There was an old woman
This was a popular rhyme when I was a child and the version I knew went like this, “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe/ she had so many children she didn’t know what to do/ she gave them some broth without any bread/ then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed”.
Harassed parents may have a vestige of sympathy for the old woman but these days I suspect that her approach to child care would elicit a call to Social Services rather than immortalisation in popular culture. On one level it can be seen as a form of warning to a child – no matter how grim you think your lot is, count your blessings and remember how the old woman dealt with her brood.
The first printed version of the rhyme appeared in 1794 in Gammer Gurton’s Garland, compiled by Joseph Ritson. The final line read, “she whipp’d all their bums, and sent them to bed”. Probably the more sensitive Victorians bowdlerised the last line.
However, almost contemporaneously (1797 to be precise) an alternative version was published, its final couplet reading even more sinisterly “then out went th’ old woman to bespeak ‘em a coffin/ and when she came back, she found them all a-loeffing”. The verb loffe is an old English word meaning to laugh and the presence of such an archaic word in the verse has led some to speculate that the rhyme has a much older origin and, indeed, may be rooted in English folklore.
There does seem to be a connection between shoes and fertility, surprising as it may seem and our old woman seems to be the very epitome of fecundity. In some parts of the country there was a tradition of the bride casting a shoe as she left for her honeymoon – in Essex, of course, this is the cue for a fight! In Lancashire it was customary for women who wished to conceive to wear the shoes of someone who had just given birth, presumably in the hope that the fertility genes would rub off on her. As recently as 1960 a Herefordshire midwife operating in Broadwas-on-Teme refused to allow a young woman to remove her shoes until her baby emerged. In other parts of the country in order to invoke dreams of their future partners, girls would pin their garters to the wall and arrange their shoes into the sign of a T.
Whilst the linkage with English fertility customs will happily explain the opening couplet, it doesn’t deal with the egregious child abuse in the second couplet. And naturally, spotting this lacuna in the explanation, those eager to find specific historical allusions to explain the rhyme have jumped straight in.
The most credible of a bad bunch seems to me to be George II. To deal with the obvious difficulty first that the Hanoverian king was a man and the Old Woman is incontrovertibly a female. George’s nickname was Old Woman because it was widely thought that his wife, Queen Caroline, ruled the roost. A contemporary epigram illustrates the point, “You may strut, dapper George/ But it will be in vain/ We all know it is Queen Caroline/ Not you that reign”. The unruly children, so this explanation goes, are the Members of Parliament, the whip is a reference to the parliamentary tem of whipping MPs to toe the party line and the bed is Parliament. The Old Woman’s parsimony is a reference to the regime of austerity the king introduced post the South Sea Bubble crash to restore his and the nation’s finances.
There is some attraction to this explanation but I don’t think we need to look further than a warning to children to behave tacked on to a reference to English fertility customs.