My entry published onto the London Shoes (londonshoes.blog) website this week, involved me adopting a slightly different approach, in terms of the subject matter – as the topic focusses on a very old children’s ‘nursery rhyme’, that has been sung by children in London, and no doubt elsewhere, for hundreds of years……. namely “Oranges & Lemons”.
My quest this week was to find out more about the origins of this rhyme and what it’s actually all about – and the significance of the ‘churches’ mentioned in the rhyme.
Just to remind those who may have forgotten it – this is how it goes:-
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 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
Chip chop, chip chop, the last man’s dead.
The first official published record of the ‘Oranges & Lemons’ nursery rhyme, dates back to 1744, when it appeared in a book entitled ‘Tom Thumbs Pretty Song Book’, but it is more than likely that the rhyme was around long before that date.
There are 6 London churches mentioned in the rhyme as we know it today, and it is said that the tune that is sung to the rhyme, mimics the peals of the bells in those churches.
There is evidence to show that there have been many versions of ‘Oranges & Lemons’ throughout the centuries, and in fact the original version had rhymes involving loads more London churches than the 6 mentioned in the rhyme commonly known today.
So what is the ‘Oranges & Lemons’ rhyme all about???
Well – there are loads of theories about the meaning of it.
One theory is that it’s a micky-take of Henry VIII matrimonial difficulties, and his way of dealing with unwanted wives – especially the concluding lines about having your head ‘chopped-off’.
Another common theory is that it is all about ‘child-sacrifice’ – not a very pleasant topic I know, but London wasn’t a particularly pleasant place back then.
Another common theory is that it is about the delicate topic of a young London maiden losing her virginity.
However, the theory that I personally would go with, is that it is a sort of public ‘warning’ to adults and children, not to ‘pilfer’ – and what would happen to them if they were ever caught ‘on-the-rob’.
So why ‘Oranges & Lemons’??
Well – as we know, back in the 16th & 17th centuries, the ‘common’ Londoner lived a life of extreme poverty, where a good healthy and nourishing diet, was a rarity.
Citrus fruits such as ‘Oranges’ and ‘Lemons’ were looked upon as being a luxury, and a bit of a ‘currency’ – particularly in terms of providing an ‘eater’ with good health.
Oranges provided valuable Vitamin C, essential to give strength and to help fight off infection.
Lemons, on the other hand, were an essential fruit to help combat ‘scurvy’ which was rife amongst the poor, particularly those that worked in the docks.
So – what is the significance of the churches mentioned in the rhyme???
Looking separately at each individual church mentioned in the rhyme – the theory behind their inclusion could very well be as follows:-
“Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clements”
This particular line has a bit of a personal significance for me, as it namechecks my surname – and when I was at primary & junior school, kids would often mock me by reciting this line at me.
It is thought that this could be either the well-known ‘St. Clement Danes’ church or the lesser known ‘St. Clements’ church in Eastcheap.
It is most likely to be ‘St. Clements-Eastcheap’ – because back in the 16th & 17TH centuries, this church was located very near to a wharf on the Thames where cargos of citrus fruits were unloaded before being transported off to the markets.
“You owe me five farthings say the bells of St Martins”
It is firmly believed that the St.Martins church mentioned in the rhyme, relates to ‘St.Martins Orgar’ church, and not the more popularly known ‘St.Martins-in-the Fields’ church.
St.Martin Orgar – was a tiny little church down by the Monument area, which was once the place where all the back street money lenders used to hang-out.
Like loads of others, this church was destroyed by the Great Fire of London – but its ‘tower’ still remains today, and is now used as an office block.
“When will you pay me? Say the bells of Old Bailey”
There was never an actual ‘bell’ at the Old Bailey – but this refers to the church of ‘St Sepulchre-without-Newgate’ – which is a 15th century church located across the road from the Old Bailey, and what was the infamous Newgate Prison, which was once London’s main jail.
The church was rebuilt in 1878 and today it houses the ‘bell’ that was rung every time there was to be an execution. Back in the day, executions were public events, which attracted literally thousands of Londoner’s – a bit like going to a football match today – and the ringing of the bell at St. Sepulchre church would be the way of notifying the public that an execution was about to take place.
The condemned would be taken from Newgate Prison by horse & cart, through the streets of London, up to the ‘Tyburn’ gallows up near Marble Arch – which was London’s main execution site.
“When I grow rich say the bells of Shoreditch”
This refers to St. Leonard’s church in Shoreditch High Street, which was built in 1740, and is still around today.
Today, Shoreditch is one of the wealthiest districts in London, but at the time of the ‘Oranges & Lemons’ rhyme, it was most certainly one of the poorest.
The reference to St. Leonard’s church in the rhyme, could be a sort of throw-away “you’re ‘avin a laugh” comment – because, at that time, there was no way that anyone from Shoreditch was ever gonna be rich.
“When will that be? say the bells of Stepney”
The church referred to here is the magnificent ‘St.Dunstans’ in Stepney – one of the very few medieval buildings left in London.
Records show that there has been a church on or around the current site since 1029. The current building has gone through several re-builds throughout the centuries, but is still an amazing place.
At the time of the origination of the ‘Oranges & lemons’ rhyme, Stepney was just outside the City walls (still is) and it was a district where the very rich of London resided. The church itself, had strong links to mariners – and it was once known as the ‘Church of the High Seas’, and the phrase “When will that be?” could possibly refer to wives waiting for sailors to return from voyages with their fortunes – to enable them to pay off the debts they had incurred while their men were at sea.
“I do not know says the great bell at Bow”
It is said that to be a true ‘Cockney’ you have to be born within the sound of Bow Bells.
Despite what most people think, “Bow Bells” aren’t in Bow – they are in fact the bells of the church of ‘St. Mary-Le-Bow’, in Cheapside, in the City.
If you think about it, back in the day long before sky scraper buildings and motorised traffic – it would have been quite feasible to ‘hear’ the sound of the ‘St. Mary-Le-Bow’ bells, over in East London.
The sound of the ‘bells’ of St. Mary-Le-Bow have always been perceived as London’s ‘king of rings’ and a sound that everyone took notice of. Throughout the 14th/15th/16th centuries it was the evening ‘curfew’ bell – informing all Londoner’s, for their own safety, to be off the streets and back I their homes by 9pm – if you were still ‘on the street’ after that time then you could find yourself in trouble. Also, the peal of St. Mary-Le-Bow was used by the BBC when transmitting radio programmes to the troops overseas during WW2.
“Here comes a chopper to chop off your head”
It is believed that these final lines of the rhyme are just a bit of exaggerated scaremongering – as it is unlikely that anyone ever got executed for nicking a few ‘orange & lemons’ or any other light light-fingered activities….but you never know.
So – having spent a busy day trekking all over the City, and then trotting off to Shoreditch and finally Stepney, to seek out these churches – I treated myself to a couple of ‘cheeky’ beers at the interesting ‘Half Moon’ pub in Stepney – a building built in 1900 as a Methodist chapel. By the late 1970’s the chapel was no more, and the building had been taken over by the “Half Moon Theatre Company”, who put on many productions throughout the years.
By the early 1990’s the theatre had closed down, and it was then converted into its current form – the ‘Half Moon’ pub, and a very pleasant place it is too, to sink a few beers.
Anyway – hope you enjoyed this piece – I certainly enjoyed researching it – and you will see that I’ve presented some of the church photos in b&w, just to give them a bit of atmosphere.