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Babes in the Wood

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Colour plates from
Randolph Caldecott's book of the rhyme
The parents: so sick they were apt to die
"Now, brother", said the dying man, "look to my children dear"
With lips as cold as any stone, they kiss the children small
The parents being dead and gone, the children home he takes
Away then went those pretty babes, rejoicing at that tide
And he that was of mildest mood, did slaye the other there
These pretty babes, with hand in hand, went wandering up and down
In one another's arms they died

Babes in the Wood is a traditional English children's tale, as well as a popular pantomime subject. It has also been the name of some other unrelated works. The expression has passed into common language, referring to inexperienced innocents entering unawares into any potentially dangerous or hostile situation.

Traditional tale[edit]

The traditional children's tale is of two children abandoned in a wood, who die and are covered with leaves by robins.

It was first published as an anonymous broadside ballad by Thomas Millington in Norwich in 1595 with the title "The Norfolk gent his will and Testament and howe he Commytted the keepinge of his Children to his own brother whoe delte most wickedly with them and howe God plagued him for it".[1]

The tale has been reworked in many forms; it frequently appears attributed as a Mother Goose rhyme. Around 1840, Richard Barham included a spoof of the story in his Ingoldsby Legends, under the title of The Babes in the Wood; or, the Norfolk Tragedy.[2] Harris cheekily claims in an endnote[2] that the true history of the children is, 'or ought to be,' in "Bloomfield's [sic] History of Norfolk", but that work's Wayland section does not mention it. The anonymous ballad was also illustrated by Randolph Caldecott in a book published in London in 1879.

The story tells of two small children left in the care of an uncle and aunt after their parents' deaths. The uncle gives the children to ruffians to be killed, in order to acquire their inheritance, telling his wife they are being sent to London for their upbringing. The murderers fall out, and the milder of the two kills the other. He tells the children he will return with provisions, but they do not see him again. The children wander alone in the woods until they die; their bodies are covered with leaves by the birds. Like many morality tales, the story continues with a description of the retribution befalling the uncle. In sanitized versions, the children are bodily taken to Heaven. The story ends with a warning to those who have to take care of orphans and others' children not to inflict God's wrath upon themselves. The story is also used as a basis for pantomimes. However, for various reasons including both the brevity of the original and the target pantomime audience of young children, modern pantomimes by this name usually combine this story with parts of the modern Robin Hood story (employing the supporting characters from it, such as Maid Marian, rather than Robin himself) to lengthen it.


Live-action short[edit]

Fox Film produced a 36-minute short of the story, The Babes in the Woods, adapted by screenwriter Bernard McConville in 1917. Fox's treatment included a wicked witch and a house of candy, elements borrowed from the Hansel and Gretel folk story. This film provides a happy ending for the children, with Robin Hood and his company rescuing them in the end.

Animated short[edit]

The Walt Disney Company re-worked this tale for their 1932 short animated film Babes in the Woods, incorporating some material from Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm, and adding a village of friendly elves (a feature not traditionally present in either tale) and a happy ending.

TV pantomime[edit]

On Christmas Eve 1973, Junior Showtime did a Babes on the Wood pantomime episode at Bradford Alhambra.[3][4] It starred Bobby Bennett as Robin Hood, Peter Goodwright as Alan A'Dale, Susan Maughan as Maid Marian, Roy Rolland as Nanny Riley, John Gower as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Eddie Large as Private Large, Syd Little as Private Little, Colin Prince as Little John, Norman Collier as Will Scarlett, Bonnie Langford as Babe Tilly, and Mark Curry as Babe Willy.[3][4]

Other cultural references[edit]

The 1915 Broadway musical Very Good Eddie featured a song entitled "Babes in the Wood" by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Schuyler Greene. Main character Eddie Kettle comforts former love Elsie Darling in a duet in which each refers to the traditional tale.

Eddie: Then put on your little hood, And we'll both be, Oh, so good! Like the babes in the wood.

Elsie: When the babes were lost in the gloomy wood, It's no wonder they were so very good. Fourteen angels were watching them, So all the story books state, Sandman's coming now, it is getting late.

A recording of this song was included in the 1993 CD Jerome Kern Treasury, sung by Hugh Panaro (Eddie) and Rebecca Luker (Elsie) conducted by John McGlinn (Angel CDC 7 54883 2).

Several murders of children in English-speaking countries have been nicknamed the "Babes in the Wood murders":


Folklore has it that the events told in Babes in the Wood originally happened in Wayland Wood in Norfolk, England. It is said that the uncle lived at the nearby Griston Hall. The ghosts of the murdered children are said to haunt Wayland Wood.[5] The village signs at Griston and nearby Watton depict the story. In the folklore version, the uncle resents the task and pays two men to take the children into the woods and kill them. Finding themselves unable to go through with the act, the criminals abandon the children in the wood where, unable to fend for themselves, they eventually die.

Another version, from Lancashire, has it that the tale is based on real events of 1374, when "the villainous Robert de Holland" illegally seized the land of 13 year-old Roger de Langley and his young bride. The children flee to the nearby woods and are cared for by loyal retainers until they are rescued by their legal guardian John of Gaunt.[6]


Traditional English singers Bob and Ron Copper sang "Babes in the Wood" and their version was released on the EFDSS LP "Traditional Songs From Rottingdean". According to Steve Roud, the Coppers' abridged version of the story and the song's tune came from musician and composer William Gardiner (1770-1853).[7]


  1. ^ Opie, I and Opie, P.: The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse, Oxford University Press, 1983, page 387.
  2. ^ a b "The Ingoldsby Legends – The Babes in the Wood; or, The Norfolk Tragedy". exclassics.com. Retrieved 29 April 2022.
  3. ^ a b "Junior Showtime – Babes in the Wood". BFI Collections. Retrieved 21 November 2022.
  4. ^ a b "Babes in the Wood (1973)". British Film Institute. Archived from the original on 15 June 2021. Retrieved 21 November 2022.
  5. ^ "Norfolk Folk Tales – Legends said to have originated in Norfolk". Visit Breckland. Breckland District Council. Archived from the original on 4 March 2007.
  6. ^ Langley, Peter (July 2002). "Origin of the name Langley". Retrieved 3 May 2022.
  7. ^ Steve Roud, notes, Come Write Me Down: Early Recordings of the Copper Family of Rottingdean, Topic TSCD534, 2001.


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