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

10 girls playing ‘Oranges & Lemons’ in a government school playground, Melbourne, Victoria, 1954.  Retrieved from Museums Victoria.

‘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 :

Oranges_and_Lemons_-_Google_My_Maps

The London churches associated with the ‘Oranges and Lemons‘ nursery rhyme, map created in Google Maps

geograph-3756403-by-Len-Williams

St Mary-le-Bow cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Len Williams – geograph.org.uk/p/3756403

Source

  •  I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, reprinted with corrections 1952), pp. 337–9.