One of the most recognised English language nursery rhymes is the famous Oranges and Lemons. But what is the meaning behind it? The rhyme works its way through a number of famous old London churches and I’ve often wondered where those churches were.
I become interested in this very thought. That’s because every morning I walk past a pub called the Bow Bells. It’s a great, traditional, quite earthy east end boozer. Painted bright orange, the full nursery rhyme is written on a board at the front of the pub.
The pub is also just down the road from ‘Bow Church’ which is thought by many to be the location of the ‘Great bell of Bow’. This is the last bell to be mentioned in the nursery rhyme. It is the source of some debate as to whether this is meant to be Bow Church or not. The other alternative being St Mary le Bow on Cheapside. Whatever the truth of the matter, Bow Church certainly is old enough to have been included.
Oranges and Lemons
But then that’s part of the fun of the nursery rhyme. What does it mean and where did those lines come from? The words were written at a time when London was very different and the churches of the city would have been utterly dominant not only in terms of their impact on the skyline but in terms of their influence on social life as well.
In terms of genealogy it appears that the first recorded version of the rhyme appeared in 1744 but not in the form that it is known now. Prior to that it is likely that it will have been well known and there is evidence that a dance known as oranges and lemons dates back to 1655.
Meaning of the Oranges and Lemons Nursery Rhyme
So let’s go through the rhyme, the rest of this blog post will look at the churches. We’ll look at where they are. We’ll also examine what the words refer to in the context of the meaning of Oranges and Lemons. There are lots of theories about why the song was written in the first place and a quick search of google will come up with loads of them. My favourite is that the the rhyme simply developed over time as a means to remember the different areas of London which will have been defined by their churches. So onto the rhyme and in homage to the Bow Bells pub, the version I’ll be using is the version written on the outside of the pub.
‘Happy go up, and happy go down
To ring the bells of London Town’.
Oranges and Lemons say the bells of St.Clements’ – St. Clements on Eastcheap
St. Clements Church on Eastcheap is where we start our journey. There is some debate over whether the true ‘oranges and lemons’ church was here or St. Clements Dane in the Strand. It would seem however that the majority of opinion places the iconic bells here on Eastcheap. The oranges and lemons of the song refer to the cargo that would have been offloaded close to the church when the Thames was a lot further in than it is today.
‘Bullseyes and targets say the bells of St. Margarets’ – St. Margaret Lothbury
In the heart of the city and next door to the bank of England, St Margaret Lothbury sits unobtrusively amongst the buildings around it. The church was burnt down in the great fire but rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1690. It is thought that the bullseyes and targets refer to the fact that archery was practised in fields nearby.
‘Brickbats and tiles say the bells of St. Giles’ – St. Giles
Bang in the heart of the Barbican, St. Giles looks striking against the brutalist backdrop of the Barbican high rises. The reference to brickbats and tiles are thought to refer to materials used by builders nearby. As a church its probably also one of the most interesting. Oliver Cromwell was married here. Sir Martin Frobisher, John Speed and John Milton are buried here and Ben Johnson, John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe were baptised here.
‘Halfpence and farthings say the bells of St. Martins’ – St. Martins Orgar
St. Martins Orgar on Martin Lane was pretty much destroyed in the Great Fire of London leaving only the bell tower which is now occupied by a firm of solicitors. It is thought that the reference to halfpence and farthings is a nod to the money lenders who operated in the area. This line of the oranges and lemons nursery rhyme is sometimes better known as ‘you owe me five farthings’.
‘Pancakes and fritters say the bells of St. Peters’ – St. Peters Cornhill
St. Peters on Cornhill is hard to spot, hidden as it is amongst a few tiny alleys. From Cornhill itself it doesn’t look like much at all so obscured is the frontage. It is thought that the pancakes and fritters in the rhyme refer to the types of food that were sold nearby. Cornhill after all was the site of a corn market that dated back to the Roman era. Like many others the church dates back a long time but was destroyed in the fire of London and then rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren.
‘Two sticks and an apple say the bells of Whitechapel’ – Whitechapel Bell Foundry
The only part of the rhyme that doesn’t refer to a church is the bells of Whitechapel. This is because it was the Whitechapel bell foundry in which the bells of London were forged. Amazingly it is still operating today with the likes of the Liberty Bell and Big Ben on its resume. The origin of the ‘two sticks and an apple’ is hard to agree upon although it could be to do with the shape of the hand bells produced at the foundry which might have resembled toffee apples.
‘Maids in white aprons say the bells of St. Katherines’ – St. Katherine Cree
St. Katherine Cree dates back to 1108 and takes its name from an abbreviation of Christ church. It actually survived the great fire of London although it destroyed a lot of Leadenhall market which was nearby. The ‘maids in white aprons’ are thought to refer to the costumes of women working in the market selling meat, fish and poultry.
‘Pokers and tongs say the bells of St. Johns’ – St. Johns Chapel at the Tower of London
St Johns chapel is the oldest church to be featured in the rhyme. It is located within the white tower of the famous Tower of London. It is thought that the pokers and tongs referred to might have something to do with the methods of torture used on prisoners in the tower.
‘Kettles and pans say the bells of St. Annes’ – St. Annes Church
Now knowns St Annes Lutheran Church, it nestles up next to the remains of the old Roman fort and near to the old London Wall. It was destroyed in the great fire but then rebuilt by Wren. It then was hit in the second world war by a bomb and had to be rebuilt once more. The kettles and pans in the rhyme are thought to refer to the utensils from the local coppersmiths who worked in the area.
‘Old father baldpate say slow bells of Aldgate’ – St. Botolph without Aldgate
St. Botolph without Aldgate is on the edge of the city and at one point became known as the prostitutes church because it was here that they would solicit their wares. It is thought that the reference to old father baldpate relates to st botolph who apparently had a bald head. Another interpretation however links old father baldpate to the prostitutes of the area with old father baldpate meaning something else entirely.
‘You owe me ten shillings say the bells of St. Helens’ – St Helens Bishopsgate
St. Helens Bishopsgate can be found directly underneath the imposing landmark of the Gherkin. It is thought that the ‘you owe me ten shillings’ refers to a former lord mayor of london called John Spencer who had a notorious reputation as a money lender.
‘When will you pay me say the bells of Old Bailey’ – St. Sepulchre without Newgate
The bells of Old Bailey are actually the bells of St. Sepulchre without Newgate which is opposite the Old Bailey, the site of which stands on the former Newgate prison. The bell of St. sepulchre rang out during executions. It is thought that the phrase ‘when will you pay me’ refers to the debtors interred at Newgate.
‘When I grow rich say the bells of Shoreditch’ – St. Leonards Shoreditch
St. leonards in Shoreditch was located in the old theatre district of London and frequented by actor types. Shakespeare had his first theatre nearby and Richard Burbage a contemporary of his from the time is buried there. The area itself was very poor and it is thought that the phrase ‘when will I grow rich’ refers to the hope of riches that the inhabitants of Shoreditch must have had.
‘Pray when will that be say the bells of Stepney’ – St. Dunstans of Stepney
St. Dunstans of Stepney was an important church for mariners and is one of the oldest churches in London. it is possible the the phrase ‘when will that be’ might refer to the hopeful wishes of loved ones wondering when their sailor sons or husbands would be coming back from sea.
‘I do not know say the great bells of Bow’ – Bow Church
Probably not the church referred to in the nursery rhyme but Bow Church is historic and situated just on the old border with Essex, next to the old Bow Bridge which crossed the River Lea. It would have been the next church on from St. Dunstan’s in Stepney and would have been notable at the time for being at the edge of the city’s limits.
Another option and what is certainly the location of the famous Bow Bells which, if born within the sound of them, make you a true Cockney. The great bell of Bow could also refer to the principal curfew bell that was located in the church and rung each day at 9pm.
Oranges and Lemons say the bells of St Clements probably remembers an area of London where fruit from abroad would have been unloaded. It is possible that this could have been in an area of the Thames close to where the current church of St Clements on Eastcheap is now. The rest of the famous nursery rhyme references churches and bells where other kinds of activity in the city would have taken place.
It’s likely that the Oranges and Lemons nursery rhyme was a way of remembering the topography of London by a widely illiterate population. People would have associated the bells and the churches with what happened in that part of town. Eventually it became a rhyme and there is evidence of it being a dance in 1655. The first example of it being written down though was in 1744.
The churches referenced in the nursery rhyme are all in London. They are St Clements on Eastcheap; St Margarets Lothbury; St Giles Cripplegate; St Martin Orgar; St Peters Cornhill; Whitechapel Bell Foundry; St Katherine Kree; St Johns Chapel at the Tower of London; St Annes; St Botolph without Aldgate; St Helens Bishopsgate; St Sepulchre without Newgate; St Leonards Shoreditch; St Duntans Stepney; St Mary’s Bow
Some great links on the internet that helped with the research for this piece on the meaning of the oranges and lemons nursery rhyme are:
You can also read more blog posts about London on Inspiring City below: