By Saiyed M. Fauzan Ali

When we were kids, we all loved to sing Nursery Rhymes, jiggling all around, hand in hand, with wide smiles on our faces. At schools, we were inundated with these rhymes about an anthropomorphic egg who just couldn’t keep his balance, or a girl trying to eat her curd while being harassed by a tiny little spider. These rhymes were perhaps the first thing we ever learned growing up, and even today our children are taught these rhymes at school. We find joy in seeing our kids intonate these jingles and dance to their tone being completely oblivious to the fact, that a number of these rhymes have a darker meaning than we could have ever imagined. Indeed! There are surprisingly ominous theories surrounding the origins of these sugary kindergarten rhymes that we learned as kids. They possess such a dark streak that they have left Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and even Stephen King far behind.

Let’s have a look at the backstory of five of the renowned kindergarten rhymes that we loved when we were kids.

  1. London Bridge is Falling Down

London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down, falling down.

London Bridge is falling down,

My fair lady.

Set a man to watch all night,

Watch all night, watch all night,

Set a man to watch all night,

My fair lady.

Suppose the man should fall asleep,

Fall asleep, fall asleep,

Suppose the man should fall asleep?

My fair lady.

Although, there are a number of theories surrounding the rhyme ‘London Bridge’, however, the one that stands out among the rest is about a Viking attack on the Bridge somewhere between 1009 – 1014. It is believed that Olaf II destroyed the bridge, and the song was actually created by the Vikings. They brought the tune to all of the places they traveled, bragging about their achievement. Further proof to this theory is found in a book published in 1844 by Samuel Laing, which included some verses from Ottar Svarti.

London Bridge is broken down. —

Gold is won, and bright renown.

Shields resounding,

War-horns sounding,

Hild is shouting in the din!

Arrows singing,

Mail-coats ringing —

Odin makes our Olaf win!

The above poetry is quite similar to the London Bridge poetry that we hear today. Perhaps, the original version was later changed into the one we are taught now.

Another famous yet hair-raising theory surrounding the poem is the ‘Child Sacrifice’. People at the time believed that the bridge would collapse unless a human sacrifice is made to keep the bridge from falling. Hence, people would entomb children within the foundation of the bridge, where they would die out of thirst and hunger. Come to think of it, there is a game that is played while singing this poem. Two kids would join their hands to form an arch, while others would run underneath till the song is completed. The child who is left at the end is caught by the hands forming the arch. Disturbing!

  1. Marry, Marry, Quite Contrary

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockleshells

And pretty maids all in a row.

The Marry referred to in this rhyme is not a pretty little girl, but in reality, she’s Marry I, often known as ‘bloody’ Marry, the daughter of Henry VIII and his Wife Katherine of Aragon.  It is said that Henry VIII wanted to Marry Anne Boleyn, and therefore, he appealed to the church for a divorce. However, despite his constant pursuit for annulment, the church refused. Hence, Henry VIII relied on other means to get what he wanted. It is said that Henry VIII secluded himself from the Catholic Church, and he formed an Anglican Church. As a result, at the time of Mary’s reign, the people were divided into Catholics and the Protestants. Marry wanted England to return to Catholicism, which was contrary to the Protestant’s belief (Marry, Marry, Quite Contrary). She took extreme measures to fulfill her motive. During her reign (1553 – 1558) thousands of Protestants were executed. The ‘Silver Bells’ and ‘Cockleshells’ are not flowers, but in actuality, they are torture devices used in her time. The ‘Pretty maids all in a row’ were the Protestant women, who were laid on the ground in massive rows and burned alive. Henceforth, her garden of bodies grew in a short period of time. Now read the poem again!

  1. Jack and Jill

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.

The origin of Jack and Jill is so disturbing, that it shouldn’t even be allowed anywhere near a child. The Kids referred to as Jack and Jill are actually France’s Louis XVI and his beloved wife Marie Antoinette. During the French Revolution, both France’s and his Wife were convicted of Treason, and they both suffered a very cruel fate.  They both were beheaded. The verses in the older version of this poem were ‘Lost his crown, and Jill’s came tumbling after’. France’s or better known as Jack in the Poem ‘Lost his crown’ i-e he lost his throne and his head, and his wife’s head came tumbling after. However, in the later versions, they changed ‘Lost his crown’ to ‘Broke his crown’ to disguise the threatening nature of this poem.

  1. Ring-Around-The-Rosie (Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses)


A pocket full of posies,

A-tishoo! A-tishoo!

We all fall down.

The most popular theory about this particular rhyme is by far the most notorious. The Singsongy verses refer to the Plague of London, which occurred in 1665 and killed thousands of women, men, and children. It is said that the people afflicted by the Plague formed a Rash called ‘Rosie’ in the shape of a ring. They would then fill their pockets with ‘Posies’ to cover the smell, and in this way, the people were also identified as the victims of the Plague. The afflicted would then be stricken by constant sneezing, which is referred to in the rhyme as ‘A-tishoo! A-Tishoo’ and then they would eventually die (We all fall down). The plague wiped off nearly 15% of the population. Jeez!

  1. Baa Baa Black Sheep

Baa baa black sheep,

Have you any wool?

Yes sir, yes sir,

Three bags full.

One for the Master,

One for the Dame,

And one for the little boy

Who lives down the lane.

Although this rhyme seems very innocent and cute, however, if we look at the backstory, it’s really not that acquitted. The rhyme finds its roots somewhere in the 13th Century (feudal England) when King Edward I forced a cruel wool tax on the Farmers. One huge portion was taken by the King himself, and the other would be given to the Dame/Church, which left very little for the farmers to take home. In some older versions of this rhyme, it says ‘One for the Master, One for the Dame, and none for the little boy, who cries down the lane’. This shows us how very little was left for the poor farmers who worked day and night to cultivate the wool. The word ‘Black Sheep’ is used to denote wickedness.

The people who wrote these rhymes chose words and tone that were memorable and attractive enough to mask their dark origin. However, it’s pretty fortunate that kids are too young to focus on the words, let alone understand their ominous nature. They just go along with the tone and the rhythm. Nevertheless, once we get to know their disturbing and controversial roots, I’m pretty sure that no one will want their children to recite them.

Saiyed M. Fauzan Ali is an MBA/ M.phil specialized in Supply Chain Management and Certified LSS (USA). The Author has worked in the past as a freelance research analyst and a critical reviewer, and he is a writing enthusiast.

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