Georgie Porgie

Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry;
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.

There is a sinister undertone to this nursery rhyme; Georgie Porgie really seems to be up to no good, otherwise the girls would not be crying and he would not have to run away when the boys came out to play. So what is it all about, then?

There are two Georges whose stories fit the events. One was George Villiers (1592–1628), the handsome son of an insignificant nobleman but who soon climbed his own way into the court of James I and the king’s favour. Aged just twenty-three, he was given the somewhat unnerving position of Gentleman of the Bedchamber.

Rumour had it that he and the king were more than good friends. It certainly would explain why within two years he had been made an earl and then a marquess. Five years later, aged just thirty-one, George became the 1st Duke of Buckingham, proving quite clearly that the king’s bedchamber was the place to be for any aspiring nobleman in the early seventeenth century.

The nursery rhyme is said to mock both James I and George Villiers over their open romantic interest in each other. In fact, the king even proclaimed to the Privy Council that ‘you may be sure that I love the Duke of Buckingham more than anybody else and I wish not to have it thought to be a defect’. Although the king once announced that that homosexuality was among the crimes that ‘we are bound in conscience never to forgive’, it is now believed by historians studying court diaries and correspondence that the pair were indeed lovers. The king even called Georgie ‘my sweet child and wife’ as if to emphasize the point.

But George was also known to be partial to both sexes and had many affairs with both the young ladies of court and the wives and daughters of other powerful Englishmen, causing resentment all around, although his relationship with the king gave him a certain amount of immunity. It had also been whispered that he often took advantage of his privilaged position and forced his affections upon the said ladies, causing outrage (Kissed the girls and made them cry) while managing to avoid confrontation or retaliation (When the boys came out to play, / Georgie Porgie ran away).

George Villiers’ luck eventually ran out when, in 1672, he became embroiled in military matters and led an unsuccessful campaign on behalf of James’s son, Charles I, during which the former rent-boy-made-good accidentally lost over four thousand men out of an army of seven thousand. On his return to Portsmouth, he was stabbed to death by one of the wounded soldiers, furious at his commander’s lack of military judgement and the loss of so many of his English comrades. ‘Georgie Porgie’ was laid to rest at Westminster Abbey later that year.

Another candidate for the real Georgie Porgie is the prince regent George IV, the hapless son, with half an inch of brain, of mad King George III (see The Grand Old Duke of York). Immensely fat (Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie), his corset-wearing was the source of constant ridicule and satirical cartoons. By 1797, his weight had reached seventeen and a half stone and by 1824 his corsets were being made for a waist of fifty inches.

This George was unquestionably heterosexual but he took as much advantage of his position as George Villiers had done. He had a roving eye: attractive female visitors to the parties he gave at the Pavilion in Brighton were often advised to avoid being left alone with him. His chequered love life involved several mistresses, illegitimate children and even bigamy. He had an official wife, Caroline of Brunswick, whom he detested so much he even banned her from his coronation, and an unofficial one – Maria Anne Fitzherbert (as she was both a Catholic and a commoner, their marriage was not formally recognized and remained a secret) – and he managed to make both women miserable (Kissed the girls and made them cry).

In addition, although George loved watching prizefighting (bare-knuckle boxing), which at that time was illegal, his own physical and emotional cowardice was legendary. This is illustrated by a story of the most infamous prizefight of the day where one contestant died of his injuries. George was known to have been present, as he was included in a sketch of the match by James Gillray (the famous political cartoonist), but when the man died he ran away, terrified of being implicated in the fallout and attempting to conceal his presence at the match (When the boys come out to play, / Georgie Porgie ran away).

Three Blind Mice – The Dark History of Nursery Rhymes

Albert Jack books available for download here

Mary Had a Little Lamb

Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.

It followed her to school one day,
Which was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play
To see a lamb at school.

And so the teacher turned it out,
But still it lingered near,
And waited patiently about,
Till Mary did appear.

Why does the lamb love Mary so?
The eager children cry;
Why Mary loves the lamb, you know,
The teacher did reply.

The imagery and names used in this poem point to its having been constructed as a Christian homily for children. Such rhymes were extremely popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so popular, in fact, that William Blake used the form as a template for his famous Songs of Innocence and Experience, published in 1794 (think of ‘Little Lamb, who made thee’ and ‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright’). Mary,of course, is the name of Christ’s mother and one of the most commonly used images for Jesus is that of the Lamb of God, the fleece as white as snow a symbol of his goodness and purity.

The poem can be read as a parable of Christ’s enduring love for mankind (Why does the lamb love Mary so?), that he is with Christians everywhere (And everywhere that Mary went, / The lamb was sure to go) and that the true Christian should love God and ignore other people’s mockery (It made the children laugh and play). In the style of these homilies, the teacher would have used Mary’s story explicitly to draw this improving moral, spelt out in the final verse.

To see how the poem came about, we need to go back to the early nineteenth century. It was reported in a 1902 edition of the New York Times Book Review that when Dr Lowell Mason introduced singing into Boston schools in 1827 he asked noted writers to contribute songs and rhymes, and one of the contributors was Sarah Josepha Hale (1788–1879), who supplied ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’.

The rhyme proved so popular that many found it hard to believe that it wasn’t based on a true incident; indeed Mrs Hale had hinted as much. When in 1913 the New York Times ran an interview with Richard K. Powers of Lancaster, Massachusetts, who was celebrating his one hundred and eighth birthday, he talked about ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’ and commented: ‘Mary was my cousin, her full name was Mary Elizabeth Sawyer.’ Very conveniently, Mary Sawyer had written a complete account, at the age of eighty-eight. Here’s her story, in her own words – I’ve done a little pruning to keep her to the point because, as you’ll see, she’s not one for saying things briefly:

‘One cold, bleak March morning, I went out with father to the barn and found a lamb that had been born in the night. It had been forsaken by its mother and through neglect was about dead from the cold and for want of food. I saw it had a little life and wanted to take it into the house, but father said no as it was about dead anyway and could only live for a short time. But I could not bear to see the poor little thing suffer so, and I teased until I got it into the house and then worked on mother’s sympathy.

At first it could not swallow, and the catnip tea I had mother make, it could not take for a long time. I got the lamb warm first thing, which was done by wrapping her in an old garment and holding her in my arms beside the fireplace. All night long I nursed the lamb and at night it could swallow just a little.

In the morning, much to my girlish delight, it could stand and then improved rapidly. It soon learned to drink milk, and from the time it could walk about it would follow me anywhere if I called it. It was a fast grower, as symmetrical a sheep who ever walked and its fleece was of the finest and whitest. Why, I used to take as much care of it as a mother would of a child. I used to wash it regularly, keep the burdocks out of its feet and comb and trim with bright coloured ribbons the wool on its forehead. And when that was being done, the lamb would hold down its head, shut its eyes and wait as patiently as could be.

Then my brother Nate said: ‘Let’s take the lamb to school with us.’ When the schoolhouse was reached, the teacher had not arrived but a few scholars were there. I took her down to my seat – you know we had the old-fashioned, high-boarded seats back then. Well, I put the lamb under the seat on a blanket and she lay down just as quietly as could be.

By and by, I had to get up to recite and left the lamb all right, but in a minute there was a clatter, clatter on the floor and I knew it was the pattering of the hooves of my lamb. Oh, how mortified I felt. The teacher laughed outright and of course all the children giggled. It was rare sport for them but I couldn’t find anything mirthful in the situation. I was too embarrassed and ashamed to even laugh or smile. I took the lamb out and put it in the shed until I was ready to go home at noon, when it followed me back.

Visiting the school that forenoon was a young man called John Roulstone. He was very pleased at the school incident and the next day he rode across the fields on horseback, came to the little old schoolhouse and handed me a slip of paper which had written on it three verses, which are the original lines, but since then there have been other verses added by a Mrs Townsend.’

Personally, I have a few doubts. In the first place, if the lamb was so special to Mary, why didn’t it have a name? And if it did have a name, why didn’t she use it, or how had she forgotten it and yet remembered so many other small details so many years afterwards? Also, the rhyme was not published until 1830, fourteen years later. Would you still remember something a passing nine-year-old had written about your pet all those years ago?

While there may be some dispute about whether Roulstone wrote any part of the poem, or whether Sarah Hale composed the whole thing, Massachusetts has nonetheless claimed the rhyme (and the consequent increase in their tourist industry), and both Mary Sawyer’s house in Sterling (until it burned down in 2007) and the small Redstone School have been preserved as a memorial. Today, in Sterling town centre, there stands a statue of a lamb in tribute to John Roulstone and displaying the first verse of the poem. Incidentally, Mary Sawyer’s little lamb, a ewe, apparently lived to be four years old and had three of her own baby lambs.

Personally, I prefer this version of the rhyme:

Mary had a little lamb,
It really was a glutton;
It quickly grew into a sheep
And ended up as mutton.

Or this one:

Mary had a little lamb,
But then she had a hunch
When Dad came home with mint sauce,
They were having lamb for lunch.

Extract from: Three Blind Mice – The Dark History of Nursery RhymesAlbert Jack books available for download here

Hickory, Dickory, Dock

Hickory, dickory, dock,
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one,
The mouse ran down,
Hickory, dickory, dock.

This rhyme, first published in 1743, is believed by some to have been inspired by the last man to ever to rule England as a republic. After the execution of Charles I in 1649, England became a commonwealth for eleven years (1649–60), during which time a protectorate was established (1653–59), with Oliver Cromwell holding the title of Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. Just prior to his death, on 3 September 1658, the arch-republican head of state surprised many by nominating his eldest surviving son, Richard, to succeed him.

Richard Cromwell was born on 4 October 1626 and is believed to have served as a captain in Sir Thomas Fairfax’s New Model Army during the late 1640s, although with apparently little distinction as nothing is known of his service. In 1649, he married Dorothy, the daughter of Richard Maijor, and settled on the family estate at Hursley. During the 1650s, Richard Cromwell’s lack of ambition appeared to be troubling his father to the point where, in 1653, he was not included in the elder Cromwell’s ‘Barebones Parliament’, although his younger brother Henry was.

When Oliver became Lord Protector in 1653, Richard was offered no public role and instead his father wrote to Richard Maijor: ‘I would have him mind and understand business, read history and study cosmography and mathematics – these things are good, with subordination to the things of God. Better than idleness or mere outward worldly contents. There are things fit for public service, for which a man is born.’

But, in accordance with the constitution of the Protectorate, Oliver Cromwell was required to name, or at least nominate, a successor, and in 1657 began to include Richard in affairs of state. In June of that year, he was at his father’s side during his second installation as Lord Protector, and the following month was given the role of Lord Chancellor at Oxford University. By December, the prodigal son had even become a member of the Council of State. But he wasn’t ready to succeed his father after Oliver Cromwell’s death the following year.

Unlike his father, Richard had no real military or political experience and therefore cut little ice with either the army or Parliament. To make matters worse, he had inherited a regime that was in debt to the tune of £2 million – billions in today’s terms – and measures had to be taken. In April 1659, when Parliament threatened cuts to reduce army funding, the generals presented a petition to Richard Cromwell which he passed on to Parliament. Igoring the petition, Parliament instead passed two resolutions banning any meetings of army officers without the express permission of the Lord Protector and Parliament, and demanding that officers swear an oath that they would never disrupt or prevent the business of Parliament by force.

The army responded by demanding the dissolution of Parliament. Richard refused and hostile troops began to gather at St James’s in London. Having given into the troops’ demands, his next mistake was to refuse an offer of heavily armed support from the French ambassador. By now, he was being ridiculed and mocked by enemies and supporters aliked, his nicknames ranging from Queen Dick, Tumbledown Dick and Hickory Dick. Before the year was out, Richard had effectively been forced from office and the monarchy restored in the shape of King Charles II.

And this leads neatly to the suggestion that ‘Hickory, Dickory, Dock’ is directly connected with the ineffectual Richard Cromwell (Hickory Dick) and his one-year reign (The clock struck one, / The mouse ran down). The second (rarely used) verse would also appear to be about Richard’s rapid rise from nowhere (The pig flew up in the air) and back down again, ousted from the throne by Charles II (The man in brown / Soon brought him down):

Dickory, dickory, dare,
The pig flew up in the air.
The man in brown
Soon brought him down,
Dickory, dickory, dare.


Extract from: Three Blind Mice – The Dark History of Nursery Rhymes

Albert Jack books available for download here

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.

Every fiddler he had a fiddle
And a very fine fiddle had he;
Oh, there’s none so rare as can compare
With King Cole and his fiddlers three.

Some believe that the rhyme must have been written after the introduction of tobacco to Europe in 1564. But it goes back much further, to the early part of the first millennium where the pipe was actually much more likely to have been the double aulos, an ancient reed instrument, and the bowl a type of drum favoured by wandering minstrels and entertainers. 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 fidders three? Or could he have been a real person? Digging further, we find three possible candidates for him.

The first, Coel Godhebog (otherwise known as Coel the Magnificent), was Lord of Colchester (believed to be Latin for ‘Coel’s Fort’) and lived in the third century ad. This was the period of the Roman occupation of Britain and Coel was a decurion, responsible for running local affairs. The emperor of the western Roman Empire at the time was Flavius Valerius Constantius (250–306), and legend has it that he went to Britain in 296 to consolidate Roman interests. Here he fell in love with Coel Godhebog’s daughter, Helena, and became Coel’s successor, their son growing up to become Constantine the Great.

While it is entirely possible that Constantius fell in love with Coel’s daughter, it is unlikely she was Constantine the Great’s mother. Especially as Constantine was actually born twenty years earlier, around 272, in another part of the empire – his mother was indeed a Helena (famed for her piety, she later became St Helena), but a Bithynian rather than a Briton. However, the Romans had certainly perfected the art of a party by the end of the third century, with or without pipes and fiddles, so was Coel the Magnificent the real Old King Cole?

Or was it Coel Hen (350–420), also known as Coel the Old as he lived for seventy years, an unusually long time in the days when there was always a war to fight or a disease to catch? Coel the Old was also Lord of Colchester, at the time of the decline of the Roman Empire. In fact, Hen is thought to have been the final decurion as the last of the Romans fled the country under pressure from the barbarians. Hen, though, remained and fought long battles in the north of England against the Picts and the Scots.

Finally, we have his son, St Ceneu ap Coel, who was born in 382. He also remained in Britain and is thought to have been elevated to saintly status after defending Christianity against the pagan onslaught. Hugely popular, St Ceneu later became king of northern Britain. In his History of the Kings of Britain (1136), Geoffrey of Monmouth lists St Ceneu as a guest at the coronation of King Arthwys, his grandson. In the past, many historians have believed that Arthwys, born around 455 and who became the king of southern Wales, was the inspiration for the legend of King Arthur. So which King Cole is the rhyme about, the Magnificent, the Old or the Saint? Or could it be an amalgam of all three?

A thousand years later, the first of the Tudor kings, Henry VII (1457–1509), insisted he descended from King Cole (not specifying which one) in order to strengthen his own claim to the throne, but this claim is almost impossible to prove as most of the information on record about England’s ancient kings was gathered many centuries after the event and hence based on legend, fable and handed-down stories.

Extract from: Three Blind Mice – The Dark History of Nursery Rhymes

Albert Jack books available for download here

Tweedledum & Tweedledee

Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Agreed to have a battle;
For Tweedledum said Tweedledee
Had spoiled his nice new rattle.

Just then flew down a monstrous crow,
As black as a tar-barrel;
Which frightened both the heroes so,
They quite forgot their battle.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee found fame as fictional characters in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, published in 1871. Carroll describes the two as a pair of tubby brothers whom Alice comes across on her travels and who put her in mind of ‘the old song’, which the brothers later act out. Carroll’s illustrator, John Tenniel (see also Humpty Dumpty and The Queen of Hearts), depicted the ‘fat little men’ as identical twins, ‘like a couple of great schoolboys’, completely indistinguishable from each other. And that is why the expression Tweedledum and Tweedledee is used to this day to describe any two persons or objects that are so alike they cannot be identified individually.

But he didn’t invent them. They were figures from a nursery rhyme Carroll would have heard as a child and which he included in his book. The original Tweedledum and Tweedledee made their first appearance at least a century earlier, in a poem published in 1725 making fun of two feuding composers, Giovanni Battista Bononcini (1670–1747) and George Frideric Handel (1685–1759).

Handel and Bononcino had a long history. In Berlin in 1696, the young Handel was recognized as a child prodigy. At the royal court he met an established Italian composer, Bononcini. The older composer was instantly jealous of the young newcomer and attempted to injure his reputation by composing a particularly testing piece for the harpsichord and then asking him to play it at sight. Handel executed it without a mistake, and the schemer was foiled by his own device.

Twenty-four years later, in London, a number of noblemen formed themselves into a company for the purpose of reviving Italian opera in England. The king himself, George I, subscribed £1,000, and allowed the society to take the name of the Royal Academy of Music. Handel was appointed Director of Music.

Bononcini and Attilio Ariosti were attracted to London by this new venture, and stage two of the rivalry followed. The composition of a new opera, Muzio Scevola, was divided between the three composers. Attilio was to put the first act to music, Bononcino the second, and Handel the third, but a dispute developed between the latter two. Amused by this bout of semi-quavers at ten paces, the poet John Byrom wrote:

Some say, compar’d to Bononcini,
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny;
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle:
Strange all this difference should be
’Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!

Clearly Byrom is suggesting a small dum here and a tiny dee there are the only real discernable differences in the two composing styles – in which Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee sound like a mocking representation of their music – or, at least, that is what they were arguing over. Handel was extremely put out by this – he didn’t want to identified as part of a matching pair with his nemesis – and so, when the opportunity to get rid of Bononcino arose, he grabbed it …

It was all to do with another composer and former friend of Handel, Maurice Greene (1676–1755). A gifted composer in his own right, Greene had once been close to Handel but they had fallen out when the latter found Greene was also friends with Bononcini. As a result, Greene’s friendship with Bononcini became even closer; indeed, in 1728 Bononcini fashioned the madrigal ‘In Una Siepe Ombrosa’ (‘In a Shady Hedge’), attributing the piece to his new friend in an attempt to help raise his profile. Unfortunately, another composer, Antonio Lotti, then complained he had written the music thirty years earlier and was able to produce eight separate witnesses who were prepared to confirm they had heard Lotti play the piece in rehearsal.

Bononcini was thrown out of the Academy in disgrace, Handel pouring scorn on him in public at every opportunity, and eventually driven from London. Despite never having signed the work, or so much as even claiming authorship, Bononcini’s reputation hung in tatters and he’s now barely remembered. He died alone in 1747 somewhere near Vienna.

Extract from: Three Blind Mice – The Dark History of Nursery Rhymes

Albert Jack books available for download here

The Star-Spangled Banner

Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

This is the national anthem of the self-styled greatest nation on the planet and one of the better-known tunes in the world, the lyrics bursting with national pride and staunch heroism in the face of danger. Which is why it will please my Irish friends in Chicago no end when they find out that ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ started out as a drinking song in eighteenth-century London. That should warm up a few baseball games down at the Hidden Shamrock, now that they know that.

The Anacreontic Society was a gentlemen’s club formed in London during the mid 1700s, in honour of the Greek poet Anacreon (570–485 bc) by a group of amateur musicians attempting to promote their craft. The membership was known for its ‘wit, harmony and love of wine’. The president of the Anacreontic Society, Ralph Tomlinson (1744–78), wrote the words to a drinking song that he called ‘The Anacreontic Song’ and which was soon adopted as the society’s official anthem. The first verse goes like this:

To Anacreon in heaven where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent in a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron would be;
When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian:,

‘Voice, fiddle and flute, no longer be mute,
I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot.
And besides, I’ll instruct you like me to entwine
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ wine.’

And so on it went for five more verses, each one encouraging the members to drink more heartily. The following year, a teenage composer and organist called John Stafford Smith (1750–1836) wrote the tune (now known as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’) to fit Tomlinson’s words and the popular song was first published in 1778. The raucous lyrics and memorable tune were soon well known throughout both England and America, with various tweaks to the words, especially in America where the resulting composition was used as a patriotic song under the titles ‘Jefferson and Liberty’ or ‘Adam’s and Liberty’.

Over forty years later, on the night of 12 September 1814, an American attorney and poet, Francis Scott Key (1779–1843), was held prisoner on a British ship during the Battle of Baltimore. All night, British forces bombarded the town as one thousand committed Americans put up a stout defence despite their low numbers, and the following morning (by the dawn’s early light), Scott was inspired to see the American flag still fluttering over Fort McHenry. With that, he sat down and rewrote ‘The Anacreontic Song’ with the words now associated with ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’.

On 27 July 1889, the Secretary of the US Navy ordered that the song should be played every time the American flag was raised on any ship, and in 1916, as America entered the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson insisted the tune be heard at every military occasion. This soon extended to sporting occasions – within a few years, the baseball World Series was playing the song before every match.

Then, on 3 March 1931, President Herbert Hoover passed a law adopting ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ as the official national anthem of America. And, with that, what started out as a London drinking song had completed its journey from dockside pub to the White House.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2Albert Jack books available for download here

Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses

Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocketful of posies;
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

This rhyme usually accompanies a dancing game that ends with all the children falling to the ground, getting their clothes muddy and going home to a clout round the ear. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

‘Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses’ is traditionally associated with the plague – the Great Plague of London in 1665 or the Black Death of the late 1340s – and it is easy to see why. A plague victim would show early symptoms of the disease in the form of red, circular rashes all over the body resembling wreaths of roses (Ring-a-ring o’ roses). The rhyme also seems to reflect the superstition that if a person was to carry around a pouch, or ‘pocket’, stuffed with herbs or ‘posies’, there was less chance of infection (A pocketful of posies). Sneezing would be also be a symptom (A-tishoo! A-tishoo!), indicating that the person was in an advanced state of infection, certain to fall down (dead) very shortly afterwards. So far so neat.

Unfortunately this doesn’t actually accord with the known symptoms of the disease. Between two and six days following infection, the illness becomes obvious in a person. The early signs are headaches, chills, high fever. No rosy rings. Following the fever would come the formation of buboes, an inflammatory swelling of the lymph glands in both the groin and armpits. There is no historical record that posies, herbs or any other flower were used as preventive medicine, although there is evidence that sweet-smelling flowers were sometimes carried to counter the terrible odours in areas affected by disease. (People were so terrified of catching the plague, in fact, that they are known to have resorted to extreme measures – burning all their clothes, possessions and sometimes even their houses in the hope of avoiding infection.) And finally, there is no reference anywhere to sneezing as a final and fatal symptom of the plague.

One of the strongest arguments given for the rhyme being connected with the plague is, in fact, one of the strongest arguments against it. Several historians have urged in favour of the association. But the big question is this: if indeed the rhyme dates as far back as the Black Death in the 1340s, then why did nobody write it down for over five hundred years?

No contemporary record of the rhyme has been found from that period. Even Samuel Pepys (1633–1703), the noted diarist and chronicler of a later outbreak, the Great Plague, makes no mention of it, although it seems unlikely that no record should be made until 1881, centuries after it was – seemingly – first sung. In fact, no connection had been made between ‘Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses’ and either of the plagues until 1961, when James Leasor proposed the idea in his book The Plague and the Fire.

In conclusion, while the connection between rhyme and plague makes a good story, it appears far more likely that ‘Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses’ is a simple children’s party game, illustrating nothing more than a group holding hands in a circle and dancing around, to the accompaniment of satisfying sounds effects (A-tishoo! A-tishoo!) and actions (We all fall down). In its first publication in Britain, in 1881 – in Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose – the sneezing wasn’t even part of the rhyme, perhaps suggesting a later addition:

Ring-a-ring-a-roses,
A pocket full of posies;
Hush! hush! hush! hush!
We’re all tumbled down
.

The version in Alice Gomme’s Dictionary of British Folklore (1898) reads:

Ring a ring of roses,
A pocket full of posies;
Upstairs, downstairs,
In my lady’s chamber.

While, as late as 1949, a version included in a collection of verse entitled Poems of Early Childhood – illustrated with four happy children dancing in a circle and carrying bunches of roses – still carries no reference to the fatal sneezing:

Ring a ring a rosy,
A pocket full of posies;
One, two, three, four,
We all fall down.

Three Blind Mice – The Dark History of Nursery Rhymes

Albert Jack books available for download here