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Oranges and Lemons

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Oranges and Lemons

"Oranges and Lemons"
Roud No 13190
One of the 12 bells of St Leonard's, Shoreditch, removed for maintenance
Written England
Published c. 1744
Form Nursery rhyme
Writer Traditional
Language English

"Oranges and Lemons" is a traditional English nursery rhyme and singing game which refers to the bells of several churches, all within or close to the City of London. It is listed in the Roud Folk Song Index as No 13190.


  • Lyrics 1
  • As a game 2
  • Origins and meaning 3
  • Melody 4
  • Cultural references 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement's.

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.

When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head![1]

Section from a 19th-century engraving by Nathaniel Whittock from a drawing by Antony van den Wyngaerde (c. 1543–50), which shows the towers and spires of many of the churches mentioned in the rhyme

As a game

Playing the game. Picture by Agnes Rose Bouvier (1842-92)

The song is used in a children's singing game with the same name, in which the players file, in pairs, through an arch made by two of the players (made by having the players face each other, raise their arms over their head, and clasp their partners' hands). The challenge comes during the final lines:

Here comes a candle to light you to bed.
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.
(Chip chop, chip chop, the last man's dead.)

On the last word, the children forming the arch drop their arms to catch the pair of children currently passing through, who are then "out" and must form another arch next to the existing one. In this way, the series of arches becomes a steadily lengthening tunnel through which each set of two players have to run faster and faster to escape in time.[1]

Alternative versions of the game include: children caught "out" by the last rhyme may stand on a pressure plate behind one of the children forming the original arch, instead of forming additional arches; and, children forming "arches" may bring their hands down for each word of the last line, while the children passing through the arches run as fast as they can to avoid being caught on the last word.[2] It was often the case, in Scottish playgrounds, that children would pair into boy and girl and the ones "caught" would have to kiss.

Origins and meaning

Illustration for the rhyme from The Only True Mother Goose Melodies (1833)

Various theories have been advanced to account for the rhyme, including: that it deals with child sacrifice; that it describes public executions; that it describes Henry VIII's marital difficulties.[1] Problematically for these theories the last two lines, with their different metre, do not appear in the earlier recorded versions of the rhyme, including the first printed in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book (c. 1744), where the lyrics are:

Two Sticks and Apple,
Ring ye Bells at Whitechapple,
Old Father Bald Pate,
Ring ye Bells Aldgate,
Maids in White Aprons,
Ring ye Bells a St. Catherines,
Oranges and Lemons,
Ring ye bells at St. Clements,
When will you pay me,
Ring ye Bells at ye Old Bailey,
When I am Rich,
Ring ye Bells at Fleetditch,
When will that be,
Ring ye Bells at Stepney,
When I am Old,
Ring ye Bells at Pauls.[1]

There is considerable variation in the churches and lines attached to them in versions printed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which makes any overall meaning difficult to establish. The final two lines of the modern version were first collected by James Orchard Halliwell in the 1840s.[1]

Oranges and Lemons was the name of a square-four-eight-dance, published in Playford's, Dancing Master in 1665, but it is not clear if this relates to this rhyme.[1] Similar rhymes naming churches and giving rhymes to their names can be found in other parts of England, including Shropshire and Derby, where they were sung on festival days, on which bells would also have been rung.[1]

The identity of the churches is not always clear, but the following have been suggested, along with some factors that may have influenced the accompanying statements:[1]


The tune is reminiscent of change ringing, and the intonation of each line is said to correspond with the distinct sounds of each church's bells. Today, the bells of St. Clement Danes ring out the tune of the rhyme.[3]

Cultural references

The song is one of the nursery rhymes most commonly referred to in popular literature:

  • In Roald Dahl's short story "A Piece of Cake" (1942), the song is part of Dahl's dreams while recovering from the crash of his fighter plane.
  • In Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) it is used as a snippet of nursery rhyme part of which the protagonist Winston Smith cannot remember. Various characters contribute snippets of the rhyme as the book goes on, and the last lines figure symbolically into the closing events of the second section.[4]
  • In the novel Private Peaceful (2003) by Michael Morpurgo the song is the favourite of the character Big Joe. He sings this song continuously throughout the novel and the children use it as a song of resistance to the authoritarian Grandma Wolf.
  • In Warren Ellis' ongoing comic "Gravel", issue #21 makes extensive use of this rhyme; and the art even references this particular WorldHeritage entry.
  • A setting of the full Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book version for choir was written by Bob Chilcott. Entitled "London Bells", it is the third movement of "Songs and Cries of London Town".[5]
  • Oranges & Lemons is a 1989 album by British post-punk/alternative-rock band XTC (their most successful album, by chart position). "orange and lemons..." is also the opening lyric to their song "Ballet for a Rainy Day", on the 1986 album Skylarking.
  • The widely covered folk music song "The Bells of Rhymney", with words by Idris Davies and music by Pete Seeger, closely follows the metrical form of the classic nursery rhyme and is based upon the similar idea of bells "saying" mnemonic phrases, using place names from Wales.
  • The song "Clash City Rockers" by The Clash features a parody on the rhyme with a verse altered to reflect the music scene of that time: "'You owe me a move', say the bells of St. Groove/'Come on and show me', say the bells of Old Bowie/'When I am fitter', say the bells of Gary Glitter/'No one but you and I', say the bells of Prince Far I". The Clash also reproduced the melody of the nursery rhyme in the very first notes of the introduction to "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe", on their 1980 Sandinista! album.
  • Benjamin Till composed music based upon the nursery rhyme and performed 11 July 2009 at St Mary Le Bow Church, London to honour 150 years of the great bell, Big Ben.[6]
  • In the 1943 film The Seventh Victim, the character Mary Gibson (played by Kim Hunter) sings the final two lines to her kindergarten class.
  • In the 1963 film The Old Dark House, characters frequently quote lines from "Oranges and Lemons".
  • The Interrogator sings the last two lines near the end of the 1991 film Closet Land.
  • In Being Human, Series 2, Episode 7, the Coroner quotes the final two lines of "Oranges and Lemons" to the vampires.
  • In the Doctor Who episode "The God Complex", one of the characters quotes the final two lines of "Oranges and Lemons".
  • In the NCIS episode "Out of the Frying Pan", the medical examiner Ducky recites the last two lines of the rhyme to a corpse as he cuts the stitches left from a prior autopsy.
  • In the dystopian future of the video game Half-Life 2, oranges and lemons can be seen in graffiti on walls as symbols of the Resistance. This is a reference to the poem as it was used in Nineteen Eighty-Four.[7]
  • In Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, published in 2008, two lesser villains recite the rhyme to summon the man Jack.[8]
  • In Kate Grenville's The Secret River, published in 2005, Sal Thornbill teaches "Oranges & Lemons" to her children in the Australian bush, as part of her strong desire to return to London. In Sarah Thornbill, the third book of the Secret River trilogy, Sal's daughter Sarah recalls her mother teaching her the rhyme, and later finds that it is the only song she can remember when she needs to sing as part of a Maori ceremony.
  • In The Secret River (TV series) on ABC TV, Sal Thornbill and her children sing "Oranges & Lemons".

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 337-8.
  2. ^ Oranges and Lemons (article in H2G2, an editable reference site hosted by
  3. ^
  4. ^ G. Orwell, 1984: a Novel (Signet Classic, 1990), pp. 178-9.
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. New York City: Harper Collins, 2008

External links

  • Audio of song at Museum of Childhood site
  • The British Library - Singing and dancing Audio recording of Oranges and Lemons with accompanying text
  • Map of the likely church locations
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