This recording was made by Iona Opie in Huddersfield in 1978. A nursery rhyme well known from childhood, but scratch the surface and all manner of fascinating detail is revealed.
St Clement Danes Church is situated outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, London. The church lays claim to being the one featured in the nursery rhyme, and its bells do indeed play the tune. However the claim is hotly contested by St Clement Eastcheap. St Clement Danes was almost destroyed by German bombs during the London Blitz of 10 May 1941. The outer walls, the tower and steeple, survived the bombing, but the interior was gutted by fire. Following an appeal for funds by the Royal Air Force, the church was completely restored and was re-consecrated on 19 October 1958 to become the Central Church of the Royal Air Force.
St Clement Danes’ claim to being the church mention in the introductory lyric is based on the church’s purported connections to a fruit market. It is said that the porters of Clare Market landed fruit at wharves in the parish, and paid a toll of oranges and lemons to the church so that they could use the churchyard as a short cut, this is likely a fabrication, as there is no documentary evidence, however the church has gone so far as to have an ‘Oranges and Lemons’ Service every year, on the third Thursday in March when children of the parish are given oranges and lemons. ‘Oranges and Lemons’ refers to the bells of several churches all within or close to the City of London, the popular version today is part of a longer version:
Gay go up and gay go down, To ring the bells of London town.
Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St. Clements.
Bull’s eyes and targets, Say the bells of St. Margret’s.
Brickbats and tiles, Say the bells of St. Giles’.
Halfpence and farthings, Say the bells of St. Martin’s.
Pancakes and fritters, Say the bells of St. Peter’s.
Two sticks and an apple, Say the bells of Whitechapel.
Pokers and tongs, Say the bells of St. John’s.
Kettles and pans, Say the bells of St. Ann’s.
Old Father Baldpate, Say the slow bells of Aldgate.
You owe me ten shillings, Say the bells of St. Helen’s.
When will you pay me? Say the bells of Old Bailey.
When I grow rich, Say the bells of Shoreditch.
Pray 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, Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.
Chop chop chop chop The last man’s dead!
The shorter version of the song is used in the children’s singing game, in which the players file, in pairs, through an arch made by two of the players (made by having the players face each other, raise their arms over their head, and clasp their partners’ hands). The challenge comes during the final lines:
Here comes a candle to light you to bed. Here comes a chopper to chop off your head. Chop chop, chop chop, the last man’s dead.
On the last word, the children forming the arch drop their arms to catch the pair of children currently passing through, who are then “out” and must form another arch next to the existing one.
In this way, the series of arches becomes a steadily lengthening tunnel through which each set of two players have to run faster and faster to escape in time. The sinister last three lines of the lyrics were added to the original rhyme at some time before 1783 when the infamous public execution gallows the Tyburn Tree was moved from Tyburn Gate (Marble Arch) to Newgate, a notorious prison for both criminals and debtors hence “When will you pay me?”
Various reading have concluded that the lyrics of Oranges& Lemons refer to rite of execution:
[…] the unfortunate victim would await execution on ‘Death Row’ and would be informed by the Bellman of St. Sepulchre by candle light ‘here comes the candle to light you to bed’, at midnight outside their cell, the Sunday night prior to their imminent fate, by the ringing of the ‘Execution Bell’ (a large hand bell) and the recitation of the following :
All you that in the condemned hole do lie, Prepare you for tomorrow you shall die; Watch all and pray: the hour is drawing near That you before the Almighty must appear; Examine well yourselves in time repent, That you may not to eternal flames be sent. And when St. Sepulchre’s Bell in the morning tolls The Lord above have mercy on your soul.
The executions commenced at nine o’clock Monday morning following the first toll of the tenor bell. […]
However, this but one of numerous possible explanations of the meaning of the rhyme, other vary from child sacrifice to the fate of Henry VIII’s various wives. The last lines, with their different metre, do not appear in the earliest recorded versions of the rhyme, including the first printed in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (c. 1744), where the lyrics are:
Two Sticks and Apple, Ring ye Bells at Whitechapple, Old Father Bald Pate, Ring ye Bells Aldgate, Maids in White Aprons, Ring ye Bells a St. Catherines, Oranges and Lemons, Ring ye bells at St. Clements, When will you pay me, Ring ye Bells at ye Old Bailey, When I am Rich, Ring ye Bells at Fleetditch, When will that be, Ring ye Bells at Stepney, When I am Old, Ring ye Bells at Pauls.
There is considerable variation in the churches and lines attached to them in versions printed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which makes any overall meaning difficult to establish. The final two lines of the modern version were first collected by James Orchard Halliwell in the 1840s. Oranges and Lemons was also the name of a square-four-eight-dance, published in Playford’s, Dancing Master in 1665, but it is not clear if this relates to this rhyme. Similar rhymes naming churches and giving rhymes to their names can be found in other parts of England, including Shropshire and Derby, where they were sung on festival days, on which bells would also have been rung.