Nursery Rhymes

Nursery Rhymes Week

This week is World Nursery Rhyme week, and we thought that as our celebration of the week we would dedicate our monthly article to these fun educational resources for children. In this months article we will take a look at the origins of the nursery rhyme, why they are so important and look 10 of the most iconic rhymes.

Origins of Nursery rhymes

Nursery rhymes are traditional poems/songs that are aimed at children in the UK and may other countries. Nursery rhymes serve as a fun easy-to-remember introduction to language for children. The use of the term, nursery Rhymes, can be dated back to only the late 18th or early 19th century. They are also known as Mother goose rhymes. Looking back through history lullabies can be found.

Where does the term Lullaby come from?

It is believed that the term lullaby comes from the lu lu or la la sounds that are made by mothers, and carers in order to calm children with the connection of the by by term for good night or when it is used as another lulling sound.

Up until the modern era, lullabies were only recorded incidentally in written sources. Roman nurses lullaby ‘Lalla, Lalla, Lalla, aut dormi lacta’ is recorded in a manuscript on Perseus, it may be the eldest to survive.

During medieval times many English verses that take the form of lullabies were associated with the birth of Jesus, for example ‘Lullay, my liking, my dere son, my sweting’. Most of those that are used in modern day times date from the 17th century, but some can’t even be found in records until the late 18th century.

Early Nursery Rhymes

In the 13th century there was a French poem that was similar to the ’30 days hath September’ which numbers the days of the months. As we move into the Middle Ages there are records of short children’s rhyming songs, often found as scribbles and marks in the margins of documents.

English plays started to record nursery rhymes from around the 16th Century with one of the oldest surviving nursery rhymes being found in this era; ‘Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake baker’s man’. The earliest recorded version of this rhyme is found in Thomas d’Urfey’s play The Campaigners in 1698.

It was not until the 18th century when nursery rhymes started to get written down, particularly as publishing of children books moved towards entertainment and away from education, there are evidence of these existing however earlier than this.

Nursery rhymes in the 16th century include ‘To market, to market’ and ‘Cock a doodle doo’, with others like ‘Jack Sprat; The Grand Old Duke of York’, ‘Lavender’s blue’ and ‘Rain Rain Go Away’ appearing in the 17th century.

It was 1744 before the first English collection was produced by Mary Cooper in London, the collection was entitled ‘Tommy Thumb’s Song Book’ its sequel was Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song book. It is thought that these rhymes came from a variety of sources including traditional riddles, proverbs, ballads, lines of plays, drinking songs, historical events and even some pagan rituals.

It is believed that about half of all the currently known rhymes were known by the mid-18th century.

19th Century

As we enter the 19th Century we find printed collections of rhymes have started to spread to other countries.

It is from this era of time that we sometimes know the origins and authors of rhymes that we know and love today, an example of this would be ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’. This rhyme combines the melody of an 18th-century French tune ‘Ah vous dirai-je, Maman’ (Oh! Shall I tell you Mama?) with a 19th-century English poem by Jane Taylor entitled ‘The Star’

20th Century

The 20th Century is notable in the world of nursery rhymes as it introduces the illustrations to these rhymes and in collections, 1 such example would be those of Beatrix Potter who produced Appley Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes and Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes.

The definitive study of English rhymes remains the work of Iona and Peter Opie.

The Benefits of Nursery Rhymes

Nursery Rhymes have many benefits for children’s development, even the oldest and most nonsensical. Nursery rhymes are known to aid with children’s:

  • Vocabulary,
  • Understanding what rhyming is,
  • Syllables and sentence structure,
  • Rhythm,
  • Memory,
  • Imagery
  • Social routines.

 The language skills listed above are known to be useful precursors to learning to read, therefore children singing them with you is a valuable and vital part of their education.

The Origins of 10 of the best well-known Nursery Rhymes

Baa Baa Black Sheep

It is widely agreed that the origin of this classic dates from the 1275 wool tax, called the Great Custom, as part of this the farmer paid tax from each sack of wool to the Church and King Edward I. Interestingly, in the first printed version of 1744, there was ‘none for the little boy’, quite possibly a child labourer who did a lot of the work. In recent years the origins have again been called in question with the use of the words black and master, leading to the question as to whether it is actually with a racial message at its heart. In the 20th century the Political correctness was questioned, causing schools to ban its use, or change the lyrics to Rainbow sheep.

Goosey Goosey Gander

Goosey Goosey Gander finds it’s origins as a tale of religious persecution. Some years after the song’s first appearance in the historical record, it was appended with some disturbing lines. ‘There I met an old man, who wouldn’t say his prayers, so I took him by his left leg and threw him down the stairs.’

According to noted English folklorists Iona and Peter Opie,

‘It is very probable that they had a separate origin. They are much the same as the lines which schoolchildren address to the cranefly (‘Daddy-long-legs’), sometimes pulling off its legs as they repeat,

Old Father Long-Legs.
Can’t say his prayers;
Take him by the left leg,
And throw him downstairs.’

Jack and Jill

It is said that this popular rhyme was about the beheadings of the French King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s beheadings, however it is believed that this was written some 30 years before those events. The other origin of this could be that it is about King Charles I’s reduction on alcohol volumes. These were called Jacks for half-pints and Gills for quarter-pints. It is thought that he reduced the price of a Jack first followed by Gill’s and therefore Gill’s came tumbling after!

London Bridge Is Falling Down

The origin of this Nursery rhyme is dependent on who you talk to. It could be about a 1014 Viking attack or the normal deterioration of an old bridge. Some however lay the origin on the alleged destruction of London Bridge at the hands of Olaf II of Norway sometime in the early 1000s. This origin can be argued against as some historians don’t actually believe the attack ever took place. The song’s popularity around the world is often cited as further proof that it was the Vikings who created it, believing that they brought the tune to the many places they travelled.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

‘Contrary’ is one word used to describe a murderous psychopath. This popular nursery rhyme, which reads like a solicitation for gardening advice, is according to many recounting of the homicidal nature of Queen Mary I of England, also known as. Bloody Mary. A fierce believer in Catholicism, her reign as queen was marked by the execution of hundreds of Protestants. This origin assumption would make silver bells and cockle shells actually torture devices, not garden accoutrements.

Three Blind Mice

Three Blind Mice is said to be yet another ode to HM Queen Mary I’s reign and is rumoured in schools up and down the country to appear in girls’ toilets if you say her name three times to the mirror.
Queen Mary was a devout Catholic and wanted the country to be too. The Three are said to be a group of Protestant bishops:

  • Hugh Latimer,
  • Nicholas Radley, and
  • The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer

who (unsuccessfully) conspired to overthrow the queen and were burned at the stake for their heresy. Critics suggest that the blindness in the title refers to their religious beliefs.

Eeny Meeny Miny Mo

In the origins of Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo, catch a tiger by his toe, there are no derogatory nor inflammatory lines. Unfortunately though over the years different versions of the tune have popped up around the world, and most are appropriately innocent. In the late 19th and early 20th century United States version there was a racial slur in place of the tiger kids catch today. That version has, for good reason, fallen out of favour.

Here we go Round the Mulberry Bush

The rhyme is said to have come from HMP Wakefield, in Yorkshire, where female prisoners were made to exercise by running round a mulberry bush in the exercise yard.

A mulberry looks like a long blackberry, among other things.

Ring a Ring o’ Roses

While there are disputes, it is widely accepted that this song came from times of plague. It will depend on which sources you listen to as to whether it was the Black Death of the 1300s or the Great Plague of 1665!

The ‘ring o’ roses’ means the red lesions that victims got on their skin, the ‘pocketful of posies’ refers to the herbs people carried to protect them from the disease, and possibly dampen the smell, and at the end everybody sneezes and falls down dead. Such a happy way to end a children’s rhyme!

London’s Burning

This rhyme dates back to the terrible decade of the 1660s for London. This particular rhyme refers to the Great Fire of London in 1666, which started in a bakery on Pudding Lane. With houses being extremely close together and partly made of wood, the city was like kindling as the fire tore through it.

Fire engines have been around in some form or other since at least Roman times, when the extremely rich Crassus used to buy people’s houses from them while they (the houses) were on fire for next to nothing, then get his private fire brigade to put it out.

Why is World Nursery Rhyme Week so important?

To answer this question we refer to the official World Nursery Rhyme week and share their video that answers this very key question:

No matter what your favourite nursery rhyme is,
sing it, share it, and teach it to the children in your life
in order to benefit their development.

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