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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: Christmas is Coming [revised, updated 11-12-14]



Christmas is coming,
The goose is getting fat;
Please put a penny
In the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t got a penny,
A ha’penny will do;
If you haven’t got a ha’penny
God bless you.

This rhyme, often sung as a round, and has been accepted into the canon of Christmas carols in North America, doesn’t appear in the nursery rhyme addict’s bible which makes dating it difficult.

To begin with a bit of frivolity, we we can say with certainty the rhyme appeared after the Great Vowel Shift that created our modern tongue, which means it’s extremely unlikely to have appeared before 1550, and is probably significantly later than that.

The first publication of ‘Christmas is Coming’ (that I can find) is in 1882. The rhyme appears in an issue of the periodical Bye-Gones, a publication ‘relating to Wales and the Border Counties’. The following year a book by CS Burne and GF Jackson entitled Shropshire Folklore appeared thtat also included the rhyme. It appears under the heading of Nursery Rhymes and Children’s Jingles and is noted as having been collected in Oswestry.

Given the title of the journal in which it appears, it’s seems fair to assume the rhyme is well establised, in Oswestry if nowhere else, before the time it is printed, but the rhymes lack of inclusion in anthologies like Gammer Gurton’s Garland  or Nursery Rhymes of England, published in 1866 and 1849 respectively confuses matters.

Gammer Gurton’s Garland and other, similar, tomes, should not be considered exhaustive lists of nursery rhymes, but it is distinctly unusual that it is not there. All we know is that the rhyme appeared at some point after 1550 but was not considered significant enough to be be printed until 1882 and wasn’t anthologised until even later than that. It’s probably Georgian or early Victorian, but it’s worth investigating other clues the text provides. Since charitable giving has been a part of Christmas since forever (it’s where we get Boxing Day from and is celebrated in the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas‘) and the penny was introduced as a form of currency in seven-hundred-and-something, the history of the Christmas feast itself might offer the best clues.

Read the rest of this entry

Origins: Rub-a-dub-dub

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,
The candlestick-maker,
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,
Tant-tarra rarra,
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.

Origins: The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe

William Wallace Denslow’s The Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe;
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.
She gave them some broth,without any bread,
Then whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed.

This rhyme is interesting for the revisionism it has undergone, as well as its possible meaning. The earliest extant printing of the rhyme is in Gammer Gurton’s Garland (1794), where the final line reads ‘She whipp’d all their bums, and sent them to bed’, a more graphic line than the one we’re used to.

In more recent years printed versions have substituted ‘kissed them all soundly’ in the closing line, bowdlerising the verse completely and stripping it of sense. It’s seems, though, that we’re not getting the whole story with these lines. Infant Institutes, published just four years after Gamer Gurton’s Garland, has an additional couplet:

Then out went th’ old woman to bespeak ’em a coffin,
And when she came back, she found ’em all a-loffeing.

(Infant Institutes, 1797)

Why is the old woman buying a coffin? Is she going to kill herself or one of her children? Why are the children ‘a-loffeing’, or laughing? Do they not fear her? Read the rest of this entry

Origins: Simple Simon

“Let me taste your ware”

Simple Simon met a pie man,
Going to the fair;
Said Simple Simon to the pieman,
“Let me taste your ware”.

Said the pieman to Simple Simon,
“Show me first your penny.”
Said Simple Simon to the pieman,
“Sir I have not any.”

Simple Simon went a-fishing,
For to catch a whale;
All the water he had got
Was in his mother’s pail.

Simple Simon went to look
If plumbs grew on a thistle;
He pricked his finger very much,
Which made poor Simon whistle.

He went to catch a dicky bird,
And thought he could not fail
Because he had a little salt,
To put upon its tail.

He went for water with a sieve,
But soon it ran all through;
And now poor Simple Simon
Bids you all adieu.

The first publication of ‘Simple Simon’ that we know of is in a chapbook of 1764. The phrase ‘simple Simon’ denoting a silly or thoughtless person can be traced back at least as far as 1665 when a song of that name is included in the third edition of The Dancing Master, an English Country Dancing manual by John Playford.

An additional verse appears in Early English Poetry, Ballads and Popular Literature of the Middle Ages, published in 1842:

Simple Simon went to town,
To buy a piece of meat:
He tied it to his horses tail
To keep it clean an sweet.

The book claims that the verses it contains ‘were all of them current during the reign of Edward I’, which is almost certainly tosh, and which cannot be backed up with further evidence.

‘Simple Simon’ is part of a tradition in nursery rhymes and children’s songs of making an example of ignorance or bad behaviour (other examples include ‘There Was a Little Girl‘) and s By ridiculing Simple Simon for his attempts to catch a whale in a bucket or buy pies with no money, we internalise the notion that ignorance equals social stigma and cement in ourselves the idea that knowledge and learning are a good thing.

This message is corroborated in George Butt’s Poems, of 1793:

Saith Simon the simple to Joseph the seer,
I’m come some advice from your worship again,
What a dolt thou art, Sim, quoth the sage, to come here,
Yet hast brought me no vessel the thing to contain.

The rhyme is, too, good for the ego – if we can see that Simon is simple, we can deduce that we are not: Simple Simon does not learn and continues to make thoughtless errors (Butt portrays him as actually brainless) but we, if we put our minds to it, will not.

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