More Nursery Rhymes

Read about the origins of Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill, Ba Ba Black Sheep and Georgie Porgie.

In our earlier article concerning children’s nursery rhymes, we outlined how many of the seemingly childish playground chants appear to have their roots based in historic fact. In the previous article we attempted to provide some background as to the likely content of Little Jack Horner’s pie, the possible association of Ring a Ring O’Roses with the horrors of the 1665 Great Plague, why hush a-bye baby was rocked in the tree-tops and who the quite contrary Mary was.

We now attempt to shed light on why they couldn’t put Humpty together again, the tax implications surrounding that Baa Baa Black Sheep, and suggestions as to why ‘when the boys came out to play’, Georgie Porgie ran away. And in addition, why after visiting Gloucester, Doctor Foster never went there again; the tragic love story surrounding that most famous Somerset couple Jack and Jill, as well as suggesting reasons why the weasel goes ‘pop’!

The Humpty Dumpty Cannon

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.

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.

Not surprisingly this rhyme is all about sheep, and the importance of sheep to the English economy. Until the late 16th century the final lines of the rhyme read “And none for the little boy who cries down the lane.” It was changed to the current version in order to cheer it up and make it into a song more suitable for children.

In medieval England, the wool trade was big business. There was enormous demand for it, mainly to produce cloth and everyone who had land, from peasants to major landowners, raised sheep. The great English landowners including lords, abbots and bishops began to count their wealth in terms of sheep, with some flocks totalling over 8,000 animals, all tended by dozens of full-time shepherds.

After returning from the crusades in 1272, Edward I imposed new taxes on the wool trade in order to pay for his military ventures. It is believed that this wool tax forms the background to the rhyme. One-third of the price of each bag, or sack sold, was for the king (the master); one-third to the monasteries, or church (the dame); and none to the poor shepherd (the little boy who cries down the lane) who had tirelessly tended and protected the flock.

King George IVGeorgie 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 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).

Doctor Foster
Went to Gloucester
In a shower of rain
He stepped in a puddle
Right up to his middle
And never went there again

Although first published in 1844, the origins to this rhyme may date back more than 700 years, to the time of King Edward I. Edward was known by several nicknames, a powerful man, over six feet tall he was often referred to as Longshanks, but he was also recognised as a clever and learned man and hence earned the title Dr Foster; the origins of the Foster are lost in time. Not a great fan of the Welsh, no doubt Edward was visiting Gloucester due to the town’s strategic position at a major crossing of the River Seven into Wales.

The story goes that the king arrived during a storm and mistaking a shallow puddle for a deep ditch steered his horse in that direction. Both horse and rider became trapped in the mire and had to be hauled out; infuriated and no doubt embarrassed by the humiliation, he vowed never to return to the town.

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.

“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 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 Shepherdness 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 1900’s, proudly sports a plaque outlining its association with the nursery rhyme.


Victorian London Street Scene

Published: 15th April 2015

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Nursery Rhymes

By Ellen Castelow

British nursery rhymes including Little Jack Horner and Ring a Ring O'Roses

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