London Bridge is Falling Down: The Stories Behind the Nursery Rhymes

When a passion for history, architecture, and rhyme combine, a different London emerges.

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Trafalgar Square in central London is a vibrant open space used for a wide range of activities. At its east corner is St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, which is the British royal family’s parish. Photo: Anyaivanova/Shutterstock

“Rain, rain, go away,” I breathed as I stepped out into a wet London morning. The kind of morning I prefer to stay indoors, wrapped in a pashmina, nursing a cup of hot lemony tea. That was not to be on this late summer morning because I had guests from India eager to explore London. The catch was they had visited the Big Smoke before and taken in most of the sights, so my challenge was to show them different aspects of this city I’d grown to love. My friends and I share a passion for architecture and strangely, nursery rhymes. We had always found the history behind the seemingly innocuous English ditties we grew up with intriguing. So I decided to combine our interests to create a new way of seeing London. With a little research, I found the landmarks with the most enthralling, grisly, as well as the funniest links to the hoariest of rhymes. Since every inch of London has some literary or historic connection, it is the perfect city for such a tour.

Pub London England

The Eagle Pub is a grand old drinking spot with high ceilings and wooden booths lining the walls. Photo: Roberto Herrett/Age Fotostock/Dinodia

Catching a red double-decker bus to The Eagle Pub in Shoreditch, where I’d arranged to meet my friends, I was pleasantly surprised to find the skies clearing. As we fortified ourselves for the three-hour walk with hearty portions of mustard-spiked mash topped with coils of pork and leek bangers, I announced that our tour began right here.
“Up and down the city road,
In and out the Eagle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.
” runs the roundel referring to this historic public house, located at the corner of Shepherdess Walk and City Road. Starting life as a pub, the Eagle did a turn as a music hall in the early 19th century, and then returned as a pub after being demolished in 1901. A plaque at the door reminds visitors of its connection with the rhyme. The ditty uses Cockney rhyming slang—“weasel” is short for “weasel and stoat” which means coat. And “pop” was a colloquial term for pawning, harking back to the dire poverty of Victorian London’s underbelly where a coat would often have to be traded in for a crust of bread. The verse mentioning this pub was first heard during a performance at the Theatre Royal in 1856.

The Eagle was just shabby enough to evoke nostalgia for the era in which it was immortalised. The brooding air created by the dark walls and a soaring iron eagle located atop its central dome reminded me of the uncomfortable Victorian juxtaposition of grandeur and despair that 19th-century London was famous for.

Drama and Glory at the Churches of Shoreditch

Church London England

St. Clement Danes is an island of peace in the middle of the hustle of the Strand. This church, and St. Clement Eastcheap, have both been connected with the rhyme. Photo: Rune Hellestad/Corbis News/Corbis/Imagelibrary

Our next stop was linked to perhaps the most London-centric of all nursery rhymes. “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s,” I hummed under my breath as we walked,
“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.”
I stopped as we came upon St. Leonard’s in Shoreditch, a 15-minute walk from the Eagle. I’ve only time for brief halts at each of the numerous churches in the fruity but macabre ballad about death and taxation. We ached to step inside and breathe in the calm of the grand church after the hurly-burly of London streets, but it was time to move on to the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, Covent Garden.

There have been four buildings at the same location since 1663, making this the oldest working theatre in London. It was London’s leading playhouse until it caught fire in 1672 and a larger, Christopher Wren creation rose from its ashes, two years later. The one we were standing inside awestruck, opened in 1812, and since then a stellar range of performers from Ivor Novello to Monty Python have treaded its floorboards. Today, this Andrew Lloyd Webber-owned theatre devotes itself to musicals and you almost expect the masked Phantom to step out from behind a sumptuous velvet curtain and sing. But to us, Theatre Royal felt special because it was linked not just to “Pop goes the Weasel” but another rhyme as well.
“Do you know the muffin man,
The muffin man, the muffin man,
Do you know the muffin man,
Who lives in Drury Lane?”
I recited to my friends as they shook their heads grinning. During the Victorian era, muffins were delivered door-to-door. Many would have been delivered to the players as well, who staged more shows a day than they do today. The theatre itself would not have been the richly restored, four-tiered, 2,000-seat extravaganza it is now. The detailed restoration had returned its finest features—the rotunda, royal staircases, and grand saloon—to their former Regency glory. It left us salivating but it could have been because of the mention of muffins.

Church London England

The bells of St. Mary Le Bow were recorded in 1926 for the BBC World Service and used as an interval signal for broadcasts. Photo: Mark Sykes/Passage/Corbis/Imagelibrary

Two more “Oranges and lemons” churches are en route to London Bridge, our next destination, requiring a 40-minute walk through Fleet Street. St. Sepulchre at Old Bailey is grander than we expected, being the largest parish church in London. Music fills the aisles as we wander through for a look at Pocahontas’ lost love John Smith’s resting place.
With “When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.
I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow,” ringing in our ears, we arrived at St. Mary Le Bow located in the shadow of magnificent St. Paul’s. This imposing, old city church is vested with great meaning for the Cockneys of London. Tradition has it, only those born within earshot of the bells of Bow are true Cockneys. As the bells began ringing, our stomachs rumbled and we made our way to a Thames-side bench to feast on a large bag of roasted chestnuts bought from a vendor for £3/₹252. London Bridge loomed before us. As we sat watching it shimmer in the early afternoon haze, a street performer crept up to us and with a knowing twinkle in his eye sang:
“London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair ladeeez.”

The Kings Henry at the Tower of London

The story goes that when King Henry III put the taxes from the bridge at Queen Eleanor’s disposal in 1269, she blew it all on a 13th-century version of retail therapy. As a result, the bridge fell into serious disrepair. In the winter of 1281, frost wreaked havoc on the shaky structure and a part of it fell into the river. The song was then sung from one end of London to the other in angry criticism of the Queen.

In reality, London Bridge is not one, but several historical bridges that traversed the Thames between the old City of London and Southwark, in central London, over the centuries. Its latest incarnation is a steel-and-concrete structure, but it had humble beginnings as a timber bridge built by London’s Roman founders. Similar, short-lived crossings followed, eventually supplanted by a sturdy medieval structure that survived 600 years before its replacement in the 19th century with an arched stone bridge. Though each of them fell down, as London’s only crossing across the Thames until the mid-18th century, London Bridge had to be resurrected time and again.

Leaving the bridge, we walked north, pausing at St. Martin’s and St. Clement’s of “Oranges and lemons” fame just long enough to take in their soaring spires and snippets of history. All that remains of the first is its bell tower, while the second, located on the wharves, still smelled of the citrus fruit seamen unpacked on its doorstep. We couldn’t help but wonder why these beautiful churches had been drafted into that macabre old dirge about child sacrifice, public executions, and the deadly marital troubles of Henry VIII.

Tower of London

An art installation that marks 100 years since Britain joined the First World War has filled the historic Tower of London’s moat with 8,88,246 ceramic poppies, one for each British or Colonial military fatality in the war. Photo: Jackie Bale/Contributor/Getty Images

With uncharitable thoughts about Henry, its most famous incumbent, we headed east along Eastcheap and entered the imposing and still somewhat forbidding Tower of London, now a museum, treasury and UNESCO World Heritage Site. This complex of moated, fortified castles is spread over 18 acres. In its heyday, it was both a palace and a prison, as well as the stronghold the English royalty retreated to under siege. Thus the castle’s connection with the ditty “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary”, a rhyme about Henry VIII’s daughter Mary I, who took refuge in the Tower when England rose up against her misrule and mass executions.
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.”

And that’s not all, “Oranges and lemons” with its grisly last line on decapitations and “Pop goes the Weasel”, which is often interpreted as mockery of Henry’s weakness for bumping off wives, are also linked to the Tower of London. Seen as a place of dark deeds like torture, murder, and beheadings, the castle gets its name from the iconic White Tower within it, which was the earliest stone keep in England.

Sixteenth-century zealots and nineteenth-century literati colluded over the ages to give The Tower its sinister reputation. A good many people were executed on the grounds, but only a few were killed inside the tower complex. Two were Henry’s wives and another two women, were put to death on his express orders. Anne Boleyn, the first of his wives slain here, is said to haunt it still, wandering its corridors with her severed head tucked under her arm. As we stood on the exact spot where she had breathed her last, hoping to catch sight of her ghost to round off an amazing tour, the heavens opened up again.

Dashing out of the complex, wet but excitedly recounting the high points of our rhyming tour, we were stopped by an American couple looking for pointers and tips. I handed them my notes on the tour plan as we rushed to catch a red double-decker headed our way. “How was it”, I heard them yell at our retreating backs. “Brilliant,” my friends threw over their shoulders as they ran. “We’d do it again!”

Appeared in the December 2014 issue as “London by Rhyme”.

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  • Shreya Sen-Handley is a columnist and illustrator for the British and Indian media. Her short stories have been published in three continents and her HarperCollins India book, 'Memoirs of My Body' is out now.

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