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Sinister Origins of Nursery Rhymes – Oranges and Lemons (1665…)


Oranges and lemons
Say the bells of St Clemens,
You owe me five farthings
Say the bells of St Martins,
When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey,
When I grow rich
Say the bells of Shoreditch,
When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney,
I do not know
Says the great bell of Bow,
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
And here comes a chopper
To chop off your head!
Chip, chop, chip, chop
The last one is dead!


This is one of those nursery rhymes that start off innocently and gleefully, and then suddenly turns gruesome. “Oranges and Lemons” may seem harmless, but it actually has a disturbing historical implication. The exact date of origin is unknown but there was a Square Dance called ‘Oranges and Lemons’ dating back to 1665, unfortunately there are no known record of the lyrics which accompanied the dance but is likely that the words were similar to that of the nursery rhyme.


The “Great Bells of Bow” were used to time the executions at Newgate prison, which for many years were done by means of beheading. The unfortunate victim would await execution on “Death Row” and was informed by the warder, the night before the execution ‘ here comes the candle to light you to bed’ of their imminent fate and to make their peace with God! The executions commenced when the bells started chiming at nine o’clock in the morning. When the bells stopped chiming then the executions would be finished until the following day!

1 Comment so far

  1. Pingback: Further Dark Nursery Rhymes: filastrocche ancora più oscure (Parte 2) – flipout4ms

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