Tales From The Nursery – Part Forty Five


Jack Be Nimble

This is a short rhyme which first appeared in the 1815 edition of Gammer Gurton’s Garland and goes as follows, “Jack be nimble/ Jack be quick/ Jack jumped over/ A candlestick”. It is occasionally followed by a second verse, “Jack jumped high/ Jack jumped low/ Jack jumped over/ and burned his toe”. I suppose it served him right for dicing with danger by jumping over a naked flame.

We have seen in other rhymes that Jack is used as a generic description for a boy or a man and there is no reason to suppose that the usage here is any different. But there are those who are determined to attribute this rather simple and charming rhyme to something or someone of historical import. Our first suspect is Calico Jack Rackham, a pirate who operated in the Caribbean until his eventual capture and execution in 1720. His principal claims to fame were the natty design that he employed on his flag – white skull and cross bones on a black background – and the fact that two of his crew were female, Anne Bonny and Mary reed. They both escaped dancing the hemp jig because they were with child. Whilst he was obviously a picaresque character there is no reason to suppose that he is the Jack of our rhyme. His only nimbleness was his evasion of the long arm of the law for some time.

The next suspect is the dread disease, yellow fever, which was popularly known as yellow Jack. In days before medicine was as advanced as it is now one common form of treatment for a victim of the fever was to light a fire in their room in the hope that the flames would draw out the fever. It probably did not work but at least the patient was kept warm. As a precaution when there was an outbreak of fever, lit candles would be placed by the side of a child’s bed to guard it against the disease. The theory goes that the rhyme is an invocation to the fever to avoid the candle and, therefore, the child so protected and to leap into the fire, thus eliminating the danger of infection. Ingenious as this may be, there is no compelling reason to think it is the case.

The third suspect is the pursuit of candle jumping which formed part of the St Catherine’s Day celebrations on 25th November in more innocent times. The participant was required to jump over a two-foot-tall lighted candle. If this was achieved successfully without knocking it over or extinguishing the flame, then the celebrant would have good luck for the following year. Failing to clear the flame could result in an injury such as Jack suffered, perhaps the harbinger of the ill fortune that will follow. Particularly popular amongst the lace makers of Buckinghamshire the practice rather petered out in the late 19th century, perhaps because of ‘elf and safety concerns.

Lace making wasn’t an exclusively female occupation so we don’t have to worry that Jack is a male. Of the three theories, this is the most compelling but I can’t help thinking that this is an unnecessarily elaborate explanation for a simple rhyme. Perhaps we should just be content with taking it at face value, an amusingly uncomplicated rhyme. But where would be the fun in that?