Oranges and Lemons is a traditional English nursery rhyme and singing game which refers to the bells of several churches, all within or close to the City of London. The lyrics go as so:
Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.
You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.
When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.
When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.
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,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!
Various theories have been advanced to account for the rhyme, including: that it deals with child sacrifice; that it describes public executions; and that it describes Henry VIII’s marital difficulties. Problematically for these theories the last two lines, with their different metre, do not appear in the earlier recorded versions of the rhyme. The first published record of Oranges and Lemons dates back to 1744 in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, although it’s fair to assume it had been in circulation for some time before then. There is a reference to a square dance with the same name in a 1665 publication, but it’s not clear if that relates to the rhyme.
The song is used in a children’s singing game with the same name, 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 and, 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 curious and spectacularly dark end lines: “here comes the candle to light you to bed, here comes the chopper to chop off your head…” probably refers to practices at Newgate prison. The gaol stood on the current site of the Old Bailey, next to St Sepulchre’s church (the bells of Old Bailey in the rhyme). The sound of that church’s “great” tenor bell striking 9am on a Monday morning would signal the start of any hangings due to take place that week. The prisoners on death row were visited the night before by the bell man of St Sepulchre, who would hold a candle in one hand and ring the execution bell in the other. Whatever the meaning of the words, it’s clear that the rhyme has an enduring and cross cultural legacy which may mean it’s being chanted in school playgrounds for many years to come.