death.

There was a queer Censor named [Gordon]

A gaunt, haggard, wild sort of raw Don.

With the look of a monk

Who has been very drunk,

If he had but a sack cloth and cord on.

Osborne Gordon (c.1814–1883) was a Christ Church don until 1861, then rector of Easthampstead, Berkshire. At the end of his first two terms as an undergraduate, Dodgson wrote to his sister Elizabeth on June 24, 1852 that, after a conversation with Gordon, he had concluded that “25 hours’ hard work a day may get me through all I have to do, but I am not certain”. In 1864 Gordon was one of twenty-one intended recipients of presentation copies of the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Bayne was another.

There once was a Censor named [Marshall].

Whose success in explaining was partial;

For no man ever knew

What he thought false or true

So obscure in expression was [Marshall].

George Marshall (1817–97) was a Christ Church don until 1857, then vicar of Pyrton and Milton in Oxfordshire. Dodgson seems to have remained on good terms with him, and there were occasional encounters between the men until shortly before Marshall’s death.

An unfortunate Tutor named [Prout]

Never knew what he lectured about;

When they said “What’s that word?”

He seemed not to have heard,

But in Liddell and Scott looked it out.

“Liddell and Scott” refers to the authoritative Greek–English lexicon published by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott in 1843. Liddell was the father of Alice, whose childhood boat trip with Dodgson on July 4, 1862, led to the writing of the Alice books; “Alice’s Day” is still celebrated in Oxford every year on the first Saturday of July. Thomas Jones Prout (1823–1909) was and remained a genuine friend to Dodgson. His habit of dozing off during long Christ Church governance meetings is thought to have inspired the character of the Dormouse at the Mad Tea-Party, a supposition supported by the Dormouse’s story of the treacle well. That well still exists in the churchyard of St Margaret’s at Binsey, two miles northwest of Oxford, where Prout was the vicar from 1857. The notion of a treacle well was intended to seem absurd, but is based on an early meaning of the word as a healing liquid or medicine (from the Greek thēriakē, or antidote). The belief in the curative qualities of the well’s waters stemmed from the legend that Oxford’s Saxon patron saint, Frideswide, summoned the spring and miraculously restored the sight of a blind man.

St Frideswide lies at the center of another interesting revelation in Thomas Vere Bayne’s journals: one that debunks a fifty-five-year-old Oxford myth. In Binsey’s sister church, St Frideswide, close to the River Thames at Osney in west Oxford, there is a finely carved, free-standing wooden door depicting a scene from the saint’s life, in which she embarks on a rowing boat on the Thames. The tradition has grown over the past century that this door was carved by Alice Liddell, and it is often referred to as “the Alice door”. It is a neatly attractive idea, given the treacle well connection and the fact that both churches have strong Christ Church associations. Alice – who had been taught by John Ruskin – did have some artistic talent, but Bayne’s journal establishes that the door was, in fact, carved by Alice’s younger sisters, Rhoda (1859–1949) and Violet (1864–1927).

In the entry for December 14, 1886, Bayne refers to “Rhoda Liddell’s excellent wood carving, a very handsome table, also a picture frame”. It was of sufficient quality for this ageing lifelong bachelor – the university’s prohibition of marriage had been lifted only in 1877 – to joke with her that “it would almost reconcile me to matrimony if I had a chance of such a gift!” Then, on December 6, 1890, after a “short walk with Dodgson”, Bayne enjoyed a “great afternoon tea at the Deanery, where are to be seen the panels carved for a door in St Frideswide’s, East End of London, by the Two Misses Liddell”. (Alice was no longer a “Miss”, it should be noted, and was at this time living in Hampshire as Mrs Reginald Hargreaves.)

The door is now at St Frideswide’s Church in Oxford, and its story is an interesting one. In 1881 a Christ Church committee that included Dean Liddell instigated the creation of a Mission Hall in the deprived London borough of Poplar. Before the end of the decade, sufficient funds had been raised to construct a new church, the foundation stone of which was laid on July 6, 1889, with the first service held a year later. In May 1891 the Oxford newspapers reported that the “carved oak door” was complete, and that “the lower panels are adapted from Italian designs and the top represents St Frideswide”.

The church was severely damaged during the Blitz in 1940, and later had to be demolished. The door somehow survived unscathed, and in 1947 it was sent back to Oxford, as recorded retrospectively in St Frideswide Church’s parish magazine of February 1967, in which the erroneous assertion that “Alice carved it” has misled many commentators ever since (including myself) . In Alice Through the Looking-Glass (1872), the Red Queen states that “When you’ve once said a thing, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences … it’s too late to correct it”. But in respect of the “Alice Door”, which should surely now be called the “Liddell Door”, we do have, fifty-five years later, a correction nevertheless.

Mark Daviesis an Oxford local historian, a guide and the author ofAlice in Waterland2010, andAlice’s Oxford on Foot2015

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