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Darby and Joan

Q From Peter G. Millington-Wallace, Denmark: Who were Darby and Joan? My dictionary tells me that they were ‘a devoted old couple, characters in a poem’, but did they actually exist or were they fictional? I’m assuming their devotion was to each other (as opposed to a religion or building model aeroplanes), but does this mean that a Darby and Joan club is about old couples, or merely, as I have always assumed, about old people?

A In the UK, Darby and Joan is still a way to describe an elderly and mutually devoted married couple who live a placid and uneventful life, often in humble circumstances. There are many Darby and Joan Clubs, so named, in various parts of the country, social clubs for pensioners, which hold dances and other events. The name is indeed strictly a misnomer, since the clubs are for all pensioners, not only married couples. The term has long been used to evoke an image of companionship in old age, as Henry James did in The Golden Bowl, “Their very silence might have been the mark of something grave — their silence eked out for her by his giving her his arm and their then crawling up their steps quite mildly and unitedly together, like some old Darby and Joan who have had a disappointment.”

Many modern references are linked to a once-popular song of 1890, words by Frederic Weatherly and music by James Molloy, whose title was Darby and Joan, a song supposedly sung by Joan:

Darby dear we are old and grey,
Fifty years since our wedding day.
Shadow and sun for every one,
as the years roll by.

(Incidentally, it was once quite usual for wives to refer to their husbands by their surnames, even in private.)

But the expression is certainly older than that — it turns up in the middle of the nineteenth century in works by Thackeray, Melville and Trollope. An advertisement in the Times on 1 February 1802 announced that a “comic divertisement” entitled Darby and Joan; or The Dwarf was being performed at the Royalty Theatre, London; there was a new dance of the same title, which was “received with loud and general plaudits”, according to the issue of the same newspaper dated 26 May the previous year; in June 1801 the newspaper reports that a ballet of that title was being performed. So by 1800, the phrase was already widespread.

But we must go even further back: in the Literary Magazine in 1756, Samuel Johnson mentions a ballad about Darby and Joan. This is almost certainly the anonymous one that appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine in March 1735. It had the title The Joys of Love never forgot. A Song; one verse reads “Old Darby, with Joan by his side, You’ve often regarded with wonder: He’s dropsical, she is sore-eyed, Yet they’re never happy asunder.” The Oxford English Dictionary describes these verses as “mediocre” and comments, “This has usually been considered the source of the names, and various conjectures have been made, both as to the author, and as to the identity of ‘Darby and Joan’, but with no valid results.”

It has been claimed that the author was Henry Woodfall, the eldest of three generations of printers with the same name who worked in London. He was apprenticed to John Darby, a printer who lived in Bartholomew Close with his wife Joan, who was equally active in the business. John Darby’s date of death is variously given in the Dictionary of National Biography as 1704 and 1730 (the latter, in the article on the youngest and best-known Henry Woodfall, may be assumed to be an error). The DNB used to claim that Woodfall wrote the ballad to commemorate his late employer and his wife. However, the claim does not appear in the revised edition online and the connection seems not so clear-cut as once thought. Certainly, if Darby did died in 1704 the stimulus to publish a eulogistic memorial would have long dissipated by 1735.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 1 May 2004
Last updated: 17 Apr. 2007

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-dar1.htm
Last modified: 17 April 2007.