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Little Jack Horner and Other Real People

Updated on September 28, 2014

Nursery Rhyme Characters and other Legendary Characters

Its surprising how many names of people we use in everyday conversation, without realising that the people concerned were once real flesh and blood. So Little Jack Horner, the real Mccoy, Uncle Sam, Fred Karnos and Uncle Tom Cobley and all, really did exist. Here are their stories.

Little Jack Horner

Not just a nursery rhyme

Little Jack Horner sat in a corner

Eating a Christmas pie;

He put in his thumb,

And pulled out a plum,

And said "What a good boy am I"

Jack Horner worked as steward to the Abbot of Glastonbury in Somerset at the time of the Dissolution of the Monateries in the reign of Henry VIII in the 1530's. Glastonbury owned 12 manors and the Abbot was required to send the deeds for each one to the King. For safety's sake he hid the deeds, which were extremely valuable, in a huge pie, which he then entrusted to the care of his loyal steward, Jack Horner. This is not so preposterous as it may first seem. Highway men were common and travelers would hide their gold, jewels and other valubles anywhere they could.

Horner knew what was in the pie, of course, and during the journey, managed to lift the crust and 'pull out a plum'. The 'plum' was the deeds of the manor of Mells in Somerset. A Thomas Horner has been traced as the owner of the manor of Mells and it is likely that he is a descendant of the wily Jack, puller of plums.

The 4th Earl of Sandwich
The 4th Earl of Sandwich


More than two slices and a filling

The fourth Earl of Sandwich was an energetic and capable politician but he is remembered today for inadvertently inventing the fast food item which still bears his name

. He entered the British House of Lords in 1739, aged 21, and plunged successfully into the world of politics, eventually becoming Secretary of State. He was a great gambler and indulged in marathon sessions at the gaming tables.

The Great Invention

During one such session, bound up with the play and too engrossed to stop to eat, he sent a waiter to obtain some ham and slices of bread. When they arrived he placed the ham between the bread slices and the sandwich was born.

It quickly became part of the British way of life, then was exported worldwide. It is now universally accepted as an eating habit.

Uncle Sam

The character of the stern elderly man with white hair and a goatee beard, and dressed in a frock-coat and top hat with red and white stripes and white stars on a blue band, and red and white striped trousers, who personifies the government of the USA, really did have a human original.

He was Samuel Wilson, a government inspector known affectionately among the workforce as "Uncle Sam." During the early years of the nineteenth century the letters EA-US were painted over an army provisions depot in Troy, New York, which he part owned with his cousin, Elbert Anderson. When asked by an employee what the US stood for Wilson jokingly replied that they stood for Uncle Sam, who was of course, himself. His joke cottoned on and it was not long before 'Uncle Sam' became synonymous with 'United States' and was accepted as a national figurehead.

There are two memorials to Uncle Sam, both of which commemorate the life of Samuel Wilson. The first is near Riverfront Park in Troy, NY, which was where he lived. The second is in Arlington, MA, which is where he was born.

The Real McCoy

The' Genuine Article' was a real person

When something is the genuine article we call it 'the real McCoy'. The McCoy who made the expression famous was a professional boxer who was actually born Norman Selby in Indiana in 1873.

Norman Selby, the Real McCoy

When he started his boxing career in 1891 he decided he needed an Irish name as Irish boxers were very popular in the USA at that time, so he changed his name to Charles 'Kid' McCoy. He had great success under his new name until another boxer appeared called Al McCoy and had some success. So Charles began billing himself as the Real McCoy to distinguish himself from other fighters.

McCoy was without doubt a great fighter. Although slight of build, he captured the world middleweight championship by defeating Don Creedon. He had an eventful life, to say the least. He travelled widely, and introduced boxing into Africa. He had eight wives, spent some years in prison for manslaughter and in April, 1940 he committed suicide. Not a dull life for the "Real McCoy".

Uncle Tom Cobley

Tom Pearse, Tom Pearse, lend me your grey mare,

All along, down along, out along, lee,

For I want for to go to Widecombe Fair,

With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,

Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,

Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,

Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

Widecombe Fair is the most famous folk song to come out of Devon, in south-west England, but what's the origin of the story behind the famous characters Tom Cobley, Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Tom Pearse and his old grey mare?

Research carried out by local history groups, suggests that Tom Cobley and his friends were real people - probably from mid-Devon. Most of the characters featured in the song had names which can be traced to families working in the Sticklepath and Spreyton area of Devon in the early 1800s.

Tom Cobley was a farmer who lived in the mid eighteenth century in the Devonshire village of Spreyton, 12 miles north of Widecombe. As a young man, Tom, along with Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer,, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Daniel Whiddon and Harry Hawk, was part of a wild bachelor set, known for his bright red hair and for chasing the girls of the surrounding villages. He was issued with many paternity orders but he refused to pay them as he would not maintain any child that did not have red hair.

He died in 1794, still a bachelor and there is a tomb to this day marked Thomas Cobley outside the south porch of Spreyton Church. A plaque depicting the story of Uncle Tom and his friends on the grey mare can be seen on the village green at Widecombe. There is still a Widecombe Fair each year in September.

Staffordshire Uncle Tom Cobley Toby Jug

Nicely painted Staffordshire toby jug or creamer. Unknown manufacturer but of nice quality. Although previously owned, this is in good condition, and measures approximately 9.5 cms in height. A lovely item.

Gordon Bennett

The expression "Gordon Bennett" is used as a mild expletive, often to avoid the use of the blasphemous swearword "God" and it may come as a surprise to know that there really was a Gordon Bennett.

He was born James fordon Bennett in New York in 1841. His father was a Scottish immigrant who became the proprietor of the New York Herald, and on his death in 1866, Gordon inherited the paper. He was already well into an enthusiastic playboy lifestyle, indulging in spending the family fortune on air and road racing in the USA, England and France and he spent the rest of his life beign more and more controversial.

The term 'Gordon Bennett' alludes to his wild ways, and perhaps originated as a euphemism for gorblimey or God. Gordon Bennett escaped to France to get away from scandals and became famous in Europe for establishing awards in sports such as yachting, auto and airplane racing, ballooning, etc.

Jack and Jill

They both lost their crowns!

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water

Jack fell down and broke his crown

And Jill came tumbling after.

Up got Jack, and home did trot

As fast as he could caper

He went to bed and bound his head

With vinegar and brown paper.


Back to Nursery Rhymes with Jack and Jill and again they have an actual identity. The roots of the rhyme go back to France in the time of Louis XVI and his Queen Marie Antoinette.

In the French Revolution of 1789, Louis, an extremely unpopular monarch , was beheaded (and so lost his crown). His wife, Jill in the Rhyme, was an Austrian and even more unpopular, and she, too was beheaded later in the same year, and so "came tumbling after". The words of the poem were made more acceptable as a story for children by providing a happy ending!

If you know any more real people who've become folk legends let us know!

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    • CCGAL profile image

      CCGAL 5 years ago

      I read once that a Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet, but I honestly don't know if that's just a bad joke or a real bit of history. I enjoyed reading this. I knew that many nursery rhymes had roots in history, but these stories made for a great read.

    • Country-Sunshine profile image

      Country Sunshine 6 years ago from Texas

      Interesting! I never realized - other than the Earl of Sandwich & Uncle Sam - that these stories were about real people!

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 6 years ago

      I always loved little Jack Horner ... he seemed so down to earth, you know?

    • BuddyBink profile image

      BuddyBink 6 years ago

      I have known about the sandwich story but the others are very interesting. Thanks