Nursery Rhymes #1

Roy recently related to me the memory of one evening a few years ago when, more than a little influenced by the consumption of certain alcoholic beverages, he was subject of involuntary damage to his elderly frame, whilst returning home from The Dragons Head.

He was confined to his bed for a whole week. He was given succour by Dave Ridgway, who loaned him a book of nursery Rhymes entitled “Poetry for Children”.

This reminiscence leads Roy and me to consider the original source of some well-known rhymes. What follows are a few examples.

Humpty Dumpty

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

Humpty Dumpty was not a person at all, but a massive siege cannon that was used by Royalist forces (the king’s men) during the English Civil War that raged between 1642 and 1651. During the siege of Colchester in 1648, the Royalists hauled Humpty Dumpty to the top of the church tower of St Mary-at-the-Walls, and for eleven weeks Humpty (sat on the wall and) blasted away at the attacking Parliamentarian Roundhead troops, defending the town.

Humpty’s great fall came when the church tower was eventually blown up by the Roundheads, and he couldn’t be put together again as he had fallen into, and subsequently had become buried, deep in the surrounding marshland. Without the mighty Humpty Dumpty to defend them, the king’s men led by Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle were soon overrun by the Parliamentarian soldiers of Thomas Fairfax.

Georgie Porgie

Georgie Porgie,
Pudding and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry;
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.

It is thought that the ‘Georgie Porgie’ in question was actually the Prince Regent, later George IV. A tad on the tubby side, George weighed in at more than 17½ stone with a waist of 50 inches (Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie), and as such, he became a constant source of ridicule in the popular press of the time.

Despite his large size, George had also established for himself a rather poor reputation for his lusty romps with the fairer sex that involved several mistresses leaving a string of illegitimate children. When he was 23 he fell in love with the beautiful Maria Anne Fitzherbert; he was so besotted with her that he persuaded her to go through with a secret marriage. The marriage would never have been allowed as Maria was both a commoner, but much, much worse; she was a Roman Catholic! George later went on to marry Catherine of Brunswick, whom he despised so much that he even had her banned her from his coronation. And so George had made both the women in his life miserable (kissed the girls and made them cry).

George was well known for his foppish behaviour and had apparently been at the rear of the class when badges for courage and bravery were handed out. That said, he did enjoy watching other people display these attributes; George was a great fan of bare-knuckle boxing. During one of the illegal prize-fights that George attended, a boxer was knocked to the floor and subsequently died of his injuries. Frightened of being implicated, the prince made a very quick exit from the scene (when the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away).

Jack and Jill

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water;
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.

The small village of Kilmersdon in north Somerset claims to be the home of the Jack and Jill rhyme. Local legend recalls how in the late 15th century, a young unmarried couple regularly climbed a nearby hill in order to conduct their liaison in private, away from the prying eyes of the village. Obviously a very close liaison, Jill fell pregnant, but just before the baby was born Jack was killed by a rock that had fallen from their ‘special’ hill. A few days later, Jill died whilst giving birth to their love child. Their tragic tale unfolds today on a series of inscribed stones that leads along a path to that ‘special’ hill.

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.

This very popular music hall song could be heard being performed throughout Victorian London’s many theatres. The origins to the lyrics, however, appear to stem from two possible sources.

One theory has its origins in the same grimy streets as those Victorian music halls, from the packed sweatshops of Shoreditch and Spitalfields that provided Londoners with their clothing. In the textile industry, a spinner’s weasel is a device that is used for measuring out a length of yarn; the mechanism makes a popping sound when the correct length has been reached. No doubt during this highly repetitive and boring work, the spinner’s mind would wander to the more mundane, only to be brought back to harsh reality when the weasel went pop.

The third verse of the same rhyme perhaps suggests an alternative origin, which is based upon the Londoners use of cockney rhyming slang;

Up and down the city road,
In and out the Eagle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel.

To “pop” is a London slang word for pawn. Weasel can be traced to the cockney rhyming slang of “weasel and stoat”, or coat. Even a very poor Victorian Londoner would have had a Sunday best coat or suit that could be pawned when times got hard (Pop goes the weasel), perhaps on cold and damp Monday morning, only to be retrieved on pay day. The Eagle above refers to the Eagle Tavern, a pub located on the corner of City Road and Shepherdess Walk, in the north London district of Hackney. Although the usage of the building has changed over the years, the current Eagle pub dating from the early 1900s, proudly sports a plaque outlining its association with the nursery rhyme.

Roy and I so enjoyed reminiscing over the nursery rhymes of our youth that you can expect a few more to appear over forthcoming weeks. If you have a favourite rhyme let us know by means of a comment on this post.

A Williamson – Keegan Production for Maltings Media.

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