A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tales From The Nursery – Part Twenty Four


Little Tommy Tucker

We meet Tommy Tucker in this rhyme: “Little Tommy Tucker sings for his supper/ What shall we give him? Brown bread and butter/ How shall he cut it without a knife?/ How shall he marry without a wife?” It was first published, inevitably, in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book of 1744 and a more complete version appeared in Mother Goose’s Melody of around 1765.

Who or what was this sorry individual? In an age without any form of social infrastructure being an orphan was a pretty grim and terrifying prospect for children. Unless they were taken in by relatives they were pretty much left to their own devices. Orphans were named collectively and colloquially as Tommy Tucker.

Singing for your supper was already used as a proverb for someone who did what he was asked to in order to get some form of reward by the 16th century. It may owe its origin to travelling musicians who wandered from tavern to tavern and entertained the clientele in the hope of earning enough money to buy a meal. While the phrase may not necessarily have been used in a literal context here, our poor orphan may have had to work or entertain in order to get enough to eat. And what he was given wasn’t wholesome victuals but bread and butter, just enough to sustain his miserable existence.

Without parents and occupying the lowest rung in the social order, Tommy’s prospects were bleak. His lack of worldly goods meant he had little prospect of bettering himself, owning possessions and even getting married. For all its seeming innocence as a nursery rhyme it is not hard to detect an unpleasant undertone in the verse as it pokes fun at the lot of an orphan.

Wee Willie Winkie

Getting children to go to bed and fall asleep has been a perennial problem for parents down the ages and across the globe. In order to achieve their objective parents have had to be inventive. I remember as a child being told that the Sandman had visited when my eyes betrayed those incipient signs of sleepiness, those bits of grit in the corner. Hans Christian Andersen, no less, took up this theme in his fairy tale, Ole Lukøje. In this tale the Sandman gently lulls children to sleep and, depending upon their behaviour, either shows them beautiful dreams if they have been good or lulls them into a dreamless and heavy sleep if they have been naughty.

Wee Willie Winkie is another character used to persuade reluctant children to go to sleep. He first appeared in a poem written by William Miller and published in a collection entitled Whistle-Binkie: Stories for the Fireside, published in 1841. The original rhyme, which consisted of five four-line stanzas, was written in Scots dialect. An Anglicised version appeared in 1844 and is the one I’m familiar with: “Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town/ Upstairs and downstairs in his night-gown/ Tapping at the window, crying in the lock/ Are the children in their bed, for it’s past ten o’clock”.

Those who insist on finding a historical association to any nursery rhyme point out that Willie Winkie was a Jacobite nickname for George the Third but there is no reason to suppose that Miller was using the name in a satirical context or that the English king would have the slightest interest in the sleeping habits of the nation’s youth. Instead, it may just have been a convenient name to use.

In some ways Tucker and Winkie represent the two ends of the spectrum for children. For sure I would prefer to be gulled into sleeping than having to sing for my supper.


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