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The Nursery Grime

June 1st, 2012 by Magdalena Tabor
Nursery rhymes. The charming, innocent, sing-song chantings of a by-gone era. Ah, maybe not so charming, and ever wonder why they’ve disappeared from the lips of modern day children? The answer lies in the verses themselves which dawned on me the other day with something of a shock. Who knows how the mind works, but a childhood rhyme buried, yet still lodged firmly in the recesses of my brain suddenly sprang to life, and when spoken aloud hit me on the head with the proverbial hammer. I began to dredge up other “harmless” rhymes that I found equally as horrifying. Then I did a little research and came up with the following information. See if you recognize some of them that your own unassuming self may have uttered once upon a time. Some of it could be fodder for a creepy horror flick. Others have political connotations of historical interest. All of it is very entertaining…..and not just for kids.
1) The Worms – Folk song originating in the 18th century during the Crimean campaign sung by British soldiers. There are various versions. Here’s one I partially recall:
“Did you ever see a hearse go by and think of the day that you might die. (memory lapse here)….The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, into your stomach and out of your mouth”.
Really??? YUK. I can’t believe I sang that with a sweet little smile on my face. Of course it was accompanied by a rather catchy tune.
2) Ladybug, Ladybug – English origin circa 1744.
“Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children will burn”.
Wow. Who dreamt that one up?
3) Ring Around The Rosie – This one originated as a result of the Bubonic Plague. When the disease was contracted, rose colored sores developed, around which rings would form. Posies (flowers) were carried to ward off the stench of the dead.  “Ashes” referred to the burning of the corpses to stop the spread of disease. “We all fall down” was due to the vast number of people that succumbed to the sickness. Here’s the delightful little ditty:
“Ring around the rosie. A pocketful of posie. Ashes, ashes. We all fall down”.
4) London Bridge Is Falling Down – Originated in England circa 1744, referencing the deterioration of the London Bridge built in 1176. “My fair lady” may be tied to Matilda of Scotland who was responsible for building a series of bridges, or perhaps linked with Eleanor of Provence who was in charge of bridge revenues.  I remember this game well…..two children held their hands high in order to form the arch of the bridge, while a group of other children walked around them. At a particular point, the arch would drop and one child would get trapped. Nothing scary here, just some good old fashioned fun:
“London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down. London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady. (Here’s where the arch drops entrapping the one kid who gets swayed back and forth). “Take the key and lock her up, lock her up, lock her up. Take the key and lock her up, my fair lady”.
5) Old Mother Hubbard – Exact origin and meaning disputed. English 1805.
“Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to get her poor dog a bone. But when she got there, the cupboard was bare and so the poor dog had none”.
Listen Mother Hubbard, if you don’t get your act together and put that dog on a proper diet, we’ll remove him from the premises. And as for you, we’ll get you some Meals On Wheels.
6) Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater – USA 1825.
“Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater, had a wife but couldn’t keep her. Put her in a pumpkin shell and there he kept her very well”.
Clearly spousal abuse in it’s basest form. I think she should hook up with Cinderella and turn that pumpkin into a luxury coach, turn Peter into a footman.
7) Rock-A-Bye-Baby – English 1765. One theory is that the baby was the son of James VII who was smuggled into the birthing room to provide a Catholic heir.
“Rock-a-bye-baby, on the tree top. When the wind blows the cradle will rock.  When the bough breaks the cradle will fall. And down will come baby cradle and all”.
Guess he got found out, huh?
8. The Old Woman In A Shoe – England 1794. One possible reference is to Queen Caroline, the wife of King George II who had eight children.
“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”.
She’d never get away with that now.
9) Three Blind Mice – England 1805. An earlier version of this refers to Queen Mary I for blinding and executing three Protestant bishops.
“Three blind mice. Three blind mice. See how they run. See how they run. They all ran after the farmer’s wife who cut off their tails with a carving knife. Did you ever see such a sight in your life as three blind mice?”
Again, another one for the animal rights advocates. Oh…….and what about the bishops? Whose advocating for them? Any volunteers?
So……..the next time you hear some kids singing what sounds like just some kids singing, listen closely to the words.
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2 Responses to “The Nursery Grime”

  1. le duke de fromage Says:

    Magdelena, as a child of the forties I remember quite well these so-called children’s rhymes. Looking back there were only several which disturbed me but the old illustrations that accomanied them were enough to frighten any child. Depending upon the depiction, they were more traumatizing then the stories themselves. I assume they were told to children as a learning tool or rules to observe in daily life. Whatever they were they have stuck with me to this day. I can still recite most. The sanitized versions that are presented today have lost the feel of the original versions as well as most of the meanings as you well pointed out.Thanks for the glimpse into the past and an explanation of the meaning.

  2. magdalena Says:

    My pleasure, le duke. It’s astonishing to learn the true meaning behind what was supposedly written for children. Guess the adults got a good laugh at hearing them recite the lines that were meant to draw attention to another matter in an underhanded way. You’re right about the illustrations. Scare tactics were so often used as a way to discipline a child. Just look at the original St Nicholas with his switches to frighten the unruly child into obedience. Times have changed and thankfully we owe it to ourselves, for today’s parents were yesterday’s children who remember all too well.

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