Oranges and Lemons

Oranges and Lemons says the Bells of St Clements. It’s the nursery rhyme and game that I’ve just always known but not as well as I know now. It features the bells of several churches, all within or close to London. I also know now that the rhyme is listed in the Roud Folk Song Index as No 13190.  As I am just about to head off to London, I can seek out the 15 – yes that’s 15 London churches that feature in the rhyme and its many variants.

According to (who I must acknowledge for the wonderful bell links below) The Bells of St Clements proceeds thus:

“Gay go up and gay go down
To Ring the Bells of London Town
“Oranges and Lemons” say the Bells of St. Clements
“Bullseyes and Targets” say the Bells of St. Margaret’s
“Brickbats and Tiles” say the Bells of St. Giles
“Halfpence and Farthings” say the Bells of St. Martin’s
“Pancakes and Fritters” say the Bells of St. Peter’s
“Two Sticks and an Apple” say the Bells of Whitechapel
“Maids in white aprons” say the Bells at St. Katherine’s
“Pokers and Tongs” say the Bells of St. John’s
“Kettles and Pans” say the Bells of St. Anne’s
“Old Father Baldpate” say the slow Bells of Aldgate
“You owe me Ten Shillings” say the Bells of St. Helen’s
“When will you Pay me?” say the Bells of Old Bailey
“When I grow Rich” say the Bells of Shoreditch
“Pray when will that be?” say the Bells of Stepney
“I do not know” say the Great Bell of Bow
Gay go up and gay go down
To Ring the Bells of London Town”

The rhyme portrays London in the 16th and 17th Century when various trades and activities were synonymous with particular parts of the city. Pancakes and fritters, kettles and pans and brick bats and tiles speak of the bakers, coppersmiths and builders in areas around St Peter Upon Cornhill, St Anne’s and St Giles, Cripplegate. Bulls eyes and targets tell of archery practice in the fields behind St Margaret Lothbury.  While pokers and tongs at St John’s Chapel in the Tower of London may be a reference to the torture that took place in that building – not all together very pleasant.

St. Clements’s may be St Clement Danes or St Clement Eastcheap  but most votes go to a small church situated in St. Clements Lane, Eastcheap. tells us there have been three Churches on the site since 11th Century when the church is mentioned in a confirmation of grants to Westminster Abbey in 1067. The original old Church was rebuilt in the 15th Century. The second church was destroyed in 1666 during the Great Fire of London The existing church was rebuilt in 1687 by none other than the great architect Sir Christopher Wren. But what about the the oranges and lemons bit? Apparently that’s a reference to the citrus fruits unloaded at the nearby wharves.

The Oranges and Lemons Game has the players file in pairs, through an arch made by two of the players facing and clasping their partners’ hands to form an arch. I didn’t think about it when I was young but the last lines are particularly violent:

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.)

What does it all mean? An excellent overview comes from the BBC (of course) where author Benjamin Till notes there are all sorts of theories about the meaning of the lyrics including a suggestion that they deal with Henry VIII’s marital difficulties and his special Anne Boleyn way of solving them.

The chop off your head lines probably refers to Newgate prison which stood on the current site of the Old Bailey – the bells of Old Bailey in the rhyme.  Mr Till tells us that the sound of the nearby St Sepulchre’s church’s bell striking 9.00 am on a Monday morning signaled the start of hangings due to take place that week. The prison guard would visit those on death row with a candle in one hand and the execution bell in the other. Oh my – not exactly the light-hearted stuff you want your children chanting.

So I have decided instead to bring lightness and colour to my oranges and lemons wrap. I am opting out of historical accuracy and into a colour combination of citrusy goodness. I don’t put orange and lemon together a lot, but now is the time. This wrap would suit an outdoor children’s birthday party or other outdoor celebration with lots of yummy food, plenty of St Clement’s cordial (which I’ve tasted – it’s fabulous) and lots of party games – just perhaps not Oranges and Lemons.

Leave a Reply