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London’s top ten nursery rhymes

Posted at 10:30 am, June 30, 2014 in Fun London, Top 5

tweedledee tweedledum

[Photo: Loren Javier]

1. Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses
Ah, the Great Plague of 1665. The kind of population-decimating disease that any sane person would want to reminisce about, maybe in a charming ditty. The theory goes that the ‘ring of roses’ refers to the sores that appeared around the victims’ mouths, that people carried posies to help disguise the smell of dead bodies, that an early symptom was to sneeze a lot and, well, the ‘all fall down’ bit is selfexplanatory. This theory has been widely discredited by scholars, but what do they know, eh?

2. London Bridge Is Falling Down
Today’s London Bridge is an underwhelming dullard compared to its medieval incarnation. Lined with shops and even boasting a chapel in the middle, the original crossing was a bustling and vibrant place until its demolition in 1831. Unfortunately, like most medieval London structures, it wasn’t the safest, which is supposedly what inspired this scaremongering song. Whether or not any ‘fair ladies’ actually heeded the warning is anyone’s guess.

3. Oranges and Lemons
With a famous role in Orwell’s ‘1984’, this nursery rhyme is as London as they come. So what’s it actually about? Well, apart from citrus fruit, it’s said that the sinister closing couplet (‘Here comes a candle to light you to bed/And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!’) might refer to either child sacrifice or public executions. Good old eighteenth-century humour.

4. Hey Diddle Diddle
This nonsensical verse about a fiddle-playing cat and its bizarre associates is said to have a basis in historical fact. According to legend, ginger bruiser Queen Elizabeth I was nicknamed ‘the cat’ for her tendency to toy or ‘fiddle’ with her courtiers (bear with us). And the rest of the rhyme’s characters supposedly represent other members of her court. But, contrary to popular belief, none of them ever jumped over the moon, so it’s probably a load of complete diddle.

5. Pop Goes the Weasel
The ‘Gangnam Style’ of its day, this jaunty air and its accompanying dance was a massive hit in Victorian London, and greatly boosted the fortunes of the Eagle pub on City Road, namechecked in the third verse. What this ditty is actually about is inevitably disputed, but some see it as a cheery take on the bleak East End weaving industry. A spinner’s ‘weasel’ was a mechanical device used to measure thread that apparently ‘popped’ when it reached the correct amount.

6. The Muffin Man
What’s the betting you think this is just a cute little song about a chap who sold muffins along Drury Lane? Oh, how naive you are! The story goes that the baker in question was a real chap who used his muffins to lure children into his shop, where he would then rape and kill them. Hundreds of years from now there’ll probably be a nursery rhyme called ‘The 1970s TV Presenter’.

7. Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Don’t worry, there’s no rape, murder or even plague in this one. London writer John Byrom coined these humorous names when referring to a rivalry that broke out in the city between composers Handel and Bononcini in the eighteenth century. This was then picked up and turned into a rhyme about a petty squabble between two characters with similar appearances. In the case of Handel and Bononcini: fat, with stupid hair.

8. Little Miss Muffet
What’s the deeper meaning here? Maybe Miss Muffet is Charles I and the spider is Oliver Cromwell? No, it really is just about a little girl who is eating some cottage cheese when a spider scares the crap out of her. The girl in question is said to be the step-daughter of Londoner Thomas Muffet, who was a sixteenth-century entomologist. That’s someone who studies insects – which makes us suspect the spider was planted.

9. Little Boy Blue
Cardinal Wolsey is famously portrayed as wearing red, but many still maintain that ‘Little Boy Blue’ is a thinly veiled reference to the portly Tudor politician. In particular, it’s thought that the rhyme was written to mock the famously arrogant Wolsey after his fall from Henry VIII’s grace. Inviting the character to ‘come blow your horn’ was something that the then powerless cardinal could no longer do. Subtle meta-taunts were obviously a thing back then.

10. Mary Mary Quite Contrary
Queen Mary I, aka Bloody Mary, is said to have inspired several rhymes. But as the monarch who burned hundreds of people alive for believing in God in a different way, she’s rarely mythologised favourably. Here, the growing garden of the rhyme is said to represent the growing graveyards of Mary’s reign while the silver bells and cockle shells are thought to be torture devices. Mary Mary quite a contrary bitch!

Like this? See more top tens on the Time Out Blog.

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