History is everywhere in The City
What is London's Oranges and Lemons rhyme all about?
By Benjamin Till
Is that 'chopper to chop off your head' about Henry the VIII's marital problems? The composer of a new piece using all the bells mentioned in the famous poem, unpacks the original.
Benjamin Till, composer
A playground with an arch formed by children's arms and singing words I didn’t understand are the images uppermost in my mind when I think about Oranges and Lemons. I’d never heard of Saint Clements and like most Northamptonshire children, I had no idea of the significance of the Great Bell of Bow. I’m not sure I knew the rhyme was even about church bells!
What I did know was that the game was great fun and that the ending of the rhyme was scary in an exciting sort of way. Like those other terrifying childhood rhymes, London Bridge Is Falling Down, Pop Goes the Weasel and Ring a Ring of Roses, I have no memory of actually learning it. It was just there in my subconscious; a folk melody passed down through the generations.
There are all sorts of theories about the meaning of the lyrics. Some suggest that they deal with Henry 8th’s marital difficulties and his special way of solving them. Certainly it's the last three lines - the bit about choppers and candles - where the speculation is concentrated. Bad news for Henry VIII fans though, it seems those crucial lines weren't there originally and were added at a much later stage.
The first published record of Oranges and Lemons dates back to 1744 in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, although it’s fair to assume it had been in circulation for some time before then. There is a reference to a square dance with the same name in a 1665 publication, but it’s not clear if that relates to the rhyme.
What is clear is that there have been many lyrical variations of the rhyme. Many, which were never recorded in writing, will have been forgotten completely. Even some which are recorded have dropped out of usage. In the 1744 Tommy Thumb version Shoreditch is called Fleetditch and the Great Bell of Bow is replaced by a reference to St Paul’s Cathedral.
It’s pretty clear that this part of the poem (which is also the part that most people know) refers to money lending, but the longer, and much less well known, version of the rhyme paints a wonderful picture of London in the 16th and 17th Century. In those days various trades were synonymous with particular districts of the city.
References to “pancakes and fritters”, “kettles and pans” and “brick bats and tiles” tell us of bakers, coppersmiths and builders in areas around St Peter Upon Cornhill, St Anne’s and St Giles, Cripplegate respectively. There are also references to recreation; “bulls eyes and targets” tells us about the archery practice which happened in the fields behind St Margaret Lothbury. The notion of anything approaching a field in the area around Bank seems bizarre today, but there are also other references which strike an odd note to the contemporary ear. Perhaps the most sinister lyric is “pokers and tongs” at St John’s Chapel in the Tower of London. This may well be a reference to the hideous forms of torture that took place in that building.
Shoreditch St Leonard's church
The curious and spectacularly dark end lines: “here comes the candle to light you to bed, here comes the chopper to chop off your head…” probably refers to practices at Newgate prison. The gaol stood on the current site of the Old Bailey, next to St Sepulchre’s church (the bells of Old Bailey in the rhyme). The sound of that church’s “great” tenor bell striking 9am on a Monday morning would signal the start of any hangings due to take place that week. The prisoners on death row were visited the night before by the bell man of St Sepulchre, who would hold a candle in one hand and ring the execution bell in the other. He would then recite a poem;
All you that in the condemned hole do lie,
An alternative suggestion is that the poem is one long veiled reference to a bride losing her virginity on her wedding night. It feels tenuous, but the suggestion is that Old Father Baldpate refers to a phallus and that chopping off the head is a reference to losing the maidenhead or virginity.
Whatever the meaning of the words, it’s clear that the rhyme has an enduring and cross cultural legacy which will mean it’s being chanted in school playgrounds for many years to come.
last updated: 26/05/2009 at 16:43
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