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Nursery tales and ink drawings

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I find children’s rhymes quite fascinating – they are still one of the few things that pass down through the generations by word of mouth.

Before modern media and even widespread literacy, these rhymes told stories, shared humour and conveyed  warnings and moral guidance across populations. These same messages persist today in the rhymes that parents teach and their  children learn by heart, even though they probably give them little thought. And as I’ve found out that is probably no bad thing!

It’s been fascinating to unearth the kernels of truth that lie behind these rhymes (or the romantic interpretation) and to try express some of them in my drawing.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells,
And cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row

 There are several interpretations of what this nursery rhyme means. The most grizzly (and the one I’ve gone with in my drawing) concerns Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. She was a staunch Catholic, it is said that she persecuted, tortured and murdered many Protestants, earning her the title of ‘Bloody Mary’. The ‘garden’ in the rhyme is the ever expanding graveyard. Silver bells and cockle shells are  torture devices – look them up – and the ‘pretty maids all in a row’ are prisoners lining up to be executed at the ‘Halifax Gibbet’, a kind of guillotine.


Three blind mice. Three blind mice.
See how they run. See how they run.
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a thing in your life,
As three blind mice?

There is speculation that  this also refers to ‘Bloody Mary’ blinding and executing three Protestant bishops, Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer, but they were burned at the stake, not blinded. It could be that their ‘blindness’ refers to their refusal to embrace Catholicism, but the whole explanation is a bit tenuous as the mice in the rhyme were maimed but not killed, and the first known date of publication of Three Blind Mice is 1609, well after Queen Mary’s death.

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 at Old Bailey.
When I grow rich,
Say the bells at Shoreditch.
When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.
I do not know,
Says the great bell at Bow.
Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!
Chip chop chip chop the last man’s dead.

Just a lovely rhyme about the different sounds of church bells around London, right ….until those last three lines. Various theories have been put forward about the meaning of the sinister ending, ranging from child sacrifice and public executions to Henry VIII’s marital difficulties. But no-one really knows. The lines were added later and don’t appear in earlier published versions of the rhyme.

Jack and Jill
Went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down
And broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.

Again, there have been many suggestions about what this rhyme could mean. In Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meaning of Nursery Rhymes (2008) the author suggests that the rhyme records the attempt by King Charles I to reform the taxes on liquid measures. He was blocked by Parliament and so ordered that the volume of a Jack (1/8 pint) be reduced, but with the tax remaining the same. This meant that he still received more tax, despite Parliament’s veto. Hence Jack fell down and broke his crown (many pint glasses in the UK still have a line marking the 1/2 pint level with a crown above it). And Jill came tumbling after is then said refer to a gill (or 1/4 pint) which also reduced in volume as a consequence.

Here we go round the mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush.
Here we go round the mulberry bush
On a cold and frosty morning.

Mulberries do not grow on bushes.  They grow on trees. Local historian R. S. Duncan (no relation!) suggests that the rhyme originated with female prisoners at Wakefield prison. A cutting was taken from Hatfield Hall in Wakefield and grew into a  mature mulberry tree. Prisoners exercised around the mulberry tree in the moonlight.


You can buy my original ink drawings or prints made from the originals in the Gallery on this website. Search ‘Nursery Rhyme Series’.


6 thoughts on “Nursery tales and ink drawings

  1. I believe you will be in the annals of ‘modern’ rendering of fairy tales – beautifully!

  2. That is fascinating stuff, Duncan, most of which I had never heard before. It is great to have an insight into the background to your works.

  3. Nice Dunc!

  4. I love these , and what a great theme for illustration! Keep on keeping on !!

  5. Love your takes on the nursery rhymes Duncan. I always love finding out the origins and you’re right, most are so gruesome, whereas we sing these rhymes, even today, with young children 😕

  6. I enjoyed the grisly history of these colorful rhymes almost as much as your colorful drawings.

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