Sunday, April 29, 2012

Political Meaning in 18th Century Nursery Rhymes (Part Two)


The relationship between nursery rhymes and actual historical events or persons is considered by many to be apocryphal but whether you believe there is a political connection or not, it is always fun to speculate! As I did in part one I examine four nursery rhymes popular in the Georgian era and the meaning behind the rhyme.

Georgie Porgie
Georgie Porgie pudding and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away

There are two contenders for the title of Georgie Porgie.  The first is George Villiers; Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628) the bisexual lover of James I. George was a very good-looking lad with highly suspect morals. He did not confine his sexual favors to the king but had affairs with many of the ladies at court, as well as the wives and daughters of powerful nobles. It is also believed he used his privileged position with the King to force his attentions on unwilling ladies. He “ kissed the girls and made them cry” and managed to avoid prosecution or retaliation “when the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away”. Villiers notorious affair with Anne of Austria, Queen of France, injured both their reputations and was written into Alexander Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers. Villiers liaisons and political scheming were questioned in the English Parliament who finally put a stop to James I intervening on his young lover’s behalf.

Caricature of George IV as the Prince of Wales 

 The second contender for the title of Georgie Porgie, and the one I prefer, is none other than the last of the Hanoverian Georges, “I’m the Fat One” (to quote Horrible Histories), the Prince Regent and subsequently George IV (1820-1830).

In later life, George was not just fat he was grossly obese. He gave huge banquets and drank to excess. Although he was described as the “First Gentleman of England”, is credited with championing the Regency style of clothing and manners, was considered clever and knowledgeable, Georgie Porgie highlights his worst traits. His laziness and gluttony led him to squander his abilities.

He spent whole days in bed and his extreme weight made him the target of ridicule hence the reference to “pudding and pie”. By 1797 he weighed in at 245 pounds (111kg) and by 1824 the waist of his corset was 50 inches (127cm).

George had a notorious roving eye. His checkered love life included several mistresses, illegitimate children and bigamy. Beautiful women invited to dine with the King were warned not to find themselves alone for George was not above taking liberties with his female guests. He “Kissed the girls and made them cry”. He was also considered a coward by those who knew him well, thus “When the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away”. A senior aide to the king recorded in his diary that, "A more contemptible, cowardly, selfish, unfeeling dog does not exist... There have been good and wise kings but not many of them... and this I believe to be one of the worst." The Times once wrote, George preferred "a girl and a bottle to politics and a sermon."

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.

Kilmersdon, a village in Somerset has claimed the rhyme as their own and there is a set of stone tablets along a path up to a well at the top of the notorious hill. The village claims that during 1697, a young unmarried couple courted up on a hill, away from the prying eyes of the village. Fetching a pail of water was a ruse. Jill became pregnant, and just before she gave birth, Jack “fell down and broke his crown”; he was killed by a hit to the head from a rock. Days later, “Jill came tumbling after”, dying in childbirth.

This could well be true, and could only help boost tourist numbers to Kilmersdon. However, the rhyme was not published until the 1700s. While 1760 is touted as the year of publication, there are those who contend the actual date was closer to 1795. The latter date would tie in nicely with the theory that the protagonists Jack and Jill are in fact the ill-fated French royal couple Louis XVI and his Queen Marie Antoinette who were both guillotined in 1793.

 “Up the hill” is said to represent Louis XVI’s ascension to the French throne in 1774. Jack falling down is reference to the French Revolution and Louis being arrested and charged with treason. He “broke his crown” when he was guillotined in January 1793, and Marie Antoinette (Jill) soon followed when she “came tumbling after” and was guillotined in October of the same year.

Execution of Louis XVI

There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe
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 without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

 The old woman is said to refer to the English Parliament and the shoe itself is England. It is said that if you look at a map of Great Britain and turn it 90 degrees clockwise it resembles a shoe (!). By the mid 1700s England is considered an “old woman” by its colonies, particularly the American colonies, set in her ways and intractable. Her many children are said to represent the English colonies, young, growing and inquisitive. “Some broth without any bread” and then a whipping before bed, refers to the piecemeal and violent way the English Parliament dealt with colonials and their problems; in the same way a harsh parent treats a child considered wayward and naughty. The dismissal, and subsequent harsh treatment, of the very real problems faced by the American colonists eventually led to the American Revolutionary War.

Jack be Nimble

Jack be nimble,
Jack be quick,
Jack jump over
The candlestick.

There is consensus amongst historians as to the identity of Jack being the notorious pirate Black Jack Smatt who lived at Port Royal, Jamaica during the latter half of the 17th Century. Port Royal was known as “The Wickedest City on Earth”, until razed by an earthquake in 1692, at which time Jack and his fellow pirates were heard of no more. Yet, his legend lived on well into the Eighteenth Century and the printing of the first Mother Goose nursery rhymes. Jack Smatt was nimble and quick—he evaded capture by the British authorities, and he was never tried for piracy because he had the knack of getting himself out of a “hot spot” (represented by Jack jumping over a candlestick). Black Jack Smatt lives on in the 21st century consciousness as the Eighteenth Century pirate Captain Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, fabulously portrayed by the wonderfully talented Johnny Depp.


Baker, K (2005), "George IV: a Sketch." History Today, 2005 55(10): 30–36.

Clarke, John (1975). "George IV". The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England (Knopf): 225

Collcutt, D. (2008) Why does the Weasel go Pop, the secret meaning of our best-loved nursery rhymes

George IV of he United Kingdom

Miss Cellania, (2011) Who Was the Real “Georgie Porgie”?

Nursery Rhymes—Lyrics, Origins & History

Nursery Rhymes as Mother Goose Knows Them


  1. "There was an old woman who lived in a shoe" - is probably a corruption of "There was an old woman who lived in a STEW" - "the stews" were the slums, the shantytowns. Nothing to do with the shape of the British Isles which are more usually compared to a bear sitting down with a pig's head in its lap.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Sue, and letting us in on yet another surprising theory. I must admit, the "shape" theory is a bit of a stretch - hence the (!) showing my surprise too. : - )

  2. I love nursery rhymes, and I hadn't heard the theories behind any of these except Georgie Porgie. I'm the eldest of seven children, so my mum used to call herself the old woman who lived in a shoe - not, I hasten to add, that she ever whipped us. Thank you, I've just discovered this site, it's great.

    1. Me too, Marguerite! I still have my first Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes book given to me when I was about three. I thought being the eldest of three was hard work, but being the eldest of seven is unimaginable! That said my mother was one of thirteen, and her mother, my Grandmother WAS the old woman who lived in the shoe - particularly when all her grandchildren came to visit on her birthday. Thanks for stopping by. So glad you found this site!

  3. Any excuse for a picture of Johnny Depp is fine by me!
    G x

  4. Am I correct in thinking that Ring-a-ring-a-roses is a reference to the Plague ("Atishoo! Atishoo" We all fall down") and that a sweet-smelling posy of flowers was thought to counteract the contagion?

    1. That is certainly one theory I've read about, Mike. The other is that it refers to smallpox. In any event, both contagious and teaching children to stay away from people suspected of harboring disease. And yes, the posy to stop the spread of the disease. The thinking being that the contagion was in the air. It would have helped with the stench too!

  5. Whether these historical explanations of nursery rhymes are true or not (and aren't there always revisionists among the scholarly) they certainly add to one's enjoyment. Thanks Lucinda, for a fun and informative article.

    1. My thoughts exactly, Katherine! It's such fun to speculate. So pleased you enjoyed the article. : - )


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