I can remember playing ‘Oranges and Lemons’ in our school playground at recess and lunchtime. Looking back it seems a little strange, perhaps, that antipodean children should have been singing about London church bells. I had never heard a church bell, and I had no idea where the churches were whose names we chanted.
‘Oranges and Lemons’ starts with two players holding hands to make an arch with their arms. The others pass through in single file. The arch is abruptly lowered at the end of the song, catching one of the children filing through. In the version pictured above the captured children join a team behind one of the two who form the arch. When everybody has been caught there is a tug of war. Another version has a pair of children being caught at the end. They make another arch. The song is repeated, and it becomes harder for the remaining children to escape being caught. This repeats until all participating children have been “beheaded”.
The rhyme goes:
Oranges and lemons
Say the bells of St Clements
You owe me five farthings
Say the bells of St Martins
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’m sure I don’t know
Says the great bell at Bow
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head
Chop chop chop chop the last man’s head!
There is a video of the game being played at
and of the song being sung at
Many of my Australian and English friends on Facebook remember playing ‘Oranges and Lemons’ but my much younger cousin who went to primary school in Canberra in the 1980s cannot remember playing it herself. Her experience is confirmed by a cousin who began her career as a primary school teacher in Melbourne in the 1980s. She told me that, ‘I don’t remember ever hearing kids sing or play it during my 36 years of teaching’.
The churches are not definitely identified, but the following have been suggested by the English folklorists Iona and Peter Opie :
- St. Clement’s may be St Clement Danes or St Clement Eastcheap both of which are near the wharves where merchantmen landed citrus fruits.
- St. Martin’s is probably St Martin Orgar in the City but may be St Martin-in-the-Fields near Trafalgar Square.
- St Sepulchre-without-Newgate (opposite the Old Bailey) is near the Fleet Prison where debtors were held
- St Leonard’s, Shoreditch is just outside the old City walls.
- St Dunstan’s, Stepney is also outside the City walls
- Bow is St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside. According to tradition a true Cockney must be born within earshot of the sound of Bow Bells. The sound of the bells of St Mary’s features in the story of Dick Whittington and His Cat, in which the bells are credited with having persuaded him to turn back from Highgate and remain in London to become Lord Mayor.
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, reprinted with corrections 1952), pp. 337–9.