Rhonwyn Newson

Weekend editor of the Herald Online and writer of The Herald List

The sinister meanings behind nursery rhymes

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

We all know the words, but have we thought much about their meaning? Perhaps we (and our kids) are better off not knowing!

Here are seven classic nursery rhymes that have morbid and horrible origins.

Goosey Goosey Gander, 1784

Way back in 1784, Catholic priests reportedly had to hide away to say their prayers in Latin. If caught by an over-zealous Protestant, something bad would happen. The lines, "There I met an old man who wouldn't say his prayers, I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs," refer to Protestant soldiers who would search out Catholics, particularly Priests, hiding in the houses of friends, and when found they were mistreated.

Jack and Jill, 1765

Some believe this is the tale of King Charles I's attempt to reform duty on liquor. When he was blocked by parliament, he ordered the volume of a "Jack" (half a pint) be reduced, while the tax remained the same, hence more tax despite the veto.

"Jack fell down and broke his crown" refers to markings on a half pint glass in the UK which have a crown above the half pint mark. "Jill came tumbling after" refers to a gill or quarter pint, which also dropped in volume.


Image / Thinkstock

London Bridge is Falling Down, 1744

One of the more sinister theories behind this rhyme is the practice of immurement - when someone is entombed within a structure to watch over it and ensure its stability. In the case of London Bridge, there is a reference to the sacrifice of a child - entombed in the bridge's base to keep watch over the bridge. Eeeek!

Mary Mary Quite Contrary, 1744

Mary Tudor, aka Bloody Mary, was known for persecuting and murdering many Protestants. The poem is allegedly about those sent to the graveyard (garden). The silver bells and cockleshells are torture instruments, and the maids in the last line are a reference to the guillotine, nicknamed The Maiden. Oh, Mother Goose!

Three Blind Mice, 1805

Another tribute to Bloody Mary. It is believed the trio refers to Protestant bishops who attempted to overthrow the queen and were burned at the stake.

Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, 1840

It is believed this rhyme is a reference to a women's prison, where the prisoners were exercised around a mulberry tree.

Pop Goes the Weasel, 1855

This tune focuses on the cycle of poverty. It is believed much of the rhyme is Cockney rhyming slang, for example, "pop" refers to pawning something, and "weasel" means coat.

- nzherald.co.nz

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