5 Sinister origins of much loved nursery rhymes

Let’s take a look at the meanings behind some of your favourite nursery rhymes.


The sweet melodic tones of the charming nursery rhymes you sung during your childhood as you skipped around the playground are probably still on the tip of your tongue.

As you joyously laughed and played with your friends, chanting “ring around the rosy” or “lady bird lady bird”, nothing could ruin that beautiful image of your blissful youth. Nothing.

Well, that is nothing compared to what you are about to find out about your favourite playtime jingle; that they were all in fact tales of woe and despair. Oh, and death, a whole load of death.

Baa, Baa, Black Sheep

Although there is a general consensus among the learned that this rhyme relates to a tax on wool in the late thirteenth century, the words black and master have led to theories that this seemingly charming nursery rhyme may actually have been penned with racial connotations. So much so, that later twentieth-century versions substituted the black sheep for a rainbow coloured one, or indeed even banned it from the classroom altogether.

London Bridge is Falling Down

There are a few trains of thought surrounding this well-loved verse. Some believe it relates to nothing more than the dilapidation of the structure itself, while others think that it has its roots in child sacrifice, in that the builders of the day believed that human sacrifice, namely children, would keep watch over, protect the bridge and keep it strong.

The prevailing theory, however, is that of a Viking attack on the bridge. Norway’s Olaf II is thought by some to have attacked and destroyed London’s then only river crossing in the early part of the 1000s. However, historians cannot agree if the event took place at all, so it remains supposition and we shall leave you to decide which version if any, is most likely.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

This nursery rhyme may appear to be little more than a quaint verse about a lovely garden but there is a belief that it actually refers to Bloody Mary I, queen of England who oversaw the slaughter of many Protestants who were at odds with her strongly held Catholic beliefs during her short (thankfully) five-year reign, before her own untimely death in 1558. Apparently, silver bells and cockle shells were devices of torture at the time.

Ring Around the Rosie (or Ring a ring O’ Roses)

It is widely held that this rhyme refers to the Great Plague that swept across London in 1665. The Rosie is thought to be a description of the red rash that appeared on the sufferer, while the pocket full of posies was said to offer the wearer protection from becoming afflicted themselves while providing a more pleasant aroma than that of death. A-tishoo! A-tishoo! we all fall down is perhaps self-explanatory, in that it represents other symptoms and the eventual demise of the person affected.

Jack and Jill (or Gill)

This 1765 verse is also much loved and as with the above favourites, is still widely enjoyed today. As with the previous rhymes mentioned, there is no evidence to support its origins and there are several interpretations of the meaning but two main theories prevail. The first being that its roots centre around Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of France, However, since the pair were separated from their heads for treason some thirty years after the verse was first penned it is unlikely. The chief theory is that it refers to King Charles I and his attempt to make alterations to taxes on liquid measures. Parliament, however, refused his request, so he saw to a reduction on half and quarter pints, whilst the tax remained the same. These measures became known as Jacks and gills.


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