Why Is A Panto Character Buried In This London Churchyard?

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 10 months ago
Why Is A Panto Character Buried In This London Churchyard?

This scene, on Seething Lane, often forces a double take:

Photo: shadow_in_the_water

Nope, not the skulls above the archway leading into the graveyard of St Olave Hart Street (menacing though they are). It's the initially inconspicuous blue board to the right hand side. You pause. You frown. You pivot back and take another gander. You weren't imagining things; it really does claim that Mother Goose is buried here (in the same ballpark as the bones of ye olde blogger Samuel Pepys):

Photo: shadow_in_the_water

The odd memorial is backed-up by the church's burial register inside, which confirms Mother Goose's death on 14 September 1586. A few lines down suggests an equally fictional-sounding character, Jerom Vande Earbriggen. But let's not get sidetracked.

From Archive.com

So who was Mother Goose? Was she really a 16th century Londoner? This is where things get murky.

The first appearance of Mother Goose on the London stage was probably in the 1806 production, Harlequin and Mother Goose; or, the Golden Egg. It's not clear who debuted the Mother Goose character, but clowning legend Joseph Grimaldi played the Clown. The pantomime was a roaring success, running for 92 nights. A snooty Grimaldi remarked it was 'one of the worst pantomimes he had ever played'. Anyway, it's safe to assume the Mother Goose at St Olave wasn't a panto actor best remembered for that role, because that would leave us over 200 years out.

One of London's most famous (and apparently terrifying) Mother Geese, Dan Leno.

Further back, the origins of Mother Goose and her golden egg are positively scrambled. Was she an 8th century French queen known as 'Goose-foot Bertha'? Was she the creation of Jean Loret in 1650's La Muse Historique? Is the real 'Mother Goose' actually buried in Boston, USA? (the answer to this one is negative).

The Development of Mother Goose in Britain in the 19th Century claims it was Charles Perrault's 1697 book Histoires ou contes du temps passé, or, Les Contes de ma Mère l'Oye, which popularised the character (Mère l'Oye translates from old French as Mother Goose).

Here is Mère l'Oye (literally) spinning a yarn in the frontispiece of Perrault's book:

But none of the above appear to have any direct link with our 16th century Londoner Mother Goose. The truth is no-one really knows who the Mother Goose of St Olave Hart Street is. And maybe whoever recorded her name in the register didn't either. The name Mother Goose was likely also applied to "everywomen". In which case, our Mother Goose could well have been just another Londoner going about her business, somewhere becoming anonymous along the way.

Little did she know she'd wind up part of the the biggest name-related kerfuffle since Spartacus.

Roy Hudd appear in the 2016 panto of Mother Goose at Wilton's Music Hall. Hudd is still alive, so we can safely assume it's not him buried at St Olave.

One other theory: we've noticed that the 'm' in mother is lower case (as are 'childe', 'souldier' and 'stranger' on the same page of the register). To us, this suggests the deceased could simply have been a mother with the surname 'Goose'. That's our two cents anyway. But maybe this eggs-ordinary case will never be cracked.

Last Updated 16 January 2017