As I was going to St Ives
The most common modern version is:
- As I was going to St. Ives,
- I met a man with seven wives,
- Each wife had seven sacks,
- Each sack had seven cats,
- Each cat had seven kits:
- Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
- How many were there going to St. Ives?
The earliest known published version of it comes from a manuscript dated to around 1730 (but it differs in referring to "nine" rather than "seven" wives). The modern form was first printed around 1825.
There are a number of places called St Ives in England and elsewhere. It is generally thought that the rhyme refers to St Ives, Cornwall, when it was a busy fishing port and had many cats to stop the rats and mice destroying the fishing gear, although some people argue it was St Ives, Cambridgeshire as this is an ancient market town and therefore an equally plausible destination.
All potential answers to this riddle are based on its ambiguity because the riddle only tells us the group has been "met" on the journey to St. Ives and gives no further information about its intentions, only those of the narrator. As such, the 'correct' answer could be stated as "at least one, the person asking the question plus anyone who happens to be travelling in the same direction as him or her".
If the group that the narrator meets is assumed not to be travelling to St. Ives the answer could be one person going to St. Ives: the narrator. This is the most common assumption, as the purpose of the riddle was most likely to trick the listener into making long winded calculations only to be surprised by the simplicity of the answer.
If it is not accepted that there is a 'trick' answer, then there are numerous mathematical answers, the most common of which is 2802: 1 man, 7 wives, 49 sacks, 343 cats, and 2401 kits, plus the narrator. If the narrator met the group as they were also travelling to St. Ives and were overtaken by the narrator the answer in this case is all are going to St. Ives. The ambiguity that leads to this answer may be a less strict modern use of the word 'met' where it replaces the more accurate 'passed' or 'overtook'; "to meet someone on the road" may have been commonly used for those going in opposite directions on narrow roads as in the first edition of The Highway Code.
Rhind mathematical papyrus
The problem appears to be an illustration of an algorithm for multiplying numbers. The sequence 7, 7 × 7, 7 × 7 × 7, ..., appears in the right-hand column, and the terms 2,801, 2 × 2,801, 4 × 2,801 appear in the left; the sum on the left is 7 × 2,801 = 19,607, the same as the sum of the terms on the right. Note that the author of the papyrus listed a wrong value for the fourth power of 7; it should be 2,401, not 2,301. However, the sum of the powers (19,607) is correct.
The problem has been paraphrased by modern commentators as a story problem involving houses, cats, mice, and grain, although in the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus there is no discussion beyond the bare outline stated above. The hekat was 1⁄30 of a cubic cubit (approximately 4.8 l or 1.1 imp gal or 1.3 US gal).
In popular culture
- It was parodied by Roald Dahl in his poetry book Rhyme Stew (1989): "As I was going to St Ives/ I met a man with seven wives/ he said: "I think it's much more fun/ than getting stuck with only one."
- In the 1995 film Die Hard with a Vengeance, the rhyme is presented to the protagonists by the villain as a riddle, giving them thirty seconds to telephone him on the number "555 plus the answer" or a bomb would detonate. The protagonists initially believe the answer to be 2401, only solving for the number of kits. However, they eventually solve the riddle, calling the number 555–0001 which proves to be correct. They missed the 30-second deadline, but the bomb did not explode since the villain had not said "Simon says."
- The rhyme was recited by Mary Murphy's character while caring for a cat with seven kittens in the movie A Man Alone. Later the character played by Ray Milland who overheard the rhyme offers her the answer and Murphy's character explains that she alone was going to St. Ives.
- The rhyme was also the basis of a Sesame Street Muppet skit from the show's first season, in which the boy Muppet holding a numeral 7 sings the rhyme as a song to the girl Muppet twice (the second time, the girl is busy writing down the calculations) and finally, in keeping true to the spirit of the riddle, reveals the answer as 1 (the traditional answer), because he was going to St. Ives and the kits, cats, sacks and wives were going the other way. Then the girl turns the tables on the boy and asks how many were going the other way. She then reveals the mathematical answer from her calculations: 1 man + 7 wives + 49 sacks + 343 cats + 2,401 kittens, which comes to 2,801. Astonished, the boy responds, "How about that?!"
- Mad magazine used it in at least two articles over the years for the following parodies:
- As I was going to St Ives
- I met a man with seven wives
- Of course, the seven wives weren't his
- But here in France, that's how it is
- As I was going to St Ives
- I met a man with seven wives
- I know this sounds absurd and loony
- But that poor man was Mickey Rooney!
- In a post-Christmas Pogo comic strip sequence from December 1957, Pogo Possum gives Albert Alligator a book with the poem and Albert immediately gets hopelessly entangled by the riddle. Pogo's proposed solution: "Gimme the book back an' I'll give you a pair of pants to go with the suspenders you got."
- In the sixth series of BBC radio comedy John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme, the fourth episode features a sketch with a Cornishman arguing with another man on a train about whether he actually has seven wives, each of whom have sacks of cats with them, on the train with him.
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 376–7.
- Hudson, Noel (1989), St Ives, Slepe by the Ouse, St Ives Town Council, p. 131, ISBN 978-0-9515298-0-5
- Flanagan, Bridget (2003), The St Ives Problem, a 4000 Year Old Nursery Rhyme?, ISBN 0-9540824-1-9
- Gibson, Bryan (April 18, 2014). The Legend of St Yves. Waterside Press. p. 76.
- Ore, Oystein (1948). Number Theory and Its History. Courier Dover Publications. p. 118.
- The Highway Code. The Stationery Office. 1931. p. 9.
- Maor, Eli (2002) , "Recreational Mathematics in Ancient Egypt", Trigonometric Delights (PDF), Princeton University Press, pp. 11–14 (in PDF, 1–4), ISBN 978-0-691-09541-7, archived from the original (PDF) on 2005-12-24, retrieved 2009-04-19
- "Transcript EPISODE 17 – RHIND MATHEMATICAL PAPYRUS". A history of the world. BBC. Retrieved 26 February 2012.
- Øystein Ore, "Number Theory and its History", McGraw–Hill Book Co, 1944