The Story Behind the Nursery Rhyme: Oranges and Lemons
Bells and rhyming slang
The song is a list of bells that can be heard in churches across London, including St. Clement-le-Dane’s, St Martin’s-in-the-Fields - and the Old Bailey, which isn’t a church. It’s the Central Criminal Court.
It’s thought that the lines mimic the peal of each set of churchbells. People born within earshot of St. Mary-le-Bow church are called Cockneys, who choose Pearly Kings and Queens like Billie Blackbird in our main picture, covered in shiny mother-of-pearl buttons.
The song is called Oranges and Lemons because that rhymes with St. Clements (in the little picture above). Traditional Cockneys used this sort of rhyming slang to stop strangers understanding what they were talking about. Here’s a sample:
I tripped over my plates of meat,
fell down the apples and pears
and hurt my loaf of bread.*
*I tripped over my feet, fell down the stairs and hurt my head.
Pennies and farthings
A farthing was an old coin worth a ¼ of a penny. Things were much simpler with old money. There were four farthings in a penny, 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. It was written like this: 19/11¼ and pronounced “nineteen and elevenpence farthing”.