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Notorious Nursery Rhymes (Number One)

John loves to read, especially crime, fantasy, psychological thrillers, and sci-fi novels. He also writes poetry and short fiction.

Introduction: The Nursery Rhyme

Most people would agree that plagues, prostitution, torture, beheadings, burning at the stake etc are not nice topics to subject our toddlers and children to. However, many of the popular nursery rhymes we enjoyed and learned to sing as children had very dark and disturbing origins which would shock many parents (especially those still reciting them to their children today.)

It seems that fictional writer of fairytales Mother Goose may be more suited to the horror genre along with the likes of Steven King and Dean Koontz.

In each edition of this series, I will discuss the history and/or meaning of two or three of the nursery rhymes we grew up with.

Ring Around the Rosie

Ring around the rosie

A pocketful of posies

Ashes, ashes

We all fall down!

History and Meaning

The perceived origin for this rhyme is by far the most infamous. The verse is said to refer to the Great Plague of London in 1665. The “rosie” is the rash that covered the sufferers of the disease, the smell of which they tried to cover up with “a pocket full of posies (herbs).” The “ashes” were the cremated remains of the deceased, and well, they all did fall down.

Is your childhood ruined yet?

Alternative Versions

(British)

Ring-a-ring o' roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

* this is the version I am most familiar with

(Indian)

Ringa ringa roses,
Pocket full of posies
Husha busha!
We all fall down!

Georgie Porgie Pudding and Pie

Georgie Porgie pudding and pie,

Kissed the girls and made them cry

When the boys came out to play,

Georgie Porgie ran away.

History and Meaning

Georgie Porgie is most often thought to refer to English courtier George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, who was rumoured to be King James I's lover. There is no proof of this relationship, however, it was evident that King James was very fond of Villiers, bestowing on him a lot of money and titles. Villiers' good looks are very well documented though, along with his love for women. It is said that Villiers earned the ire of several husbands whose wives he had sex with, without their consent. This would explain why the girls cried, and why Georgie Porgie ran away when the “boys came out to play.”

Alternative Version

Here is an alternative version with a different ending by me and that may be even more apt if Buckingham was, in fact, King James I's lover.

Georgie Porgie pudding and pie,

Kissed the girls and made them cry

When the boys came out to play,

He kissed them too, he's funny that way.

The Great Fire of London Theory

One other and very interesting theory is that this verse actually refers to Great Fire of London which started in Pudding Lane and is reportedly finished at Pye Corner. In this hypothesis, "The Boys" may refer to the firefighters of the time and "Georgie Porgie" to the arsonist running away at the prospect of being caught by the firefighters.

London Bridge is Falling Down

London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down, falling down.

London Bridge is falling down,

My fair lady.

Set a man to watch all night,

Watch all night, watch all night,

Set a man to watch all night,

My fair lady.

Suppose the man should fall asleep,

Fall asleep, fall asleep,

Suppose the man should fall asleep?

My fair lady.

History and Meaning

Depending on your source, “London Bridge is Falling Down” could be about a Viking attack, child sacrifice, or the normal deterioration of an old bridge.

One of the more widely believed theories is the alleged destruction of London Bridge at the hands of Olaf II of Norway in about 1014. (“Alleged” because some historians don’t believe that attack ever took place.)

However, of all the stories behind the origin of this rhyme, the one that really stands out is the one about human sacrifice. It was believed that a bridge would collapse unless a human sacrifice was buried at the foundations. This was known as immurement, which is the “practice of entombing someone within a structure, where they slowly die from lack of food and water.”

Do you remember the popular game that was played while singing this song, where two kids form an arch, and others run underneath till the end of the song? Whoever was left at the end, was trapped by the hands of the two kids forming the arch. How creepy does that sound now?

Sources

Wikipedia

Vagabomb

Mentalfloss

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on May 10, 2019:

Thank you Lawrence. I also appreciate you sharing about that bridge in Iraq. Very interesting.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on May 10, 2019:

John

I'd heard of the origins for 'Ring of Roses' but not the other two.

However when I was living in Iraq we had a bridge there that legend had it was built after the architect sacrificed his own daughter in Medieval times.

The bridge would claim three or four lives every year.

Awesome hub.

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 13, 2019:

It is my pleasure to refresh your childhood memories Venkatachari. I am glad you also found the background stories interesting.

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on April 13, 2019:

Very entertaining and informative post. It refreshed my childhood days when we were taught those nursery rhymes. I remember the first one entirely (Indian version) and the 3rd one only the starting lines. We used to play Ringa-Ringa Roses.

Thanks for refreshing my memories and for revealing the secrets behind those rhymes.

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 12, 2019:

MsDora, maybe your private school teacher was aware of the real meanings behind the nursery rhymes. I hope I haven’t spoiled them for you. I appreciate you reading this.

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 12, 2019:

Chitrangada, it is only in the last few years that I have been made aware of the darker background of most nursery rhymes, and also some fairy tales. Rhymes we loved to sing to out children without even considering the meaningful the words.

In fact, as they get older I find the children are intrigued by these background stories. So, I am sure yours will be too. Thanks for reading.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on April 12, 2019:

We never learned nursery rhymes at my private school. I learned most of them when I became a teacher. I'm wondering now if my private school teacher thought there was something to hide. Thanks for the unfolding.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on April 12, 2019:

Wow! This is so refreshing. You took me back in time, to my childhood and my children’s childhood. I can remember, how much we enjoyed singing those nursery rhymes, without even caring for the meaning of the song. It was fun, to sing in chorus.

Now, when you explained them, I find it really fascinating. Would share with others, especially my children.

Thanks for sharing this excellent and interesting article.

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 12, 2019:

Shauna, there is much more to most nursery rhymes than meets the eye. Some have many different theories so it is difficult to determine the true stories behind them, but all very interesting and many shocking. I am enjoying the research.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 12, 2019:

John, this is very eye-opening! I had no idea any of these nursery rhymes have sinister origins and meanings. Ring Around the Rosie kinda blew me away. I remember doing the ring dance while singing it. We'd all fall down when we sang the ending.

I always thought Georgie Porgie was a nonsensical childhood rhyme. After reading your alternatives, I think the Great Fire of London theory is the best. At least that's the one my rose-colored glasses prefers!

London Bridge, to me as a child, was simply about a bridge that crumbled. Yes, I remember playing the game. Now I understand why the last person was "captured" by the arch.

There's a bridge in Philly (I can't remember which one) that is purported to contain a body in one of the bases. Rumor has it that a mason fell into the wet concrete and was literally buried alive in the substructure. Creepy!

I look forward to this series, John. I may not like what I learn, but it will bring forth just how naive we were as children. Nothing wrong with that!

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 11, 2019:

You are not wrong there PoetikalyAnointed. The history is creepy.

PoetikalyAnointed on April 11, 2019:

Well-done, John!

So glad I didn't sing those songs to mu kid...creepy!

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 11, 2019:

Thank you, Reginaldo. Glad you enjoyed this.

Professor S from Angeles City, Pampanga, PHILIPPINES on April 11, 2019:

Great work! I love the alternative versions and additional information/theories. More power!

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 11, 2019:

Surprisingly, most are MsDora. Hopefully there are a few with nicer backgrounds.

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 11, 2019:

Thank you Jamie. Stay tuned for more.

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 11, 2019:

Pamela, consider yourself now enlightened lol. Glad you had fun with these tales.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on April 11, 2019:

Thanks for the explanations. Nursery rhymes do sound like horror rhymes after all.

Jamie Lee Hamann from Reno NV on April 11, 2019:

Fun read John. Jamie

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 11, 2019:

I never thought twice about these nursery rhythms. What a rud awakening John. I liked your Georgie Porgie poem the best. Very funny! Thanks for the enlightening article.

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 11, 2019:

Haha Linda, I hope you enjoyed your coffee more than the history/ meaning of these rhymes. Cheers.

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 11, 2019:

So glad these brought back pleasant memories Md, even if you realise you had been singing the wrong words. Thanks for reading.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on April 11, 2019:

Well, that was certainly an interesting tidbit to enjoy with my morning cup of coffee. I'll just stay here safe and secure in my adult world.

Velcro on April 11, 2019:

Plunged me in my childhood , refreshed me with the effervescence of memories....Especially Ringa Ringa Roses (Lol, sung a grammatically wrong rhyme in the whole tenure of my childhood ...yet it was amazing)...Thank you for sharing John...!!! Brought some great memories back !

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 11, 2019:

Well that is a good question Kaili. I guess some of us turned out better adjusted than others lol. Glad you found this interesting enough to want to read more.

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 11, 2019:

Haha Ruby, now you know. Lucky you didn’t know the meaning as a child.

Kaili Bisson from Canada on April 11, 2019:

Great article John, and I look forward to more. How did we ever turn out so well-adjusted? ;-)

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on April 11, 2019:

Yuck, I played the games and didn't know the meaning. It was interesting to learn the history behind the rhymes.

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 11, 2019:

That is so true Liz. It is interesting to delve into the background but can also spoil the childhood innocent enjoyment. Thanks for reading.

Liz Westwood from UK on April 11, 2019:

It is an enlightening exercise looking at the background of nursery rhymes. As children we sing them in all innocence. As adults we find out their less than innocent back stories.

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 11, 2019:

Haha, Bill. What have I done? Thanks for reading though.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 11, 2019:

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Seriously! This is some stuff I didn't know,and now I'm not sure I'm glad I know it. :)

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 11, 2019:

Hi Kamkar, other cultures probably have their own versions of many of these tales or similar ones. I am glad you found this interesting and informative.

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 11, 2019:

Eric, I had never heard of the term "immurement" before but it would be a very unpleasant way to go. Do it! Bust out the Mother Goose and I am sure you will see these nursery rhymes differently from now on. Let's see what ones I come up with next.

KAMKAR from India on April 11, 2019:

INFORMATIVE & INTERESTING.

As I am not a native speaker of English, I was not that familiar with those rhymes. But now when I have worked in kindergarten. I find this article very informative and interesting.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 11, 2019:

I am all in on this series. I will bust out my Mother Goose book and we can then back check with you. Perhaps today with all the violence in electronic gadgets kids will be numb to the horrors.

I certainly never read Mother Goose stuff to a quite young child --- Yikes!

"immurement" wow that would be my greatest fear.

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 11, 2019:

Thanks for reading and commenting brother Elijah. Most nursery rhymes have extremely interesting histories. The difficult part is trying to discern which background is the true one. Hopefully, Part 2 shouldn't be far away.

Elijah A Alexander Jr from Washington DC on April 11, 2019:

Very interesting, my brother, thanks for sharing them, you being European descent would have a better knowledge of those meanings. I will be waiting for more "History" from you.

The only ending I knew to "Ring Around the Roses" was "the last one squat has to tell who they like" so your three interpretations make more sense with what I knew the "Poses" were.

I had no knowledge as to what "Georgie Porgie" was about, thanks for the info but if what you said about King James' bestowings is true your ending may be that he was what is termed today "bisexual".

I had heard the concept of people being buried under "London Bridge" to supposedly strengthen it.

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 11, 2019:

Thanks for revisiting your childhood for a few minutes to read these Paula. Now I bet you can't get them out of your head. Peace.

Suzie from Carson City on April 11, 2019:

Jodah.....These Nursery Rhymes bring us back a long, long way.....yet I can still remember them all. London Bridge and Ring Around the Rosy were big in my group of friends!! LOL I appreciate the history you have shared,. It's always fascinating to hear the back stories,

Well...back to the adult world again! Peace, Paula

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 11, 2019:

Thanks for reading Flourish. Glad you enjoyed the article, but you'll never know who is buried in those bridges :)

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 11, 2019:

Throughly enjoyed this! Now you have me wondering about those ancient bridges!

John Hansen (author) from Queensland Australia on April 11, 2019:

Thank you for being the first to read this Harish. If that practice of "immurement" was in fact involved in the building of London Bridge it is very scary indeed. I did read that there is no archaeologic evidence so far uncovered to prove it.

Harish Mamgain from New Delhi , India on April 10, 2019:

Very interesting history behind the popular rhymes ! The one behind the London bridge involving entombing of humans alive is really very scary , but then history cannot be written back. Looking forward to read what comes next.