We all know that fairytales, when you scratch the surface and turn from Disney to the Grimm brothers, often have dark origins, even if we don't always know the original story. What a lot of people don't know, is that popular nursery rhymes, even ones that often sound pretty innocent, have dark origins.
The one most people know about, and is famous for it, is Ring-A-Ring-O-Roses, which describes the symptoms of the plague. For those who don't know, the ring of roses refers to the red rash people would have, the pocket full of posies is a reference to the flowers that were used to banish the smell of sickness, atishoo is a reference to the sneezing symptom and we all fall down refers to death as the end result. While this can be seen as quite a dark rhyme, it's not the only one.
This is probably one of the least dark ones, it's not refering to an egg who breaks his shell, nor is it a dark tale about a method of execution or anything like that. Humpty Dumpty was actually the name of a cannon.
A 19th century illustration in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass created the myth of him being an egg. When Alice talks to Humpty Dumpty on the wall, the illustrator – apparently at a whim – made him egg-shaped. Given the popularity of the book, a generation of kids grew up thinking that Humpty Dumpty was a nonsense rhyme about an egg. - listverse
Owned by the supporters of King Charles I, Humpty Dumpty was used to gain control over the city of Colchester during the English Civil War. Once in Colchester, the cannon sat on church tower until a barrage of cannonballs destroyed the tower and sent Humpty into the marshland below. Although retrieved, the cannon was beyond repair. Humpty the cannon was a feared and effective weapon – as the full rhyme demonstrates:
In sixteen hundred and forty-eight
When England suffered pains of state
The Roundheads laid siege to Colchester town
Where the King’s men still fought for the crown. There one-eyed Thompson stood on the wall
A gunner with the deadliest aim of all
From St Mary’s tower the cannon he fired
Humpty Dumpty was his name. Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn't put Humpty together again
So not a sweet nonsense rhyme about an egg, rather a statement about the fate of a fearsome killing machine.
Goosey Goosey Gander
I have heard that this nursery rhyme has had certain words changed but I don't know if this is true or what they are but the version I grew up with is
Goosey Goosey Gander where shall I wander,
Upstairs, downstairs and in my lady's chamber
There I met an old man who wouldn't say his prayers,
So I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.
Even without the explanation this rhyme sounds a little dark. I don't see people encouraging children to throw old atheists down the stairs. This in fact, is a reference to the persecution of Catholics in the 16th century. The wandering around could be a reference to searching for 'Priest-Holes' where priests would hide and the line about the prayers is about priests being forbidden to say prayers in Latin rather than English. The throwing down the stairs, which would most likely result in death, simply tells you the fate of Catholic priests who were caught.
Ladybird, ladybird fly away home
Your house is on fire and your children are gone
All except one called Anne
For she has crept under the frying pan.
This is again, not only a dark sounding rhyme, but a reference to the persecution of Cathoilics and, specifically, Catholic priests.
Ladybird is a word that comes from the Catholic term for Our Lady. As it was illegal for Catholics to practice their religion, and non-attendance of Protestant services meant hefty fines for absentees. Catholics were forced to say Mass and attend services in secret, often outdoors and in outbuildings. The fire may refer to the Catholic priests who were burned at the stake for their beliefs. - listverse
Anne may be the one who escaped capture by hiding in a priest hole.
Baa Baa Black Sheep
Now who was expecting this one to be here?
Baa baa black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full.
One for the Master,
One for the Dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.
And with the original ending…
And none for the little boy who cries down the lane.
The original ending clues you in that this might not be as innocent as it sounds and it's actually about taxes.
Back in the 13th century, King Edward I realized that he could make some decent cash by taxing the sheep farmers. As a result of the new taxes, one third of the price of a sack of wool went to the king, one third to the church and the last third to the farmer. Nothing was left for the shepherd boy, crying down the lane. As it happens, black sheep are also bad luck: the fleece can’t be dyed, and so it’s worth less to the sheep farmer. Baa Baa Black Sheep is a tale of misery and woe. - listverse
Rub a Dub Dub
Rub a dub dub three men in a tub
And who do you think they be
The Bitcher the baker the candlestick maker
Turn them out, turn them out
Knaves all three
I'm guessing you've heard a different version and there are a few. While at first glance these seems a little homoerotic, the original is apparently a little different.
Rub a dub dub
Three maids in a tub
And how do you think they got there?
The butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker
And all of them gone to the fair.
And we come to a popular pass time of the 14th century. Welcome to the peep show! It appears that our friends have gone to catch a glimpse of the maids in the tub. Rub a dub dub…
Not dark perhaps but not all that suitable for kids.
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 of the Eagle
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel. Every night when I go out
The monkey’s on the table
Take a stick and knock it off,
Pop goes the weasel. A penny for a ball of thread
Another for a needle
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel.
A fun nonense poem right? Well, you read the title of this post and I think by now you get where it's going.
Pop goes the weasel” seems at first glance to be a nonsense rhyme, one without any purpose behind it at all – but really it’s an account of poverty, pawnbroking, minimum wage, and a serious night out on the town.The ‘weasel’ in the rhyme is a winter coat, which has to be pawned – or ‘popped’ – in exchange for various things. The first verse describes the cheapest food available; the narrator of the poem has no money, so ‘pop’ goes the weasel. The second verse describes a night out at a music hall called the Eagle Tavern, which was located on the City Road. But music halls – and drinks – cost money. The third verse is a bit more obscure than the first two; a monkey is slang for a tankard, while knocking off a stick was slang for drinking. The last verse probably refers to the narrator’s day job.So this little nonsensical ditty is actually about struggling to make ends meet. It’s still an upbeat tune, letting the reader see that a night on the town is well worth the week of terrible food, wages and general living conditions. - listverse
Oranges and Lemons
You might want to seriously rethink singing this to the little ones, even if most people don't know, forget, or miss out the second part
Oranges and lemons
Say the bells of St Clemens,
You owe me five farthings
Say the bells of St Martins,
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!
Chip, chop, chip, chop
The last one is dead!
Again, the clues in the rhyme here. I confess I don't recall ever hearing the second part but even the first part has the sinister part carefully obscured. When you recite this line, you're following the route of prisoners in London being led to their execution.
The bells belong to famous churches in London; these were the churches a condemned man would pass, on his way to his execution. St Clemens, the first church, is likely that in Eastcheap. The Eastcheap docks saw the unloading of cargo from the Mediterranean – often including oranges and lemons. But not only fruit was unloaded at Eastcheap: it was also the dock at which condemned men would disembark, to begin their final journey. - listverse
Eeny Meeny Miny Mo
Whatever you catch by it's toe, a frog, a tiger, whatever, the original was the n-word. I'm not going to type it here for fear of offending people but it's the derogatory term for black people. If you still don't know feel free to look it up but please don't use it. Again technically this isn't that dark, more inappropriate. Similar to the pavement cracks superstition. 'Walk on the pavement cracks, and break your mother's back' was originally 'Walk on the pavents crack and your mother will turn black' with racism a big thing in many countries even today, there a plenty of things like this about.
Georgie Porgie pudding and pie
Kissed all the girls and made them cry
When the boys came out to play
Georgie Porgie ran away
This could refer to one of two men.
George Villiers (16-17th century) was an up-start who wormed – or earned – his way into the court of King James I. George Villiers was likely a bisexual, who had an intense and fairly well-documented attachment to the king. King James was extremely fond of George, and gave him money and titles. While there is no sure, definitive proof of a homosexual relationship between the two, King James’s affection was without doubt. Either way, George still loved the ladies and was rumoured to be fond of seducing noblemen’s wives – sometimes without the consent of the ladies in question. This fact, together with well-known (and probably very necessary) ability to avoid confrontation, makes him a good fit for the nursery rhyme.
The other man it could be is Prince Regent George (late 18th century).He was enormously fat, and notoriously gluttonous. He couldn’t fit regular clothes, but he certainly fits the rhyme. He wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but he definitely loved the ladies. The last couplet might refer to an incident where George attended a bare-knuckle boxing match which left one contestant dead. He ran away and hid himself, afraid of a potential scandal. - listverse
So Georgie Porgie is really a coward, a cad and a glutton. Not the best moral for children, perhaps.
Rock a bye Baby
Rock a bye baby in the treetops
When the wind blows the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall
And down will come baby cradle and all
Again a rhyme that sounds pretty dark, sounds like some strange form of child murder but it's actually not dark in that context. It leans more towards child abduction if anything.
One interpretation of this famous lullaby is that it is about the son of King James II of England and Mary of Modena. It is widely believed that the boy was not their son at all, but a child who was brought into the birthing room and passed off as their own in order to ensure a Roman Catholic heir to the throne. Some believe the real child died and therefore another was smuggled in, perhaps without the knowledge of it's biological parents. The rhyme is laced with connotation: the “wind” may be the Protestant forces blowing in from the Netherlands; the doomed “cradle” the royal House of Stuart. The earliest recorded version of the words in print contained the ominous footnote: “This may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last”.
As a lot of nursery rhymes use symbolism and metaphors, this is a pretty plausible theory.
Lucy Locket lost her pocket
And Kitty Fisher found it.
Not a penny was there in it,
Only a ribbon around it.
This is not about robbery, or finding a purse but this is something you may think twice about teaching your kids. Lucy Locket and Kitty Fisher were actually real people and this rhyme is about a fight between the two of them.
Back in the 18th century, Lucy Locket was a barmaid and some-time prostitute. When one of her wealthy lovers (the ‘pocket’) lost all his money, she dropped him like a hot potato, only to learn afterwards that her rival, Kitty Fisher, had taken up with him despite his poverty (‘not a penny’). The spat between the two ladies was well known at the time, as Kitty taunted Lucy for dropping her lover. Kitty claimed she had found a ribbon around him – a serious jibe at Lucy, as prostitutes at that time kept their money tied around the thigh with a ribbon.
Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush
Here we go round the mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush.
Here we go round the mulberry bush
On a cold and frosty morning.
We also wash our faces, comb our hair, brush our teeth and put on clothes. Some of us do it 'so early in the morning' rather than on a cold and frosty one but I distinctly remember this song at primary school and we danced in a circle holding hands. Whilst not quite as disturbing as dancing in a circle singing about the plague, it is a reference to something less innocent than a dance.
According to historian R. S. Duncan, a former governor of England’s Wakefield Prison, the song originated with that 420-year-old institution’s female prisoners, who were exercised around a mulberry tree.
Mary, Mary quire contrary
Mary, Mary quite contrary how does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row
And I do like to save the best (or worst depending on how you look at it) for last. As there is a theory that garden was actually originally graveyard you start to see why. Perhaps the darkest of all nursery rhymes. This is about Queen Mary I of England who became known as Bloody Mary.
Mary was the eldest child of King Henry VIII and the only survivng child of Catherine of Aragon. Like her mother (and her father when she was born) Mary was Catholic. When she took the throne in 1553 after the death of her brother, Edward, England was primarily a Protestant country. Mary, contrary to the wishes of England, tried to make the country Catholic again.
By this stage, the main religion of England had been Protestant for 20 years, a lot of people were happily Protestant. Those who refused to convert to Catholicism were burn at the stake. Even Mary's sister (who would become Queen Elizabeth I) was imprisoned for her religion. In the rhyme, ‘garden’ sounds a lot like Gardiner – the name of Mary’s only religious supporter. It could also be a dig at Mary’s own infertility, or if ‘garden’ is replaced by ‘graveyard’, a reference to the growing pile of dead Protestants. Given that silver bells, cockleshells and maids are also terms for torture devices of the age, it no longer seems such a pretty little rhyme.
Amd there you have it, the dark origins of nursery rhymes. Who knew the rhymes your mother used to sing you to sleep, the songs you danced to at school and the pages of so many children's books were about, war, death and prostitution. Thank you for reading and sweet dreams kids