Nursery Rhymes: Not For Children?

Reading & Writing

You’ll guess I’m researching again when you read this.

Most nursery rhymes have a reason for their existence. They didn’t simply appear. Some are based on the sing-song two-note repetitive motion of rocking a baby, like ‘Cry Baby Bunting’. There are rarely words used with more than two syllables, and some are based on peels of church bells, which in the virtually silent rural Britain of yesteryear carried far and wide across the fields.

Lucy Locket, who lost her pocket, was a barmaid at the Cock Public House in Fleet Street. Kitty Fisher, also in the rhyme, was the legendary Mayfair courtesan (there’s still a restaurant named after her). It may be suggesting that the poor but honest barmaid earned no money while the prostitutes became wealthy. Possibly not a suitable subject for tinies?

‘Mary Mary Quite Contrary, how does your garden grow?’ has sinister connotations, for this was Mary Tudor, Bloody Mary, Katherine of Aragon’s daughter whose graveyards filled with Protestant martyrs.  The ‘silver bells and cockleshells’ were instruments of torture, and the ‘maids all in a row’ were beheading devices that prefigured the guillotine. How much of this is truly traceable is open to question. ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ is supposed to refer to Thomas Wolsey, while ‘dog’ and ‘bone’ refer to Henry VIII and the infamous divorce from Aragon.

It’s interesting that so many nursery rhymes stem from this period. Many were definitively collected for an 1806 book called ‘Rhymes for the Nursery’. Minstrels often spread messages of dissent from town to town by providing secret meanings in their ballads which could lead to plots and uprisings. In Saxon England professional storytellers called Scops did something similar. By the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, a huge number of monks and nuns were left destitute. They were run out of town after barking dogs alerted the residents to strangers in the area, hence ‘Hark, hark, the Dogs do Bark’.

Humpty Dumpty was not an animated egg but a very big cannon used during the English Civil War at Colchester. The cannon was knocked off its wall and proved too heavy to be put back together again. As a result, Colchester fell to the Parliamentarians after an 11-week siege.  And Three Blind Mice is thought to refer to the bishops Latimer, Cranmer and Radley, all burnt at the stake.

There are more famous rhymes we could go through here, like ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’, which means to pawn a coat, from the rhyming slang ‘Weasel and Stoat’, and references the Eagle pub, which is still there – and of course, ‘Ring Around the Roses’, which has gone from being a warning of the Great Plague to denial of same – and now back to its plague meaning once more, as newly uncovered evidence appears to prove that it was indeed coined around 1665.

For many more histories of nursery rhymes, not all of them very believable it must be admitted, try Linda Alchin’s ‘The Secret History of Nursery Rhymes’.

14 comments on “Nursery Rhymes: Not For Children?”

  1. akikana says:

    I assume you have stumbled across Iona and Peter Opie in your research?

    Additionally, this from Radio 4 may tangentially be of interest: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00017sj

  2. Brian Evans says:

    Anthony Newley did a jazzed up version of “Pop Goes the Weasel” which even by his standards was extremely irritating.

  3. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Pop Goes the Weasel always reminds me of the Mynah bird that lived in the local pet shop.
    It used to say ‘half a pound of tup’ and no matter how often staff and customers completed the phrase, the bird never did.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    My memory never provides citations but a book I read years ago said that the silver bells and cockleshells referred to abbey bells marking the hours and the shells pilgrims wore on their hats as they walked to Compostella. The pretty maids were Mary’s Spanish ladies who came to England with King Philip when Mary married.

    Hark, hark was from 1603 when James I and VI came to London to claim his throne and all the goodies thereunto appertaining. His Scottish lords wore the “rags and tags” and James had the velvet gown.

    I don’t remember the source for Jack and Jill but it has never made sense since you don’t seek water at the top of a hill.

    So the “farmer’s wife” who cut off the tails would be Queen Mary? The bishops were blind because they couldn’t see the truth?

    What is the reference for “Mother Hubbard” besides its rhyming with “cupboard”? There are other uses for that lady’s name in clothing.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Oh and another version of Jack and Jill turned up in the comic strip Over the Hedge:
    Jack and Jill went up the hill
    to seek better cell connection;
    Jack fell down and broke his phone
    so they couldn’t get direction.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    Or there’s the version of ‘Mary had a little lamb’, that was used by the great band ‘Half Man, Half Biscuit’:
    ‘Mary had a little lamb/
    The doctors were confounded/
    Everywhere that Mary went/
    Gynecologists surrounded.’

  7. Liz Thompson says:

    Mary had a little cow, She milked it with a spanner. The milk came out in shilling tins, And little ones a tanner.
    And yes, I’m afraid I am as old as that, and for the benefit of the younger readers, a tanner was sixpence.

  8. Eliz Amber says:

    One explanation posed by Wikipedia is that Jack was Wolsey and Jill the bishop who attempted to arrange the marriage of Mary Tudor.

    I also thought of Lady Jane Grey – going *up* the hill for water might symbolise the aspirations of John Dudley, with ‘Jill’ obviously ‘Jane’?

  9. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    My uncle tried to convince me that

    Little Jack Horner sat in the corner
    Eating his Christmas pie.
    He put in his thumb
    But instead of a plum
    He squirted the juice in his eye.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Cornelia, that one, of course, is Sir John Horner (I think) who was delivering deeds of gift to King Henry VIII’s courtiers. He lifted one deed out of the lot and gave himself his Christmas plum. I wonder if that’s where our use of the word plum for an unearned goodie originated.

  11. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Thank you!
    I wonder which of our topical songs will be nursery rhymes of the future.

  12. Peter Dixon says:

    There’s a hilarious book; ‘The Restoration of Cock Robin’ by Norman Iles published in 1989 which seriously attempts to explain that most nursery rhymes had a sexual connotation – ‘Goosey, goosey gander’ apparently describes a woman in a state of excitement looking for sex ‘upstairs and downstairs and in my lady’s chamber’. There she met an ‘old man’ ie a penis,
    who ‘wouldn’t say his prayers’ ie couldn’t get an erection – so she took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.

    I almost believed it until he got to ‘Pease Porridge hot’, (or as we would say Pease Pudding). He seems to link the peas with semen and speculates that ‘nine days old’ must be changed to ‘nine months old’ to describe pregnancy.

    ‘Ride A Cock Horse’ is fairly self explanatory!

    Iles clearly had no understanding that peas porridge was a fairly standard food for the poor in the 1700’s and, if life was particularly hard, could be eaten hot on one day, cold the next and topped up with peas and water for days on end if nothing else was available.

  13. Peter Dixon says:

    Oops, somehow the ‘Ride a Cock horse’ line ended up in the wrong place – it should come after the first paragraph.

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    So I guess we should skip Judge Dread’s take on Old mother Hubbard and other nursery rhymes.

    The end of Oranges and Lemons always intrigued me as they don’t appear in the original, so where did the candle and chopper come from?

    What did the book make of Wee Willie Winkie Peter?

    I was reading about London Bridge, Lady Gomme comes across as quite blood thirsty in her reasoning. The even tie in the river Lea, such a simple rhyme you would think it’s meaning would be simple and for most it is, but for those confounded conspiracy theorists of the past, or historians as we call them.

    Wayne

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