'Oranges and Lemons' - The Nursery Rhyme Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Oranges and Lemons' - The Nursery Rhyme

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'Oranges and Lemons' is a well-known English Nursery Rhyme. Of unknown origin, it is possible that the children of London made up the words to fit the rhythm of the ringing bells.

Please note, the last three lines do not appear in the earliest recordings of this rhyme.

Oranges and lemons
Say the bells of St Clements
You owe me five farthings
Say the bells of St Martins
When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey
When I grow rich
Say the bells of Shoreditch
When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney
I'm sure I don't know
Says the great bell at Bow
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head

Chop chop chop chop the last man's head!

The Actions

  • A group of children decide to play 'Oranges and Lemons'. Two children become the 'chopper' by holding hands and forming an arch. They secretly decide which one of them is 'Oranges' and which one is 'Lemons'.

  • The other children go through the arch in a line, circling round behind the arch, and going through again, singing the rhyme as they go. At the last line of the rhyme the 'choppers' bring their arms up and down in a chopping motion over each child that goes through. The game can get quite nerve-racking for the children at this point, and they often run through as fast as they can. The child caught in the middle at the last word of the rhyme is out.

  • The captured child secretly chooses to be Oranges or Lemons, and then moves around to stand behind that child forming the arch. When all the children have been captured, the teams have a tug of war. The winning team is the one left standing, but usually none of the children are by the end.

Where Are These Famous Bells?

Research shows that these are the churches associated with the rhyme:

Bells of St Clements

St Clements, Eastcheap, is a small church, only 64 feet long and 40 feet wide, and stands huddled between two office blocks. There has been a church on the site since the 11th Century; the present one is the third to be standing on the site. The original church was demolished in the 15th Century, and the second was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666. It was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1687.

The church stands in St Clements Lane, in fact, the name of the street comes from the church. It was previously known as Eastcheap. The rhyme begins with this church because when the Thames was wider than it is today, the wharf where the citrus fruit cargoes from the Mediterranean were delivered lay just across the street. It is said the church bells pealed when a cargo arrived.

Bells of St Martins

St Martin Orgar church, near Cannon Street, lost its congregation to St Clements church after the body of the church was destroyed in the Great Fire. In 1670 the parish was officially united with the parish of St Clements Eastcheap. The bell tower and part of the nave survived, and the church was rebuilt and used by French Protestants (Hugenots) until 1820, when all but the tower was pulled down. This was rebuilt in 1851 as a rectory for St Clements, and the old bell was rehung as a clock bell in a projecting clock. Now used as offices, it is in Martin Lane, a street that was once notorious for moneylenders.

Bells of Old Bailey

St Sepulchre-without-Newgate is the largest church in the city of London. Built around 1450, it was badly damaged in the Great Fire and was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1670-1. The historic tower holds the 12 bells of Old Bailey that were restored in 1985. They had been there since 1739, having replaced bells bought from the Priory Church of St Bartholomew in 1537.

Saint Sepulchre was not a person. The original Saxon church on this site was dedicated to the King of East Anglia - St Edmund the Martyr - and was called St Edmund-without-Newgate. At the time of the Crusades, the church became known as 'St Edmund and the Holy Sepulchre', and eventually became 'St Sepulchre' after the Holy Sepulchre of Christ in Jerusalem.

The church's tenor bell in the bell tower was rung on mornings when there was an execution in Newgate Prison (now the site of the more well-known Old Bailey - the Central Criminal Court). The church still has the 'Execution Bell' in a glass case. This is the hand bell that was rung for other services concerning condemned prisoners, including ringing it outside the condemned cell at midnight. Newgate Prison acquired its own bell in 1783, and the tenor bell was no longer used on execution mornings.

Bells of Shoreditch

St Leonard's church, on Kingsland Road, Shoreditch. Now part of the London Borough of Hackney, it was founded in the 12th Century. After collapsing during a service in 1716, the spire was rebuilt as a copy of St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside in the 1730s. The village whipping post and stocks are still in the churchyard.

The area was known for its great poverty. The 'five farthings' debt is centuries old, possibly from the Middle Ages.

Bells of Stepney

St Dunstan and All Saints Church in Stepney, was built in 952 AD by the Bishop of London St Dunstan, when the old wooden church that previously occupied the site was knocked down. At the time, it was dedicated to All Saints only, but St Dunstan was added in 1029 after he had been canonised. The present church dates from 1400, but the chancel dates from 200 years earlier, and the font is about 1000 years old.

The church has ten bells, the oldest of which was recast in 1385.

Great bell at Bow

St Mary-le-Bow, in Cheapside, is also known as Bow Church. There has been a church on the site since 1070. During the 14th Century a curfew was rung on the Bow Bells every night at 9pm; probably the origin of the tradition that anyone born within hearing distance of Bow Bells ringing is a true Cockney.

Rebuilt from 1670 to 1682 by Sir Christopher Wren after it was destroyed during the Great Fire, the name comes from the architecture. There are bow arches in the Norman Crypt, which are repeated in the arches of the steeple. Eight bells were cast for the finished church. Bells were added over the years until it had 12. Destroyed again in 1941 during the blitz of World War II, only the steeple, with its dragon weathercock and two outer walls, were left standing. Restored between 1952 and 1962, the 12 bells were recast and rehung.

The BBC used the peal of these bells at the start of each broadcast to occupied Europe during World War II.

Contending Churches

St Clements

St Clement Danes also lays claim to the introductory lyric, by way of connections with a fruit market. The porters of Clare Market landed the fruit at the wharves in the parish, and paid a toll of oranges and lemons to the church so that they could use the churchyard as a short cut, although this is likely a fabrication, as there is no documentary evidence, and it appears in fiction, notably The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. The church has gone so far as to have an 'Oranges and Lemons' service every year, and on occasion the bells play the tune to the rhyme.

St Martin-in-the-Fields

St Martin-in-the-Fields is often the church associated with the nursery rhyme, but this Researcher could find no other link than that.

St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square was built in the 12th Century for the monks on their way to their convent gardens (now Covent Garden) from Westminster Abbey, and was originally surrounded by fields.

There have been bells in St Martin-in-the-Fields since the 14th Century. They were recast in the 16th Century, when there were eight bells. The church was pulled down and rebuilt in 1720, gaining an extra four bells in 1728, two years after the new church was consecrated. They were rung to celebrate Admiralty victories. They also rang to celebrate the return of Captain James Cook.

The bells were to be melted down, because they were out of tune and worn out, but in 1987 they were saved by donations. Retuned, refurbished, and with another five added to their number, they were given as a gift to the City of Perth in Western Australia to mark the Australian bicentennial in 1988.

The Meaning

There are many possible meanings to the rhyme. One is that it is about the poverty that was around London at the time it became popular, one that it is about King Henry VIII and the speed with which some of his brides were despatched, and another is that it is about sex, particularly, the wedding night. To explain the third meaning, the fullest version of the rhyme1 is repeated at the end of the entry. It could be seen as a Wedding List; and was the five farthings the cost of a Marriage License?

  • Old shoes and slippers - These were commonly thrown after brides on their wedding day.

  • Old Father Baldpate - possibly a description of a phallus.

  • Here comes a candle to light you to bed - the bride is tempting her new bridegroom to bed.

  • Here comes a chopper to chop off your head - the 'head' referred to is the 'maidenhead' (virginity).

The full (lesser-known) version

Gay go up, and gay go down
To ring the bells of London Town
Bull's eyes and targets
Say the bells of St. Marg'ret's
Brickbats and tiles
Say the bells of St. Giles'
Oranges and lemons
Say the bells of St. Clement's
Pancakes and fritters/(Old shoes and slippers)
Say the bells of St. Peter's
Two sticks and an apple
Say the bells at Whitechapel
Old Father Baldpate
Say the slow bells at Aldgate
Maids in white aprons
Say the bells at St Catherine's
Pokers and tongs
Say the bells of St. John's
Kettles and pans
Say the bells of St. Anne's
Halfpence and farthings
Say the bells of St. Martin's
When will you pay me?
Say the bells at Old Bailey
When I grow rich
Say the bells at Shoreditch
Pray, when will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney
I do not know
Says the great bell at Bow
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head

Fascinating Facts

  • 'Oranges and Lemons' was a Square Dance for eight - dating back to 1665.

  • The rhyme is quoted in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four as a symbol of the desirable and unattainable past.

  • The oldest recorded version in 1744 did not include the couplet 'Oranges and Lemons'. That did not appear until 1858.

  • Shropshire and Northamptonshire have local versions of the rhyme.

1The couplets have not all appeared in one version. Different documents at different times show any number of combinations.

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