It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.
-- Arthur Conan Doyle 1892
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This is the well known Nursery Rhyme whose origin is obscure. Although clearly associated with the medieval churches of London, there are variants in both Shropshire and Northamptonshire. The oldest recorded version dates from 1744 but this does NOT include the couplet that has since given the Rhyme its common name - that did not appear until an 1858 version. There are a number of theories as to the origin and, predictably, Henry VIII figures in these as does the unfortunate Mary Queen of Scots. When sung, the verses are intended to imitate the sounds of the various church bells and it is possible that the children of London made up the words to fit the rhythm of the ringing bells.
The Old English Nursery Rhyme Oranges and Lemons is now traditionally associated with a children's game but there is a record of a Square Dance called Oranges and Lemons in 1665. Despite this, the origin remains obscure. There are a number of variants in which the order of the couplets is transposed and at some time a couplet about St Helen's appeared. This has the line You owe me ten shillings and its insertion appears to upset the overall order with the St martin couplet being moved up willy nilly and its first line changed to Halfpence and farthings.
There are a number of interpretations of the meaning and provenance of this Nursery Rhyme. One version is that it refers to Henry VIII and the frequency with which he changed brides. Another has it sung for/at Mary Queen of Scots as she went to the Scaffold. Modern interpretations invariably suggest a sexual context and a wedding night in particular. These interpretations place a good deal of weight on the couplet
here comes a candle to light you to bed, with which many versions conclude. However, this couplet does not appear in the earlier versions.
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.
What is certain is that, when sung, the couplets are meant to imitate the sounds of the various church bells that rang out across London and it is possible that the children of London made up the words to fit the rhythm of the ringing bells. There may be an innocence here which the (sex obsessed) 20th century did not understand. The couplets refer to common items of ordinary life and it is possible that these were particularly associated with the parishes of churches to which they refer. For example, the St Celement's church referred to is most likely to have been St Clement Eastcheap which is close to the wharves where citrus fruits from the Mediterranean were unloaded.
The full text of what may be the original version is given below. See the Notes for sources of more information.
Oranges and Lemons
|Gay go up and gay go down,|
To ring the bells of London town.
Bull's eyes and targets,
Say the bells of St. Marg'ret's.
Brickbats and tiles,
Say the bells of St. Giles'.
Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement's.
Pancake and fritters,
Say the bells of St. Peter's.
Two sticks and an apple,
Say the bells of Whitechapel.
Old Father Baldpate,
Say the slow bells of Aldgate.
Maids in white aprons
Say the bells at St Catherine's
Pokers and tongs,
Say the bells of St. John's.
Kettles and pans,
Say the bells of St. Ann'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.
Pray when will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.
I'm sure I don't know,
Says the great bell at Bow.
Note: A discussion of the different versions and interpretations can be found on the BBC site . This also discusses the identification of the most likely churches to which the couplets refer - there was more than one St Clement's, St Martin's, St Margaret's etc. Details of all the mediaeval Parish Churches can be found in our London's Mediaeval Parish Churches Series
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