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Origins: Pop Goes the Weasel

American Mink, a member of the Weasel family

Half a pound of tuppeny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That’s the way the money goes
Pop! Goes the weasel.

Up and down the city road
In and out the Eagle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! Goes the weasel.

Every night when I go out
The monkey’s on the table.
Take a stick and knock it off,
Pop! Goes the weasel.

A penny for a ball of thread,
Another for a needle.
That’s the way the money goes
Pop! Goes the weasel.

Pop Goes the Weasel as we know it now began life as a Music Hall song. It is referenced in The Times as a ‘celebrated dance’ in 1853, and had lyrics added to the jaunty tune at some point over the next few years, when the above was heard in full in a perfomance at the Theatre Royal. The lyric is variously attributed to either Charles Twigg or WR Mandale, of whom little information can be found (by me, anyway).

A spinners weasel, photo by paladinsf via flickr

Theory the first. In the 1680s French Protestant refugees escaping persecution, the Hugenots, flooded the areas of Spitalfields, Shoreditch and Hoxton and created a thriving textile business which is reflected in the archetecture of the area today – all those expensive converted lofts have such huge widows so the weavers could work for as long as possible with as much light as possible. Employees were paid little and worked long hours, and as a result poverty and crime were rife.  Sarah Wise’s book The Blackest Streets: Life and Death in a Victorian Slum tells the history of this area and I heartily recommend it to you all. The theory goes that Pop Goes the Weasel is a portrait of life for these slum-dwellers. In this context the weasel is a device that measures out yarn or thread, making a popping sound as it did so.

The song paints a picture of the hard lives of the Huguenot weavers, trying to earn enough money to eat and pay for the tools required to work, taking trips to the Eagle pub and attempting to survive in trying times.

Theory the second. According to this theory, Pop Goes the Weasel is the story of an East End pub crawl. Cockney rhyming slang is fairly easy to get the hang of. Most people are familiar with phrases like ‘apples and pairs’ for stairs and ‘bubble and squeak’ for Greek. The problem comes when these phrases are shortened or corrupted, so, for example, ‘brown bread’ (meaning dead) is clipped to just ‘bread’ before being corrupted further and leaving the uninitiated rather confused when you tell them that your great-great grandfather is Hovis. In rhyming slang ‘weasel’, or ‘weasel and stoat’ is a coat. The Eagle on the City Road in Hoxton is still there. A music hall from 1825, it was rebuilt as a public house in 1901. The crawlers go ‘up and down the city road, in and out the Eagle’, spending all their money and ultimately having to pawn their coat, or, in the parlance of the day, put their weasel into pop*, in order to feed themselves and their families on very cheap foods -rice and treacle(more probably molasses, a by product of the sugar industry) or necessities of life and trade like thread (see above) until the next payday when the cycle would begin again.

That’s the first, second and fourth verses dealt with. But what of this ‘monkey’ business (see what I did there?) in the third verse? Victorian saliors would call the tankard they drank their boozy rations from a ‘monkey’, and to ‘knock off a stick’ was a slang term for drinking alcohol. So the third verse simply describes the activity inside the Eagle, and is a fairly long-winded way of saying ‘I get plastered as often as possible’. Living in the East End in the first half of the nineteenth century, I can’t say I blame them.

Theory the third. A Cambridge alum friend of mine tells me that local lore suggests that Pop Goes the Weasel tells of students in the city spending all their money on prostitutes and in the local taverns and having to pawn their ermine-trimmed gowns. There is a pub named the Eagle in Cambridge situated at 30 City Road, Cambridge,  occupied in 1861 by the Clarke family and their lodger. The deepest annals of  the internet; my amassed collection of books; nor recipient of my desperate email, Mike Petty of  Cambridgeshire Association for Local History, produced any evidence to corroborate this story.

The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase & Fable favours the first two theories, linking the song to the Eagle pub in Hoxton. My money’s on the second theory. Although too much detail in an explanation such as this can make it a little fishy, a little too neat as though the facts have been manipulated to fit the tale, I’m inclinded to believe it. Even if the Cambridge students do have a great story to tell.

Thanks to Karen for the inspiration for this post.

*I can’t find a reference for ‘pop’ as a slang term for a  pawnbroker. If anyone can enlighten me, please do!

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