Tales From The Nursery – Part Twelve


Oranges and Lemons

This nursery rhyme, like many, first appeared in print in 1744 in the Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book. As I’m sure you remember it goes like this, “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 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”.   Commonly, the rhyme is sung as an accompaniment to a game in which the players file in pairs through an arch formed by the other players. As the rhyme concludes the pair forming the arch drop their hands and capture the pair walking through.

But what is it all about? Before we venture to answer the question it is worth noting that stylistically the final couplet is at odds with the rest of the rhyme. The first six lines are in the form of a question and response featuring the bells of certain churches in London whereas the last two couplets just contain a warning and a threat. The suspicion that these are a later accretion is reinforced by the fact that the first printed version of the rhyme did not feature them but continued the format of query and response.

There was a square dance known as Oranges and Lemons which dated back to 1665. It would obviously have been accompanied by music and possibly even some lyrics but whether the tune or the words that were used bore any relation to the extant nursery rhyme is a question whose answer is lost in the mists of time.

The churches whose bells pose the queries and make the responses can be identified with churches in the metropolis and some of them had associations with some of the activities described in the rhyme. Whilst St Clement’s could be either St Clements Danes or St Clements Eastcheap, both churches were situated near the wharves where fruits, including citrus fruits, were landed and traded. St Martin’s was associated with an area populated by moneylender and the bells of Old Bailey were near the Fleet prison where debtors were held. The gist of the early part of the rhyme relates to money lending and the consequences of not being able to meet the usurers’ demands.

When the locus for executions was moved from Tyburn to Newgate prison, now the site of the Old Bailey, it gained its own bell. The unfortunate who was to be executed would be informed by the Bellman of St Sepulchre who would be carrying a candle that the day of their execution had arrived. The Execution Bell, a large handbell, was rung and the victim was told that “when St. Sepulchre’s Bell in the morning tolls/ The Lord above have mercy on your soul”.

Although indebtedness was not a capital crime, the process of judicial execution was associated with bells and so it is easy to see how the more sinister ending was added to a tale of the perils of money lending.

In other parts of the country there are songs and rhymes naming churches and ascribing characteristics to them. Oranges and Lemons probably owes its origins to this folk tradition.

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