The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Nursery Rhymes

Category: Culture

It is typical of the perverse workings of oral tradition that few of the nursery rhymes should have originally been intended for the young. Many of them are unrelated snatches of worldly songs, adult jests, lampoons, proverbial maxims, charms, and country ballads. The mother or nurse of former days did not croon her ditties because they were songs for children, but. because — with her sleeves rolled up and arms in the wash-tub—they were the first verses to come into her mind when the children had to be amused. And since she might be singing a popular song of her own day, as readily as one that was sung by her forbears, we find that the dates of the rhymes are fascinatingly various. While some were already ancient lore when Shakespeare was a boy, others are but second or third-hand memories of songs first heard in Victorian music alls.

The old nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St Clement’s’’* is well known to many English people.

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’m sure I do not know says the great bell of Bow.

Here is the legend connected with it. In the time of King Alfred,* many Danes were living in London, but in the 9th century Alfred decided to expel them from the City of London. Those who had married English women were allowed to settle outside the City boundaries. These Danes wanted a church of their own, so they chose a spot in their settlement and built their church, calling it St Clement Danes.

In medieval times the customs duty of the City of London was very heavy, so the merchant ships sailed up the river beyond the City as far as St Clement Danes in order to avoid these heavy charges. They were given permission to take their cargoes through St Clement Danes churchyard, across Clement’s Inn to Clare Market just beyond. A toll was levied by the church for the use of their ground. It was an offeringof oranges and lemons.

In 1680the church was found to be unsafe, and it was pulled down. This happened when Sir Christopher Wren was at the peak of his powers, and he planned the rebuilding of St Clement Danes.

In 1693 the bells for St Clement Danes church were cast at the Whitechapel* Bell Foundry and were hung in the belfry. They started to ring out the old nursery rhyme, “Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St Clement’s’’ and it was a popular sound from then onwards.

There is a story that, in the Victorian era, a lawyer rented a small room in a tenement house in Clement’s Inn where the property had become very dilapidated. On New Year’s Day there was a knock on his door, and the head porter of the property presented himself and gravely gave the lawyer an orange and a lemon from a basketful he carried. When asked for an explanation, he said it was a custom dating from medieval times when the barges came up the river to the banks below with their cargoes of fruit. It was carried by the porters through the churchyard and Clement’s Inn to Clare Market. A toll was made by the church, and on New Year’s Day, oranges and lemons were distributed to the tenants who lived within sound of the bells ringing the old nursery rhyme.

« ||| »

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.