‘You’ll All Fall Down’ When You Realise the Origins of Your Favourite Nursery Rhymes


One of the most wonderful aspects of growing up as a child, for me, was the plethora of nursery rhymes that my mother would sing to me and I would learn in school. I would recreate the scenes from “Jack and Jill” with my friends, and play -”Here we go Round the Mulberry Bush” cheerfully. One would think that these old rhymes are completely innocent – but are they really?

After taking a closer look at some of my favourite nursery rhymes and their origins, I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re much, much more inappropriate for children, and to some extent, even adults, than people like to think. With themes such as prostitution, diseases, beheadings and racism, these are some of the origins of classic nursery rhymes that you’d rather not tell young children.

  1. Ring a Ring o’ Roses/Ring Around the Rosie:

The origin of the rhyme that is a favourite of all children, “Ring a Ring o’ Roses”, or ”Ring Around the Rosie”, is said to be about the Great Plague of London of 1665. The “rosie” here refers to the foul-smelling rash that would appear on the skin of the sufferers of the bubonic plague.The stench of the rash was then concealed by the sufferers with a “pocket full of posies”, which would only add to the smell. Theplague killed about 15% of Britain’s population at the time, thus the phrase “atishoo, atishoo, (or “ashes, ashes”), we all fall down (dead).” Rather gory for a children’s game, which involves forming a ring and falling on the floor laughing.

  1. Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush

This cheerful song originated, according to the English historian R.S. Duncan, at Wakefield Prison in England, where female inmates of the jail had to exercise around a mulberry tree in the prison yard. They would sing this rhyme while exercising to keep from the tedium of doing so.

  1. Eeny, Meeny,Miny, Mo

There’s nothing particularly provocative about the lines “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo/Catch a tiger by his toe.” until you consider that the word “tiger” is a relatively new replacement in the rhyme, as a more politically correct stand-in for the word “nigger”. It is evocative of blatant racism of the past and still has the ability to offend.

  1. Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

“Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” is believed to be about “Bloody Mary”, the younger daughter of King Henry VIII of England. It concerns the torture and murder of Protestants by the staunchly-Catholic Queen Mary. Her “garden” here alludes to graveyards in England which filled with Protestant martyrs during her reign. The “silver bells” and “cockleshells” referred to in the poem were torture devices used in prisons. “Silver bells” were thumbscrews; while “cockleshells” were instruments of torture which were attached to male genitals.

  1. Jack and Jill

One of the most common theories surrounding this rhyme’s origin is that ‘Jack’ and ‘Jill’ are actually French monarch Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, who were both found guilty of treason after the French Revolution,and consequently beheaded. The only problem with this theory is that these events occurred nearly 30 years after “Jack and Jill” was first written. The theory which makes more sense and which was more likely possible is that the rhyme is an account of England’s King Charles I’s attempt to reform the tax on liquid measures. When the Parliament rejected his suggestion, he instead made sure that the volume was reduced on half- and quarter-pints, known as jacks and gills, respectively.

Very not safe for work, aren’t they? I’m infinitely glad that I didn’t get to know of this as a child.

Rutvi Zamre

Image Source: The Viewspaper