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Category Archives: Origins

Origins: Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

Bonfire_11Remember, remember the fifth of November!
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
There is no reason that gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot. 

This short rhyme, often recited at this time of year, is part of a longer verse appearing in Notes and Queries in 1857. A similarversion, differing by a few lines, can be found in English Folk-rhymes: A Collection of Traditional Verses Relating to Places and Persons, Customs, Superstitions, Etc. (1892):

Remember, remember,
The Fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot:
For I see no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot
Guy Fawkes, Guy, ’tis our intent.
To blow up the king and his parliament.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
By God’s providence he got catched
With a dark lantern and burning match.
A stick and a stake
For King George’s sake!
And a rope and a cart
To hang Bonyparte!
Pope, Pope, Spanish Pope!
Nobody’s  coming to town.
A halfpenny loaf to feed old Pope,
And a penn ‘orth of cheese to choke him;
A pint of beer to drink his health,
And a twopenny faggot to burn (qu. smoke) him;
Burn his body from his head,
And then we’ll say, “Old Pope is dead.”
Holla, boys, holla, make your voices ring!
Holla, boys, holla, God save the King!
Hip, hip, hoorr-r-r-ray!

‘Remember, Remember’ is one of the few rhymes around whose legend matches its origin; the events described in the additional stanzas really did happen. Read the rest of this entry

Origins: If All the World Were Paper

Howard PyleIf all the world were paper
If all the seas were ink
If all the trees
Were bread and cheese
What would we do to drink?

This rhyme constitutes the first verse of a comic poem appearing in John Mennes and James Smiths  Facetiae*, published in or after 1658:

If all the world were paper,
And all the sea were inke;
If all the trees were bread and cheese,
How should we do for drinke?

If all the world were sand’o,
Oh then what should we lack’o;
If as they say there were no clay,
How should we take tobacco?

If all our vessels ran’a,
If none but had a crack’a;
If Spanish apes ate all the grapes,
How should we do for sack’a?

If fryers had no bald pates,
Nor nuns had no dark cloysters;
If all the seas were beans and pease,
How should we do for oysters?

If there had been no projects,
Nor none that did great wrongs;
If fidlers shall turne players all,
How should we doe for songs?

If all things were eternall,
And nothing their end bringing;
If this should be then how should we
Here make an end of singing?

Read the rest of this entry

Origins: The Skye Boat Song

An incident in the rebellion of 1746; David Morier

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! The sailors cry;
Carry the bairn that is born to be king,
Over the sea to Skye.

Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclaps rend the air;
Baffled, our foes stand by the shore;
Follow – they will not dare.

Though the waves leap, soft shall ye sleep
Ocean’s a royal bed.
Rocked in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch by your weary head.

Many’s the bairn fought on that day,
Well the claymore could wield.
When the night came, silently lay
Dead in Culloden’s field.

Burnned are their homes, exile and death
Scatter the loyal men;
Yet e’er the sword cool in the sheath
Charlie will come again.

There are a lot of nursery rhymes and traditional childrens’ songs that legend would have you believe have their origins in the goings on of the British and Scottish monarchies. Usually I delight in shattering those myths, but today I can’t. The traditional lullaby ‘The Skye Boat Song’ really is about the regal drama of the Jacobite Rebellions. Read the rest of this entry

Origins: Higgledy-Piggledy


Higgledy-piggledy, my black hen
She lays eggs for gentlemen,
Sometimes nine and sometimes ten,
Higgledy- piggledy, my black hen.

Also known with the following lyric:

Higgledy piggledy, my black hen
She lays eggs for gentlemen,
Sometimes nine and sometimes ten;
Gentlemen come every day
To see what my black hen has laid.

Albert Jack, whose book Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Ryhmes is accurate as often as it is not, claims the rhyme is the narration of a brothel keeper or procuress, advertising the services of her girls.  Jack  notes the similarity to a more overtly lascivious rhyme:

Little Blue Betty lived in a den,
She sold good ale to gentlemen;
Gentlemen came every day,
And little Blue Betty hopped away.
She hopped upstairs to make her bed,
And she tumbled down and broke her head.

Which first appeared in Gamer Gurton’s Garland in 1810, and concerns a girl working ‘under the sign of The Golden Can’. Opie lists a number of similar examples which refer to women  providing allegorical services to “gentlemen”, so a precident is set. ‘Higgledy-Piggledy’ is the only rhyme of the set that refers to an aimal.

Latterly Ogden Nash has used the rhyme as the basis for a poem, as has Dorothy Parker, who gave her version a decidedly more political bent;

At a party where she was seated with Somerset Maugham, the author asked if she would write a poem for him. “I will if you like,” Miss Parker said, and scribbled out:

Higgledy Piggledy, my white hen;
She lays eggs for gentlemen.

“Yes, I’ve always liked those lines,” Mr. Maugham commented.

Miss Parker bestowed a cool smile and without an instant’s hesitation added:

You cannot persuade her with a gun or lariat;
To come across for the proletariat.

from Parker’s obituary in the New York Times, 1967

There are great numbers of permutations of ‘Higgledy-Piggledy’ – rhymes of a similar metre that reference trade and which begin  an assonant nonsense phrase.  They appear from the late eighteenth century onwards – even Beatrix Potter got in on the act. The version I began with seems to be the most popular, but competition is strong.

Origins: I Love Little Pussy

Startled cat is startled

I love little pussy,
Her coat is so warm,
And if I don’t hurt her,
She’ll do me no harm.

So I’ll not pull her tail,
Nor drive her away,
But pussy and I,
Very gently will play.

I’ll sit by the fire
And give her some food,
And Pussy will love me
Because I am good.

A rhyme that’s fallen out of favour in recent years (because pornographic slang they’ve never heard and certainly don’t associate with anything untoward apparently corrupts our children), I Love Little Pussy is a simple didactic poem for youngsters reminding them to be kind to animals. First published with an additional three stanzas in Melvin Lord and John C. Holbrook’s A Child’s song book, for the use of schools and families : being a selection of favourite airs, with hymns and moral songs, suitable for infant instruction in 1830, a copy of which is available online. The book is described by its publishers as,

[An] attempt to combine pure religious and moral sentiment with innocent hilarity […] dedicated to those benevolent ladies who devote their time and talents to the cause of infant education, with the hope that it shall be in some degree auxiliary to their meritorious enterprize.

The poem appeared anonymously, but has been attributed to Jane Taylor, famous for Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. A Child’s Song Book was published five years after Taylor’s death, which does not rule out her authorship, but does suggest more reasearch should be done.

Recently the poem has been bowdlerised to “I Love Little Kitty” by some. Needless to say, I think this is ridiculous.

Origins: Pat-a-Cake, Pat-a-Cake

Made by

Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man,
Bake me a cake as fast as you can.
Pat it and prick it, and mark it with ‘B’
And put it in the oven for baby and me.

Though Pat-a-Cake (sometimes known as patty-cake or pattycake) first appeared in the form we know it in Gamer Gurton’s Garland in 1784, it is rather older.

In Mother Gooses Melody (1765) the rhyme appears as:

Patty Cake, Patty Cake, Bakers’ Man,
That I will Master, As fast as I can
Prick it and prick it, And mark it with a T
And there will be enough for Jackey and me.

The rhyme was certainly known in the late 1690s, too. From Opie,

[Pat-a-cake] was portrayed as an infants’ ditty as early as 1698. In [Thomas] D’Urfey‘s comedy The Campaigners the ‘affected tattling nurse’ murmers endearments as she suckles her charge.
‘Ah Doddy blesse dat pitty face of myn Sylds, and his pitty, pitty hands, and his pitty, pitty foots, and all his pitty things, and pat a cake, pat a cake Bakers man, so I will master as I can, and prick it, and prick it, and prick it, and prick it, and throw’t into the Oven’.

It is unclear when this less popular second verse was added;

Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man.
Bake me a cake as fast as you can;
Roll it up, roll it up;
And throw it in a pan!
Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man.

It may be that the rhyme refers to the baking of bread in a communal oven, a practice common in England in the middle ages and early modern era. Websters Online Dictionary describes the tradition;

 The family (usually the woman was in charge of breadmaking) would bake on a fixed schedule, perhaps once a week. The starter was saved from the previous week’s dough. The starter was mixed with the new ingredients, the dough was left to rise, then a piece of it was saved (to be the starter for next week’s bread). The rest was formed into loaves which were marked with the family sign (this is where today’s decorative slashing of bread loaves originates from), and taken to the communal oven to bake. These communal ovens over time evolved into what are known today as bakeries, when certain people specialized in bread baking, and with time enhanced the process so far as to be able to mass produce cheap bread for everyone in the village.

This is, as is so often the case, an educated guess.

Origins: Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton,
Dead and forgotten
She lies in her bed,
With her eyes wide open.

Sing, sing, oh, what can I sing,
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
Where, where? Up in the air
Sellin’ black puddens a penny a pair.

Mary Ann Cotton is certainly dead, but she isn’t forgotten; in fact she’s thought by some to be Britain’s most prolific serial killer. This rhyme, often used to accompany skipping games, is more popular in the North East of England than elsewhere and commemorates the woman who was hanged at Durham County Gaol on 24 March, 1873 after being convicted of the murder of her stepson Charles Edward.

There was a time when arsenic was available over the counter in chemist’s shops. It was used as a cosmetic, as a medicine, in green coloured wall-papers and even as a treatment for erectile dysfunction as well as its more reasonable function as a poison for domestic rats.

In order to buy it, a purchaser was made to sign the ‘poison book’ kept by the pharmacist, but in an age of low literacy levels and no central records being kept the poison book was a fairly useless tool in deterring or fighting misuse of the substance. It is perhaps this that led Mary Ann Cotton to remain undetected in her murderous spree for so long.

Mary Ann Cotton married her first husband, William Mowbray in 1852; with him she bore nine children.

By 1865, her husband and eight of her children had died of a mysterious stomach complaint. Cotton collected £35 insurance and sent her remaining child, Isabella to live with her mother. The same year, Cotton married her second husband, George Ward. He died, following a stomach illness, before another year had passed. Once again Cotton collected an insurance payout.

After the death of her second husband, Cotton took a job working as housekeeper to James Robinson, whose infant daughter soon took ill and died. Robinson sought comfort in Cotton, and before long she fell pregnant again. In early 1867, Cotton was called to her ailing mother’s bedside. After a period of remission, Cotton’s mother started experiencing stomach pains and died shortly after. Cotton had no choice but to return home with her daughter Isabella. By April, Isabella was dead and so were Robinson’s two remaining children from his previous marriage. Read the rest of this entry