Nursery Rhymes – Origin & History

Oct 21, 2011 by

As children we’re taught many different nursery rhymes. Most seem frivolous and amusing however behind every one is a history and story that’s every bit intriguing as the rhyme itself. Here are origins of a few …

Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

The real Humpty Dumpty was not a person but a powerful cannon used by the Royalist forces during the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651.

Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle led the King’s men and overpowered the Parliament stronghold of Colchester early in 1648. They grimly held on while the Parliamentarians, led by Thomas Fairfax, encircled and besieged the town.

The supporters of Charles I almost won the day – all thanks to his doughtiest defender, Humpty Dumpty. In pole position, as it were, on top of the church tower of St Mary-at-the-Walls (Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall) their gunners managed to blast away the attacking Roundhead troops for 11 weeks.

Eventually, though, the top of the church tower was blown away, sending Humpty Dumpty crashing to the ground, where it buried itself in deep marshland (Humpty Dumpty had a great fall).

The king’s cavalry (the horses) and the infantry (the men) hurried to retrieve the cannon, but they couldn’t put Humpty together again – and without their weapon of mass destruction they were soon overrun by Fairfax and his soldiers.


Pop Goes the Weasel

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel.

There has been much debate over the years about the meaning of Pop Goes The Weasel. A hugely popular music-hall song, its memorable and seemingly nonsensical lyrics spread like wildfire throughout Victorian London.

But is there more to the rhyme than meets the eye? In the 1680s, the poor and immigrants lived outside the walls of the City of London in Spitalfields, Hoxton and Shoreditch and slaved away in London’s textile industry, which was based there.

Packed with sweatshops, it was also the site of many music halls and theatres.

One theory suggests that Pop Goes The Weasel was an attempt to turn the grim reality of local people’s lives into a hit song.

In the textile industry, a spinner’s weasel was a mechanical thread-measuring device in the shape of a spoked wheel, that accurately measured out yarn by making a popping sound to indicate the correct length had been reached.

The mind-numbing and repetitive nature of the work is captured in the final line of each verse, indicating that whatever you were doing, or wherever your mind had wandered to, reality was never far away with the weasel to pop you alert again.


Polly Put the Kettle On

Polly put the kettle on,
Polly put the kettle on,
Polly put the kettle on;
We’ll all have tea.
Sukey take it off again,
Sukey take it off again,
Sukey take it off again;
They’ve all gone away.

One theory about the origins of this rhyme centres on the life of an unnamed writer in London in the mid-18th century with his young family of two boys and three girls.

Supposedly, there were many arguments between the children about who could play in which room of the house. The girls, keen to be rid of the noisy boys, would often pretend to start a tea party.

The youngest, Polly, would reach for the toy kettle as the other girls sang ‘Polly put the kettle on’.

At this point, the boys would scarper Their father was so enamored of the girls’ cheek that he wrote it all down, set it to music and the rhyme was later published.


Jack and Jill

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water;
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.

Taken at face value, the rhyme doesn’t make sense. Why do Jack and Jill go up the hill to fetch water? Water generally runs downhill, so perhaps it’s a cover story for something else.

A small village in Somerset has laid claim to the origin of the rhyme. The story told in Kilmersdon is that during 1697 the village was home to a young unmarried couple who did a lot of their courting up on a hill, away from the prying eyes of the local gossips.

Consequently 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. Only days later, Jill also died in childbirth. It’s cheery stuff.

The rhyme is today depicted on a series of tablet stones along the path to the hill.


Old King Cole

Old King Cole was a merry old soul,
And a merry old soul was he;
He called for his pipe,
And he called for his bowl
And he called for his fiddlers three.

Some believe that the rhyme must have been written after the introduction of tobacco to Europe in 1564. But it might go back much further, to the early part of the first millennium, where the pipe was much more likely to have been the double aulos, an ancient reed instrument, and the bowl a type of drum.

In addition, the word coel is the Gaelic word for ‘music’, so could Old King Cole be the ‘Old King of Music’ – the venerable leader of a band, playing the pipe and drum with his fiddlers three? Or could he have been a real person?

We find three candidates dating back to the Roman occupation and three rulers of Colchester – known as the Kings of Cole.

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