CHILDREN buried alive, dead babies hanging from trees, torture and prostitutes are not topics you’d expect kids to be singing about.
But surprisingly, the traditional nursery rhymes we grew up with – including Rock-a-bye Baby and London Bridge is Falling down – feature all these gruesome topics and more.
Here, Sun Online reveals the most horrifying true stories behind your favourite nursery rhymes…
London Bridge Is Falling Down is about burying children alive
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
This nineteenth-century rhyme is thought to be about starving children who were ‘buried alive’ as the Old London Bridge was built in the 1200s.
Dying kids were trapped alive in the foundation walls to die – as part of a horrific process known as “immurement” – due to the bizarre belief their bodies would help the structure remain stable and stop it from “falling down”.
Bodies have been found inside the structures of various old buildings around Europe due to this terrifying custom.
Rock-a-bye Baby was inspired by dead babies hung from trees
On the tree tops,
When the wind blows,
The cradle will rock
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall,
and down will come Baby,
Cradle and all.
This lullaby, first written down in 1765, is thought by some to be about a 17th-century ritual where a dead newborn baby would try to be brought back to life.
It was hoped that hanging the dead baby from a tree branch would achieve this – but more often than not the branch would snap and “down will come Baby, Cradle and all”.
Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush is about female prisoners at HMP Wakefield
Here we go round the mulberry bush
On a cold and frosty morning.
This mid-19th century rhyme is thought to be about female Victorian prisoners exercising at HMP Wakefield in West Yorkshire.
The women would dance with their children around a mulberry tree – which still stands today – and they are believed to have taught their kids this rhyme to keep them entertained.
Three Blind Mice tells the story of three executed bishops
Three blind mice. Three blind mice.
See how they run. See how they run.
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
The rhyme, from 1609, is not actually about three mischievous mice who are taught a lesson by the farmer’s wife – but three “blind” bishops.
Experts believe that it tells the story of Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer, three Protestant bishops, who were burned at the stake by Queen Mary 1 of England, a Catholic.
While they weren’t actually blinded, it is thought the pro-Catholic writers of the rhyme meant “blindness” as a reference to their Protestantism.
Their “blindness”, in the rhyme penned by Catholics, refers to their Protestantism[/caption]
Rub-A-Dub-Dub is about three naked prostitutes
Three men in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,
And all of them out to sea.
The original version of this 14-century rhyme actually read…
Hey! rub-a-dub, ho! rub-a-dub, three maids in a tub,
And who do you think were there?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker,
And all of them gone to the fair.
It is thought to be about three naked women – or “maids” – sharing a tub with three ‘respectable gentlemen, the “The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker”, at a fair.
Swapping out “three maids in a tub” for “three men in a tub”, sometime in the 1840s, made the rhyme less scandalous.
Goosey Goosey Gander tells the story of murdered priests
Goosey goosey gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady’s chamber.
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.
This 16th-century rhyme is not about geese, but Catholic priests put to death during the Protestant reign of King Henry VIII.
They were put to death for refusing to say prayers in the Anglican form – and one of the methods of execution was to throw them “down the stairs”.
The term “goose” was a slang term for ‘prostitute’ during this time, and is thought in this rhyme to indicate that the Church was being “whorish”.
Mary, Mary Quite Contrary is about torture and beheadings
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.
This sweet-sounding rhyme, written in the 1500s, is about Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots’ love of executions.
The “how does your garden grow?” line refers to the expanding graveyard of people killed on her orders.
Ring a Ring o’ Roses was inspired by the Black Death
Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
The innocent-sounding rhyme, first published in 1881, is widely thought to be about the Black Death, which killed millions across Europe in the 1340s, or the Great Plague of London in 1665.
It is believed “ring” refers to the ring of sores around the mouth of sufferers, who would sneeze – “A-tishoo, A -tishoo” – and “fall down” dead.
Jack and Jill is about pints of beer
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.
One of the most famous children’s rhymes is probably about lovers or beer.
In the 16th century, when it originates from, ‘Jack’ often meant ‘hero’ and ‘Jill’ a ‘sweetheart’.
However, others have made the suggestion it refers to King Charles 1’s reform on liquid measures – “crown” used to mean a 1/2 pint and “jill” a 1/4 pint.
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There Was An Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe tells the story of a very fertile woman
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
She gave them some broth and a big slice of bread.
Then kissed them all soundly and send them to bed.
In 1797, when this rhyme was written, “shoe” meant fertility – meaning this poem is about a very fertile woman.
A local Lancashire custom saw females during this period attempting to conceive by trying on the shoes of a woman who had just given birth.
Perhaps consider the hidden meaning of all these rhymes next time you’re singing them to a child…
We previously told you the horrifying real endings to your favourite fairy tales – including how Sleeping Beauty was raped and how Pinocchio gets hanged.
And earlier this week we told you the true story behind Abducted In Plan Sight.