Vintage Fisher Price ‘Three Men in a Tub’ toy. I had one of these!
Three men in a tub
And how do you think they got there?
The butcher, the baker,
They all jumped out of a rotten potato,
‘Twas enough to make a man stare.
This charming bit of nonsense, well known in the UK, differs significantly from the earliest recorded version, recorded in Christmas Box vol. II (1798):
Hey! Rub-a-dub, ho! rub-a-dub, three maids in a tub,
And who do you think was there,
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker,
And all of them gone to the fair.
The Opie’s posit, and I have to agree with them, that the three tradesmen have been found ‘in a place where no respectable townsfolk should be found, watching a dubious side-show at the local fair’ (p. 447).
As to the provenance of the rhyme it is difficult to guess, though the rhyme scheme (A, A, B, C, C, C, B) implies a regional origin – for ‘maker’ to rhyme with ‘potato’ requires a deviation from standard English and RP. Unfortunately, this does not narrow it down much, as the pronunciation of the word ‘potato’ ending with an ‘er’ sound rather than an ‘o’ is common in UK regional accents (Cornish and some Yorkshire accents in particular).
From the initial publication, it was not long before reference to the trio of bathing maids was replaced. In Nurse Lovechild’s Ditties for the Nursery, 1831, the tradesmen are assigned ‘The Brewer, The Baker, The Candle-stick maker’ and the reference to the women is gone, and by Halliwell’s Nursery Rhymes of England in 1842 the rhyme is rendered thus:
Three men in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker,
The candlestick maker.
Turn them out, knaves all three.
It’s worth noting that despite any reference to the men getting up to no good, they are still considered knaves (rogues or villains).
The refrain ‘rub a dub’ appears to be common in comic songs and balladry throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Here is is in A Collection of Loyal Songs Written Against the Rump Parliament Between the years 1639 and 1661, published in 1731:
O rare Cavaliers,
Rub a dub, dub a dub,
Have at Old Beelzebub
Oliver stinks for fear:
Fifth Monarchy hall down,
Bullies and ev’ry Sect in Town
We’ll rally and to’t again,
Give ’em the Rout again,
When they come again,
Charge ’em Home again,
Seize your own again,
Face to the right about,
And this is the Life of
An honest bold Cavalier.
While this does certainly not offer conclusive proof that ‘Rub-a-dub-dub’ is older than it may appear, it does suggest that the rhyme may be part of a longer forgotten song.