The Disturbing and Intriguing Meanings Behind Your Favourite Childhood Nursery Rhymes
Do you have a favourite nursery rhyme from your childhood? Many of us were taught nursery rhymes before we were even able to read and we’ve probably spent many a happy hour passing them down to our own children. But have you ever stopped to wonder what those nursery rhymes are really about? Many of them originated centuries ago, when times were very different. Nursery rhymes, like folklore, were passed down by-word-of-mouth during a time when illiteracy was commonplace amongst the working class. Often, nursery rhymes came about as a way of secretly criticising authority. In bygone times, when it was not safe to say anything negative about rulers and those in power, it is little wonder that people found a way to voice their discontent – in this case by hiding their real meaning in seemingly nonsensical sing songs.
Three Blind Mice
If, like every other naive pre-schooler, you thought that this nursery rhyme was about a trio of mice that blindly walk into a farmer’s kitchen, and subsequently have their tails cut off by the farmer’s wife, you’d be surprisingly mistaken! It’s actually a story about Queen Mary I, who was given the rather apt nickname ‘Bloody Mary’ because she burnt so many Protestants at the stake. The three mice in the story represent three Anglican bishops who refused to renounce their Protestant beliefs. Mary executed them for ‘blindly’ following Protestant teachings rather than Catholic ones!
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
Once again this nursery rhyme seems to point towards Queen Mary’s homicidal tendencies and/or her inability to have children. It is thought that the term ‘contrary’ refers to Mary’s contrarian decision to reverse her half-brother Edward VI’s Protestant reign and restore Roman Catholicism to England.
The second line “how does your garden grow?” has been interpreted as a reference to the Protestant graveyards growing ever larger after her killing spree, although others suggest it’s intention was to mock her infertility by suggesting nothing is growing in her garden. “Silver bells” and “cockle shells” were likely to be the torture devices she used on Protestants and “the pretty maids all in a row” is thought to be either about her multiple miscarriages or a reference to Lady Jane Grey (the nine-day Queen put in place by Edward). Eek! So totally NOT about a pretty little garden like we’d always imagined!
This Old Man
Do you remember the ditty about the old man playing knick-knack on various items?
“This old man he played one he played knickknack on his drum, with a knickknack Paddy wack give a dog a bone this old man came rolling home …”
Well, it turns out that this nursery rhyme refers to the influx of Irish beggars who went door-to-door in England after the potato famine, either to sell their knick-knacks or to literally play a rhythm called ‘nick nacks’ using spoons, in the hopes of being given some money. “Rolling home” is thought to refer to the fact that these people often lived in caravans or maybe it points to the perception that the money they made would be spent on alcohol. Finally “paddywhack” is a derogatory term for hitting an Irish person – a ‘Paddy.’
I have to admit, even as a child, the thought of a baby falling from a cradle in a tree was always quite disturbing! However, as you’ve figured out by now, nursery rhymes are never that literal. So, what is the hidden meaning behind this one?
Apparently, it was believed that King James II, had a baby boy smuggled into the birthing room during his wife’s pregnancy so that he could claim a Catholic heir. The wind that blows and knocks the cradle down in the story, likely refers to his Protestant daughter Mary and son-in-law William of Orange, who eventually captured the Crown during the Revolution of 1688.
Baa Baa Black Sheep
Baa Baa black sheep appears to be a social commentary on King Edward’s wool tax during 1294-1297. The rhyme tells of mediaeval farmers who could barely cover their expenses, as the new tax meant they had to give a third of the cost to the King (“the master”) a third to the church (“the dame”) and could keep just a third for themselves to live on.
Georgie Porgie is thought to be about King George IV, with “pudding and pie” being a reference to his substantial weight, which apparently made him a constant source of ridicule in the press at the time. Despite his size, George had an eye for the ladies, and was known for having a string of mistresses and illegitimate children, explaining the line “kissed the girls and made them cry.” The final lines “when the boys came out to play Georgie Porgie ran away,” points to an incident in which George attended an illegal bare-knuckle boxing fight. When one of the boxers died, the then Prince, who was not known for his courage, quickly fled, so as not be implicated in any way.
Humpty Dumpty wasn’t a person, and he wasn’t an egg either! Humpty was a massive siege cannon that was used by Royalist forces (the King’s men) during the English civil war between 1642 and 1651. During the siege of Colchester in 1648 the cannon was hauled to the top of the church tower of St Mary at-the-Walls, which explains why Humpty is said to have “sat on the wall.” Sadly, Humpty’s “great fall” came when the church tower was blown up and he fell into the surrounding marshland. The cannon was buried so deeply “he couldn’t be put back together again.”
Ring a Ring O’ Roses
Do you remember holding hands with your peers in preschool singing this one, and falling into fits of giggles when you all fall onto the ground at the end? None of us knew of course, but this old favourite was actually about the horrors of the Great Plague that broke out in 1665. One of the first signs that a person had caught the plague was a ring of pink or “rose” coloured spots. In order to protect themselves from this terrible disease many people carried a posy of herbs – hence “a pocketful of posies.” For those who caught ‘the Black Death,’ sneezing was thought to be a sure sign that death was imminent, and of course the line “we all fall down” refers to the many deaths that resulted from the Bubonic plague.
Jack and Jill
A small village in Somerset in the UK has laid claim to the origin of this nursery rhyme. The story goes that during 1697, a young unmarried couple would go up the hill to do their courting. Unsurprisingly Jill became pregnant, but just before the baby was born, Jack was killed by a rock that fell off the hill and landed on his head. Sadly, Jill died too, only days later, during childbirth. A sombre tale indeed!
What other nursery rhymes do you remember from your childhood?