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Origins: Little Polly Flinders

Little Polly Flinders
Sat among the cinders,
Warming her pretty little toes.
Her Mother came and caught her,
And whipped her little daughter
For spoiling her nice new clothes.

To whip a child today would, quite rightly, ensure a visit from Social Services. In the early 1800s, when this nursery rhyme was first written down, children were regularly corporally punished for such transgressions as dirtying their clothes by whipping with a stick or ruler. Little Polly Flinders, first published as Little Jenny Flinders in 1805, has echoes of Cinderella which cannot be overlooked. In his book Pop Goes the Weasel; The Secret Meanings of Nursery Ryhmes, Albert Jack explains:

Like Polly [Cinderella] and indeed any aspiring princess, needs clean and beautiful clothes to snare her Prince Charming and get out of the kitchen. Unlike the story, however, the nursery rhyme is a cautionary tale, warning ordinary little girls not to dream of themselves as fairy-tale figures; that they need to keep their clothes clean because no fairy godmother is going to magically fix thing for them and because, if they don’t, Mama will go mad and they’ll be for it.

Kate Greenaway, The Strains of Polly Flinders. Oil on Canvas


4 responses »

  1. If you’re still after suggestions of ‘origins’ to write about, how about Pop Goes The Weasel? I’ve always been told it was about Cambridge students spending their money on prostitutes (up and down the City Road) and beer (in and out the Eagle), and having to ‘pop’ or pawn their ermine-trimmed gowns (the weasel). Wikipedia disagrees and says it’s about a pub in London, and weavers pawning their equipment to buy beer.

  2. Spanking is still legal where I live, thank goodness.

  3. My childhood plate that I ate from had this terrible poem and picture of “Polly” on it.
    I believe it made a mark on my life! I’m now 84 years old and still have the plate..


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