Who Was The Muffin Man Who Lived On Drury Lane?

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By M@
Who Was The Muffin Man Who Lived On Drury Lane?
A faintly painted muffin man carries a wicker basket full of baked goods. In the background, well-to-do ladies look out of a window.
A traditional muffin man, painted by Paul Sandby around 1759.

In search of London's famous folkloric baker.

Do you know the muffin man,
The muffin man, the muffin man?
Do you know the muffin man,
Who lives on Drury Lane?

It's a song known throughout the English-speaking world, with many regional variations. It featured prominently in the first two Shrek films. It namechecks a very real London street (Drury Lane). But who was the legendary muffin man?

Where does the song come from?

Was the muffin man simply a playground nonsense song, or is there something more to it? Nobody is really sure, but the clues point towards its origins on the early 19th century stage.

The earliest written record of the nursery rhyme is from a manuscript of 1820 — or, at least, it is if you believe every online account that has rewritten Wikipedia. Actually, the song can be readily traced a year earlier.

A quick search in Google Books throws up manuscript of 1819 called Life High and Low, a curious tome that recounts some of the characters and ballads of the day. It includes a footnote about "The Dandy Muffin-Man of Drury Lane", and this prints the lyrics, much as they're still sang today.

The book tells us something about an anonymous performer closely associated with the song. He is a "migrated coxcomb" and a "leader of fashion in attic entertainments and at cellar-balls, at promiscuous clubs, and at gallows hops...".

So, if we're reading it right, it seems The Muffin Man started out as a kind of trashy stage song performed in seedy venues.

Indeed, people had been singing about muffin men for quite some time, and in quite rarified circles. A comedic song about the trade was a staple of the stage from 1796, and was even performed to the King in 1802. Its lyrics are entirely different to those of the nursery rhyme, but it may have had some influence on the anonymous singer mentioned in the 1819 source.

After 1819, the ditty seems to have caught on in a big way. It became a favourite children's song and was adapted into numerous party games. It's still a well-known rhyme 200 years later.

A bunch of puppets marches down a street, grinning as they hawk their wares to the toddler audience (not pictured)
The Muffin Man, as depicted with his friends the Fruit Stand Man and the Ice Cream Man, in the Super Simple Songs version that my two-year-old won't stop playing.

I thought I'd read something about child-catching and murder?

The song does have an alternative origin story, which often gets an airing in more credulous corners of the internet. The muffin man, it's said, is the nickname of a 16th century child murderer. The ditty was supposedly written to warn kids away from Drury Lane, where a notorious muffin man would lure them to their deaths with sweet food. The Sweeney-Todd-esque story seems to be a modern invention, but that hasn't stopped numerous websites reporting it as fact.

Was there an actual muffin man?

There were hundreds of them. Muffin men could be found all over town in the 19th century, knocking on doors to see if anyone wanted to buy their baked goods and generally annoying everyone with their loud bells. This was at a time when only wealthy households would have had access to a decent oven, so there was a big market for such hawking.

It's a tradition that continued well into the 20th century. In the 1930s, muffin men were still to be sighted in Covent Garden, and taken as a sign of winter.

A newspaper cutting about muffin men
Portsmouth Evening News, 15 Oct 1935. Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive.

What was a muffin back then?

If you're picturing a bulbous confection packed with blueberries or chocolate chips, then you're scraping with a spurious spatula. The denizens of 19th century London would have been more likely to eat English muffins — the savoury crumpet-like breads still commonly toasted for breakfast.

Return of the muffin man?

You probably don't know a muffin man of Drury Lane today, because there is currently no muffin specialist on that famous old street. A couple of cafes at the northern end no-doubt sell ready-made cupcakes, but neither plays on the muffin man link.

So there's a business opportunity right there: open a shop called The Muffin Man of Drury Lane and watch the tourists flock in.

Meanwhile, the area does retain one link to baked goods. Head to Leicester Square tube station and, while riding the up escalator, keep an eye out for the giant gingerbread man, who resembles the Muffin Man's creation Mongo in Shrek 2. Once you see him, you'll never sleep again...

A giant gingerbread head looms over the escalators.
"I will devour your soul."

Last Updated 16 November 2021

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