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Origins: Ding Dong Bell

Ding, dong, bell,
Pussy’s in the well.
Who put her in?
Little Johnny Green.
Who pulled her out?
Little Tommy Stout.
What a naughty boy was that,
To try to drown poor pussy cat,
Who ne’er did him any harm,
But killed all the mice in the farmer’s barn.

Proving that a concern for animal welfare is not a modern phenomenon, Ding Dong Bell teaches compassion toward our furry friends.

One of the older of the rhymes covered in this series, Ding Dong Bell has been traced to 1580, when the organist of Winchester Cathedral collected the following lines:

Jacke Boy, ho boy newes,
the cat is in the well.
let us ring now for her Knell,
ding dong ding dong Bell.

This puts paid to the assertion that the rhyme was penned by Shakespeare, who borrows the lyric in The Taming of the Shrew (III, sc. II) in the early 1590s,  and The Tempest (I, sc. II) written around 1610. It is also alluded to in The Merchant of Venice (IV, sc. I) from about 1597.

As so often is the case, the text of the rhyme as we now know it first appeared in Mother Goose’s Melody in 1760, though what journey the rhyme took betweet 1580 and 1760 I do not know. It is only clear that the lyric changed considerably, and a moral was added. This is unsurprising given the period – by the 1700s, children had begun to be seen as vessels to be filled with Christian morals.

In 1949 New Rhymes for Old by Geoffrey Hall was published with the following, reformed version:

Ding dong bell,
Pussy’s at the well.
Who took her there?
Little Johnny Hare.
Who’ll bring her in?
Little Tommy Thin.
What a jolly boy was that
To get some milk for pussy cat,
Who ne’er did any harm,
But played with the mice in his father’s barn.

This version has not become popular; it is the 1760 rhyme that has endured.

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