This is an odd rhyme which has always perplexed me, not least because the second couplet doesn’t rhyme. I’m sure you don’t need reminding but it goes like this, “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”.
English pronunciation can be confusing at times and for those learning the language the correct pronunciation of words with the syllables “cester” is always a challenge. At least the first line of this rhyme straightens that out. The second couplet I always assumed was the by-product of Bowdlerisation. Thomas Bowdler (1754 – 1825) is best known nowadays for producing an expurgated version of the works of Shakespeare in a form “suitable for women and children”. The Victorians took up his “good work” with gusto and cheerfully amended many a classic work to a format which would not offend. Anyway, I’m pretty sure that the word puddle should actually be the word piddle. Of course, nowadays piddle is a colloquialism for urination, clearly a connotation that would upset an ardent adherent of Thomas Bowdler whose influence was at its height when the rhyme was first published, in 1844. However, there is good evidence to suggest that the noun piddle was Old English for a stream, which would make sense in the context of the rest of the rhyme.
At a superficial level, the misfortunes of poor Doctor Foster serve as a warning to small children who may be tempted to go into a stream, thinking that it is shallow. As the rhyme amply demonstrates, appearances can be deceptive! But is that all?
As is often the way there have been attempts to attach historical significance to the rhyme. One theory is that Doctor Foster is actually Edward I. The so-called hammer of the Scots or Longshanks was a tall man (by the standards of the time) standing 6 feet tall and seemed to have collected many a nickname. He was reputed to be clever and learned and it is possible to see how he might have attracted the sobriquet of Doctor. Who Foster was no one can say with any certainty.
Anyway, the story goes that Edward I, doubtless en route to bash up the Welsh (again) travelled through the border town of Gloucester on his horse. The weather was terrible and the king rode his horse into what he thought was a shallow stream but which was really much deeper. Trapped there he had to suffer the embarrassment and humiliation of being hauled out, an experience which left him vowing never to return to the town again.
Any credence I might attach to this explanation, charming as it is, is dented somewhat by the existence of another rhyme which was published 34 years earlier in 1810. This goes, “Old Doctor Foster went to Gloster/ To preach the word of God/ When he came there, he sat in a chair/ And gave all the people a nod”. Although we don’t know who this Doctor Foster was, the one thing we can be sure about is that he’s not Edward Longshanks. Still, a benign man of the cloth nodding to his congregation is less exciting than a man who gets stuck in a piddle. The attribution of Doctor Foster to Edward is nonsense and the story behind the explanation is totally unsubstantiated. My sense is that these are two variants of the same rhyme, the one we know today emerging from an earlier version to provide the little ones with a salutary lesson in road safety. But we will never know for sure.