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Origins: See-saw Margery Daw

Two-handled saw

See-saw, Margery Daw,
Johnny shall have a new Master.
He shall have but a penny a day,
Because he can’t work any faster.

There are a further two stanzas to this rhyme which are rarely repeated today. The reason why becomes clear as we read on:

See-saw Margery Daw
Sold her bed and lay on straw.
Was she not a dirty slut
To sell her bed and lie in the dirt?

See-saw Margery Daw,
The old hen flew over the malt house,
She counted her chickens one by one,
Still she missed the little white one,
And this is it, this is it, this is it.

First occurring in Mother Goose’s Melody, See-saw Margery Daw concerns itself with the ups and downs of financial security.  The first verse is concerned with child labour, and the poor pay children received for the work that they did.

The second verse, with its cruel taunt of ‘slut’, reminds us of how unkind our reactions to poverty can be. Margery Daw would surely not sell her bed were it not a last resort, yet she is chided as slovenly. Perhaps too, the charge of sluttiness, along with the surname Daw (meaning ‘lazy person’)  invokes questions of the deserving versus the undeserving poor. Enduring poverty in the eighteenth century would inevitably drive one to the workhouse, or Malt House.

Albert Jack suggests that See-saw Margery Daw was a taunt among children, directed at the poorest, making this jaunty song very unpleasant indeed. Other sources, most notably Iona and Peter Opie, suggest that the rhyme may have been used as a rhythm-keeping song for sawyers while operating a two-handled saw.

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