History of Nursery Rhymes

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!

Humpty Dumpty was a powerful cannon during the English Civil War (1642-49). It was mounted on top of the St. Mary’s at the Wall Church in Colchester defending the city against siege in the summer of 1648. (Although Colchester was a Parliamentarian stronghold, it was captured by the Royalists who held it for 11 weeks.) The church tower was hit by the enemy and the top of the tower was blown off, sending “Humpty” tumbling to the ground. Naturally the King’s men* tried to mend him but in vain.
* The “men” would have been infantry, and “horses” the cavalry troops.
– From the East Anglia Tourist Board in England

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

The lace makers of Wendover in Buckinghamshire were a lively bunch. Every year on November 25th, they celebrated the feast of St. Catherine, their patron saint. Costumed as men, singing special love songs for the occasion, they visited neighbors, who served them wiggs – buns flavored with caraway seeds – and a hot pot – a drink of warm beer thickened with rum and whipped eggs. Afterward, they held a banquet and set off fireworks, especially Catherine Wheels. In conclusion of the evening, they played leap-candle. A candlestick with a lighted candle was set on the floor. A player’s jumping over the candle without extinguishing the flame augured good luck for the following year.
– The Great American Baby Almanac

Rock-a-bye-baby On the treetop
When the wind blows,
The cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall
And down will come baby
Cradle and all

The author of this well-loved lullaby was reportedly a pilgrim who sailed on the Mayflower. The Wampanoag Indians, who befriended the colonists, carried their infants in cradleboards on their backs. In temperate weather, they suspended the cradles from tree limbs so that passing breezes could rock the babies while their mothers tended the maize and beans. With typical motherly indulgence, the cradles were decorated with shells, beads and porcupine quills. For sober-minded puritans, the sight of a birch tree festooned with such cradles must have been very memorable indeed.
– The Great American Baby Almanac

Little Jack Horner
Sat in a corner
Eating a Christmas Pie
He put in his thumb
And pulled out a plum
And said
“Oh, what a good boy am I!”

According to legend, Little Jack Horner was actually Thomas Horner, steward to the Abbot of Glastonbury during the reign of King Henry VIII. Rumor had it that the inquisitive king would soon be reaching for some Glastonbury holdings. The nervous Abbot, hoping to appease the royal appetite, sent the king a special gift: a pie containing twelve deeds to manor houses. On his way to London, the not-so-loyal courier Horner stuck his thumb into the pie and extracted the deed for Mells Manor, a plum piece of real estate, where his descendants live to this day.
– The Great American Baby Almanac

Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.

Before the suffragists came along, women were sometimes compelled to obtain their ends by unusual means. Consider the case of Lady Godiva. Her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia, imposed a heavy tax on his subjects. Distressed by their hardship, Godiva pleaded their case. Her husband listened politely for a few days, then with mounting annoyance, and finally offered a dare….”Ride naked through Coventry, and I’ll do as you ask.”
Confident that his wife would never commit such an act, Leofric returned to his ledgers. Undaunted, Godiva galloped through town on a handsome white horse, clad only in her coppery tresses, while all the folk in Coventry stayed indoors with the shutters locked, to spare her blushes. The earl conceded, and lifted the tax. And if she hears music wherever she goes, it’s probably the townspeople singing her praises.
– The Great American Baby Almanac

There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead;
And when she was good,
She was very, very good
But when she was bad she was horrid.

This poem is the work of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He composed it one day when his daughter Edith refused to submit her hair to a curling iron. For many years afterward, Longfelllow, the author of such works as Evangeline and “Paul Revere’s Ride,” denied having written the verse.
When pressed by his friends, he owned up, albeit somewhat crossly; “When I recall my juvenile poems and prose sketches, I wish that they were forgotten entirely. They however cling to one’s skirt with a terrible grasp.”
– The Great American Baby Almanac

Ring a ring of roses (flowers!)
A pocket full of posies (flowers!)
A tishew, a tishew,  (sneezes)
We all fall down. (as in dead) – see below:

This rhyme comes from England in the time of the Great Plague, in those days the Plague was so rife that people would carry around with them a ‘posy’ (which is a small bunch of flowers) that they held under their noses to help stop them catching the plague.  A tishew, a tishew, (sneezing, ie caught the plague) we all fall down (as in we all fall down dead). – submitted by Claire Jukes.

Another version : Philip Hiscock, a folklorist at Memorial University in Newfoundland, states that this rhyme likely originated as a way of skirting Protestant bans on dancing:

“Adolescents found a way around the dancing ban with what was called in the United States the ‘play-party.’ Play-parties consisted of ring games, which differed from square dances only in their name and their lack of musical accompaniment. They were hugely popular, and younger children got into the act, too. Some modern nursery games, particularly those which involve rings of children, derive from these play-party games. ‘Little Sally Saucer’ (or ‘Sally Waters’) is one of them, and ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ seems to be another. The rings referred to in the rhymes are literally the rings formed by the playing children.”

Article by L Batra.

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