Five London Nursery Rhymes Depicting Death And Ruin

Detail from Panorama of London, Claes Van Visscher, 1616, showing old London Bridge. Do nursery rhymes suggest human bodies were built into the old structure?

Detail from Panorama of London, Claes Van Visscher, 1616, showing old London Bridge. Do nursery rhymes suggest human bodies were built into the structure?

These days, centuries-old nursery rhymes about London are passed down from parent to child with less consistency and less accuracy. Today, these rhymes feel more like media commodities, propagated in Disney pastels, and it often comes as a surprise to those who delve into the lyrics that they can depict a world full full of death and disaster. Take this classic, probably of 17th-century origin:

Ring-a-ring-a-roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

Remove those ring-a-rosy-tinted spectacles, for Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses is all about the Great Plague; the apparent whimsy being a foil for one of London’s most atavistic dreads (thanks to the Black Death). The fatalism of the rhyme is brutal: the roses are a euphemism for deadly rashes, the posies a supposed preventative measure; the a-tishoos pertain to sneezing symptoms, and the implication of everyone falling down is, well, death.

Historical London is often portrayed as a miasma of sewage and depravity, and children’s exposure to death back then could put into perspective the rhetoric of any modern tabloid campaign against violent video games. Consider Oranges and Lemons:

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.
You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.
When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.
When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.
When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.
I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.
Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head,
Chop, chop, chop, chop, the last man’s dead!

This old tune proffers a simple story of money-borrowing, debt and a criminal’s execution. The condemned were often led through London’s streets to the sound of tolling bells and, doubtless, braying crowds which perhaps included children chanting this very ditty. The inescapable tragic cycle of poverty within a gossipy, hyper-moralistic London is enforced by a repetitive melody, and the same is true of the more upbeat-sounding Pop! Goes the Weasel:

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.

Up and down the City Road,
In and out the Eagle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.

Although its date of origin is unclear, Pop! Goes the Weasel has its geographical roots clearly in London. The City Road and Eagle pub are identifiable landmarks, and it’s believed that the rhyme uses traditional rhyming slang — ‘weasel’ being Cockney shorthand for ‘weasel and stoat’, which means ‘coat’. ‘Pop’ is a colloquial term for pawning, so the first verse suggests the gaining of food money by trading in a coat. Though it lacks the strongly macabre overtones of Oranges and Lemons, this nursery rhyme still versifies a harrowing dilemma: the choice between eating and heating.

An alternative version of the latter has been interpreted as a satirical take on Henry VIII’s habit of decapitating his wives, which would make it a piece of jet-black satire of the ilk of Three Blind Mice:

Three blind mice, three blind mice.
See how they run, see how they run.
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife.
Did you ever see such a sight in your life,
As three blind mice?

This tune is said to have alluded to Mary I’s persecution of three priests in the 1500s, including Bishop of London Nicholas Ridley. The men’s Anglicanism had rendered them proverbially ‘blind’, and they were martyred before a big crowd.

Dead bodies are one thing, and the terrifying prospect of the fabric of the city crumbling to pieces quite another. This has nevertheless been an image presented to London’s children at certain historic junctures — during the Great Fire, for instance. Our final specimen is London Bridge is Falling Down — which narrates either gradual wear and tear or a Viking raid, depending on which school of thought you subscribe to.

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.

Build it up with wood and clay,
Wood and clay, wood and clay,
Build it up with wood and clay,
My fair lady.

Wood and clay will wash away,
Wash away, wash away,
Wood and clay will wash away,
My fair lady.

And so on: there are verses upon verses, each suggesting then dismissing different materials for rebuilding the bridge. As the main conduit from historic, walled London into the outlying Borough, the bridge was instrumental in the city’s development, and its apparent fragility was doubly concerning because people actually lived on it. When one of the later verses suggests ‘setting a man to watch all night’ we enter the shadowy realm of superstition. Some scholars argue that ‘setting a man’ refers to a medieval ritual of burying human bodies in walls to fortify them.

It’s become fashionable to see these tunes as ‘dark’ and horrifying, but weren’t their morbid physicality and interest in social ruin also an effective means of teaching the city’s generally-unschooled children about life and death — about basic hygiene, say, or due financial diligence? Doubtless the youth of bygone London grew up faster than that of 2014. In the 1600s, perhaps three in five would die before age 16. Back then, parental guidance meant introducing children to the world’s cruelties as directly as possible.

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  • jock123

    The urban legend that “Ring-a-ring-a-roses” is about the plague has long been debunked – it *doesn’t* describe the bubonic plague particularly well (it completely misses the buboes, for example), there are too many other versions circulating to make the current words a primary source, and the whole thing was a mid-20th C. reading without any supporting evidence.

  • Lep Recorn

    An alternative take on ‘weasel’ was that it was mold tha hatters used to form felt hats on. However they often suffered from mercury poisoning, which caused them to go mad & lose their teeth. Hence rice & treacle that can be sucked rather than chewed. (Why else should such an odd combination be chosen.)

    This interpretation is illustrated inside ‘The Mad Hatter’ pub in Southwark.

  • Steven Wilsher

    “It’s become fashionable to see these tunes as ‘dark’ and horrifying, but
    weren’t their morbid physicality and interest in social ruin also an
    effective means of teaching the city’s generally-unschooled children
    about life and death — about basic hygiene, say, or due financial
    diligence?”

    No. Because even poor people understand things like death and washing without the need for rhyming.

  • Oh Dave

    Peter, Peter pumpkin eater
    Had a wife but couldn’t keep her
    Put her in a pumpkin shell
    And there he kept her very well

    This sounds like an unfaithful wife met an unhappy end. I always wondered how she fit in a pumpkin shell.

  • vanessa

    any modern examples?

  • Jill Leman

    That’s the whole point of Nursery Rhymes isn’t it – you learn them and then later you get what they’re really about? I’m trying to think of others – Mary, Mary Quite Contrary – Little Bo – Peep etc – Baa Baa Black Sheep – they are all amazing.

  • Divinyl

    Mary, Mary is said to refer to Bloody Mary – ‘quite contrary’ to the prevailing religious climate. Silver bells and cockleshells are both strong symbols of the Roman Catholic mass, but her ‘pretty maids’ were allegedly iron maidens or torture devices!