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The Crazy Mythological and True Meanings of Five Common Nursery Rhymes

Updated on August 26, 2013

Nursery rhymes don't seem to make sense. Some question if they are appropriate for children. Despite the meaning, nursery rhymes ARE good for language and reading development in young kids. Please read here for the benefits of nursery rhymes for children.

Don't let these crazy stories stop you from teaching these rhymes to your kids. Take this as a history lesson you can eventually tell your kids. For now these secrets can be kept between you and I.

1. Here We Go Around the Mulberry (sometimes Bramble) Bush

Mulberry Bush Nursery Rhyme

Mulberry Bush

Here we go round the mulberry bush

The mulberry bush, the mulberry bush

Here we go round the mulberry bush

So early in the morning

This is the way we wash our clothes

Wash our clothes, wash our clothes

This is the way we wash our clothes

So early Monday morning

This is the way we iron our clothes

Iron our clothes, iron our clothes

This is the way we iron our clothes

So early Tuesday morning

This is the way we scrub (sometimes sweep) the floor

Scrub/sweep the floor, scrub/sweep the floor

This is the way we scrub/sweep the floor

So early Wednesday morning

This is the way we mend our clothes

Mend our clothes, mend our clothes

This is the way we mend our clothes

So early Thursday morning

This is the way we clean the house

Clean the house, clean the house

This is the way we clean the house

So early Friday morning

This is the way we bake our bread

Bake our bread, bake our bread

This is the way we bake our bread

So early Saturday morning

This is the way we go to church

Go to church, go to church

This is the way we go to church

So early Sunday morning

As a child, my mother told me this nursery rhyme was taught to young Mennonite girls to learn the way of life for the women. I always believed her because living in an area heavily populated with Mennonite I would see laundry hanging out to dry every Monday morning, women do all of their cooking for Saturday and Sunday on Saturday so they can go to church and have a day of rest on Sunday and so on. While this was a nice story, it isn't the true story behind the rhyme.

The first known recording of Mulberry Bush was by James Orchard Halliwell in his 1849 anthology "Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales: A Sequel To The Nursery Rhymes Of England".

Laundry hanging on my street on a Monday morning.
Laundry hanging on my street on a Monday morning. | Source

The Wakefield Prison in England is said to be the source of this tale. Women were being sent to this jail starting in the mid 1800's. Allegedly the inmates sang this song while exercising with their children around a mulberry bush in the prison yard. The prison was not very sanitary and to prevent the spread of disease they made up this song to emphasis cleanliness. Today the bush is now a tree and still stands in the same spot where the prison was. It is regarded as a local destination for visitors.

2. Ring Around the Rosy

Ring Around the Rosy

Ring around the rosy

Pocket full of posies

Ashes, ashes we all fall down!

It is said this nursery rhyme is a story about the bubonic plague. The first line, Ring Around the Rosy refers to the symptoms of the plague which include red, rosy ulcerated spots surrounded by a ring. The second line about posies have two stories. First, the posies were used to cover the smell of the ulcers/death. The second explanation is that posies were carried because there was a superstitious belief that carrying posies in front of your nose would ward off the plague. Ashes, ashes refers to the cremation of all of the bodies. Some versions say A-tishoo, A-tishoo instead of ashes referring to the violent sneezing which was another symptom of the plague. We all fall down symbolizes death. does not see this as the real explanation of the rhyme. The earliest printed version of this rhyme was in the 1881 publication of Mother Goose or The Old Nursery Rhymes by Kate Greenaway.

For the plague meaning of the rhyme to be true children would have had to have been reciting the nursery rhyme for centuries without anyone writing it down.

It is believed by Folklorist Philip Hiscock the ban on dancing by the Protestants in the 19th century caused the young to invent "circle-play" songs as a way of going around the ban. He believes "Ring Around the Rosy" was one on the "circle-play" songs.

3. There Was an Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe

There Was an Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe

There was an old lady who lived in a shoe

She had so many children she didn't know what to do

She gave them some broth without any bread

Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed

The earliest recording of this rhyme was printed in Joseph Ritson's Gammer Gurton's Garland in 1794.

It is thought to refer to Queen Caroline who had eight children and was the wife of King George. The children refer to members of Parliament. The term "whip" is used to describe a member of Parliament who is tasked to make sure all members "toe the party line".

Another story (supposedly a true story) says that the old woman refers to a woman named Margery Buttwhistle who was a town prostitute and drunk with 20 kids. She was unable to give of herself emotionally to all of her children. The children, seeking their mothers approval, stole shoes and called themselves the "shoe gang". They gave the shoes to their mother. She sold the shoes to support her family (and drinking problem).

4. Georgie Porgie

Georgie Porgie

Georgie Porgie pudding and pie

Kissed the girls and made them cry

When the boys came out to play

Georgie Porgie ran away

The first recorded version of this rhyme was by James Orchard Halliwell in his 1849 anthology "Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales: A Sequel to Nursery Rhymes of England". Georgie Porgie was thought to be a caricature of George Villers, the first Duke of Buckingham. He was known as a prettyboy who had affairs with many women. He later started having affairs with men, including King Charles I. Parliament cut off the affair with the king. Instead of fighting back George left willingly thus the ending "when the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away".

5. Jack and Jill (alternate spelling Gill)

Jack and Jill

This rhyme was first published in 1760 in John Newbery's Mother Goose Melody.

Jack and Jill went up a hill

To fetch a pail of water

Jack fell down and broke his crown

And Jill came tumbling after

The common explanation of this rhyme is that Jack represents King Louis XVI (born 1754, died 1793) and Jill represents Queen Marie Antoinette. "Jack" fell down and broke his crown (beheaded) and "Jill" came tumbling after. The problem is that the rhyme was published before King Louis XVI was beheaded.

Another theory dates back to BC. There was a small form of currency called a "gil". The larger currency was called "jack". The rhyme was about the rise in value of "jack" and "gil" (up a hill). After being struck by a plague that left everyone short of water (fetch a pail of water). The plague caused massive death followed by a suffering economy (Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after).


These stories make you wonder how it ever came to be that we repeated these rhymes over and over to children. I learned all of these rhymes as a child and they in no way scarred my childhood. I never knew what they meant but loved the rhythm and how the words sounded. Nursery rhymes are very good for language development. If you are not already teaching them to your child, start now.

© 2013 HeatherH104


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    • HeatherH104 profile image

      HeatherH104 3 years ago from USA

      That's great DreamerMeg! Keep it up. :)

    • DreamerMeg profile image

      DreamerMeg 3 years ago from Northern Ireland

      Children love nursery rhymes. I am now teaching them to my grandchildren.

    • HeatherH104 profile image

      HeatherH104 4 years ago from USA

      Even with English being a first (or only) language a lot of people don't know the stories behind the rhymes. They aren't exactly stories you want to tell your small children. :) I do agree with you about how song like they are. Many have been made into a song.

      Thanks for reading and commenting! :)

    • kidscrafts profile image

      kidscrafts 4 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      Very interesting, Heather. Because English is a second language, I didn't know all the "behind the scene" of those nursery rhymes! When you say some of those nursery rhymes (out loud) with the rhythm and the rhymes (whatever the language) it feels almost like a song.

      Have a great week!

    • HeatherH104 profile image

      HeatherH104 4 years ago from USA

      What, no laundry lines allowed? Why? I think people around here would riot. Lol.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting, it's always nice to see you. :)

    • CraftytotheCore profile image

      CraftytotheCore 4 years ago

      Nice work! I had no idea, especially about the mulberry bush one! Whoa, that gave me goosebumps. The laundry line photo is pretty funny. I've read some areas don't allow them any more. I would have to move as I depend on mine way too much in the summer! :)

    • JPB0756 profile image

      Robert A. Joseph 4 years ago

      You're welcome, HeatherH104, and thanks for your response; excellent and fun piece of writing!

    • HeatherH104 profile image

      HeatherH104 4 years ago from USA

      Thank you! If you are referring to the Ring Around the Rosie being from the time of bubonic plague, I totally agree with you. Just because it wasn't written down doesn't mean it's not that old. I tend to believe the bubonic plague to be the real story of that rhyme. The Native Americans are a great example of oral traditions kept alive over long periods of time.

      Thanks for reading and your comment!

    • JPB0756 profile image

      Robert A. Joseph 4 years ago

      Nice piece! Must say, Native Americans wrote little or nothing, yet tribes knew theirs and others' histories, so not being written down may not be a factor, especially if the devil were involved, id est "he who remains unnamed;" Religion might have influenced writing, yes?