Little Jack Horner

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"Little Jack Horner"
Little Jack Horner 2 - WW Denslow - Project Gutenberg etext 18546.jpg
Illustration by William Wallace Denslow
Nursery rhyme
Published 1725
Songwriter(s) Unknown

"Little Jack Horner" is a popular English language nursery rhyme. It has the Roud Folk Song Index number of 13027.

Lyrics and melody[edit]

The most common modern lyrics are:

Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating his (a) Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, "What a good boy am I!" [1]

The melody commonly associated with the rhyme was first recorded by the composer and nursery rhyme collector James William Elliott in his National Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Songs (1870).[2]

Origins and meaning[edit]

In the chapbook The History of Jack Horner, Containing the Witty Pranks he play'd, from his Youth to his Riper Years, Being pleasant for Winter Evenings (1764), there is a mangled version of the nursery rhyme. However, it has been observed that the story is based on the much earlier tale of The Fryer and the Boy, and that this insertion is merely to justify the use of Jack Horner's name.[1]

The earliest reference to the well-known verse is in Namby Pamby, a ballad by Henry Carey published in 1725, in which he himself italicised the original:

Now he sings of Jackey Horner
Sitting in the Chimney-Corner
Eating of a Christmas pye,
Putting in his thumb, Oh fie!
Putting in, Oh fie! his Thumb
Pulling out, Oh strange! a Plum.[3]

This has been taken to suggest that the rhyme was well known by the early eighteenth century.[1] Carey's poem is a satire on fellow writer Ambrose Philips, who had written infantile poems for the young children of his aristocratic patrons. Although several other nursery rhymes are mentioned there, the one about Little Jack Horner has been associated with acts of opportunism ever since. Just six years later it figured in another satirical work, Henry Fielding's The Grub Street Opera (1731). This had the prime minister Robert Walpole as its target and ends with all the characters processing off the stage 'to the music of Little Jack Horner'.[4]

In the nineteenth century the story began to gain currency that the rhyme is actually about Thomas Horner, who was steward to Richard Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury before the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII of England.[5] The story is reported that, prior to the abbey's destruction, the abbot sent Horner to London with a huge Christmas pie which had the deeds to a dozen manors hidden within it as a gift to try to convince the King not to nationalize Church lands. During the journey Horner opened the pie and extracted the deeds of the manor of Mells in Somerset, which he kept for himself.[6] It is further suggested that, since the manor properties included lead mines in the Mendip Hills, the plum is a pun on the Latin plumbum, for lead. While records do indicate that Thomas Horner became the owner of the manor, paying for the title, both his descendants and subsequent owners of Mells Manor have asserted that the legend is untrue and that Wells purchased the deed from the abbey.[1]

Later cultural references[edit]

  • Lord Byron mentions Jack in his Don Juan (Canto the Eleventh, stanza LXIX, 1823). It is the ancestor of numerous allusions since then, remembering him for little more than sitting in a corner.[7]
    In 1904, cartoonist Bob Satterfield used the rhyme as the basis for this cartoon about Japanese forces sinking Russian ships in the Russo-Japanese War.
  • In his satirical novel Melincourt (1817), Thomas Love Peacock extends the political interpretation of the nursery rhyme. There, five go-getting characters contribute to a song in which they describe how they misuse their trades to fleece the public. It begins with the recitative:

Jack Horner's CHRISTMAS PIE my learned nurse
Interpreted to mean the public purse.
From thence a plum he drew. O happy Horner!
Who would not be ensconced in thy snug corner?

Each character then describes the nature of his sharp practice in a stanza followed by the general chorus:

And we'll all have a finger, a finger, a finger,
We'll all have a finger in the CHRISTMAS PIE.[8]

  • There is also a politicised reinterpretation of the rhyme in a Chumbawamba lyric from their album The Unfairy Tale (1985). "Jack Horner" is put in the corner for resisting the racist and self-regarding interpretation of history given by his teacher. Eventually the children rise up to defend him:

But when the head walked in the children made such a din.

They said, "Jack get up, you got to get out, don't let them push you about, you know they'll keep you in that corner till you're dead. Jack get out, don't sell out, don't compromise with christmas pies. Keep shouting back, you tell 'em Jack, don't swallow none of their crap. Calling Jack Horners everywhere, don't bend to authority which doesn't care, you know they'll keep you in that corner 'till you're dead."

Jane got up, she helped Jack out, she said, "Teachers, don't mess us about, we won't listen to your dirty lies. It's you who've got your fingers in the pie. People die, you don't question why, we won't study your lies, we won't eat your christmas pie, we won't eat dead animal pie, we won't eat nukiller pie, we won't eat your pie r squared, and if you really cared, neither would you."[9]


  1. ^ a b c d I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 234–7.
  2. ^ J. J. Fuld, The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular, and Folk (Courier Dover Publications, 5th edn., 2000), ISBN 0486414752, p. 502.
  3. ^ Verse in English from Eighteenth Century Ireland – Google Books. Retrieved 2012-11-26. 
  4. ^ "Little Jack Horner – Mama Lisa's House of English Nursery Rhymes". 2007-07-04. Retrieved 2012-11-26. 
  5. ^ Notes and queries – Google Boeken. Retrieved 2012-11-26. 
  6. ^ C. Roberts, Heavy words lightly thrown: the reason behind the rhyme (Granta, 2004), p. 3.
  7. ^ Young, Molly. "Don Juan: Canto 11 by Lord Byron (George Gordon)". The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 2012-11-26. 
  8. ^ "Poems from "Melincourt"". Retrieved 2012-11-26. 
  9. ^ "Jack Horner Lyrics – Chumbawamba". Archived from the original on 2012-03-26. Retrieved 2012-11-26. 


  • William S. Baring-Gould and C. Baring-Gould, The Annotated Mother Goose: Nursery Rhymes Old and New, Arranged and Explained, New York: Bramhall House Publishing, 1962