Old Mother Hubbard

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"Old Mother Hubbard"
OldMotherHubbard 01.jpg
The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog; London : J. Harris; 1805. 1st state of 1st edition
Nursery rhyme
Songwriter(s)Sarah Catherine Martin

"Old Mother Hubbard" is an English-language nursery rhyme, first printed in 1805 and among the most popular publications of the nineteenth century. The exact origin and meaning of the rhyme is disputed. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 19334. The first published version by Sarah Catherine Martin is associated with a historic cottage in Yealmpton, Devon, close by where Martin was staying.[1]


Old Mother Hubbard's Cottage in Yealmpton, said to be where Sarah Martin penned the rhyme in 1804
1860 depiction from the Netherlands, Moeder Hubbard en haar hond / met 14 gekleurde plaatjes
1889 United States depiction
A cartoon showing President William McKinley as Old Mother Hubbard and her dog as Uncle Sam

The poem begins

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard,
To give the poor dog a bone;
But when she got there
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.[2]

This is followed by a series of quatrains relating Mother Hubbard's further unsuccessful ventures. The number of them varies in different publications and sometimes only the first verse above has been given.[3]

A version by Sarah Catherine Martin (1768–1826), first recited while staying with her sister Judith Ann Martin, Mrs. John Pollexfen Bastard at Kitley House Yealmpton in Devon, was published as The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog by J. Harris of London, June 1, 1805.[4] She claimed that she only drew the accompanying illustrations and the version may have been based on earlier material.[2] The name Mother Hubbard was used as a character from 1591, although the surviving works that include her do not bear any relationship to the rhyme.[2] A very similar rhyme 'Old Dame Trot' was published in 1803, but since the language in 'Old Mother Hubbard' appears more archaic it is not clear that it was derived from this verse.[2] It has been argued that the first stanza is older than the others, because it uses a different meter, so it is possible that Martin expanded on an existing first verse, using 'Old Dame Trot' as a model. The book was immediately popular, possibly in part because it was believed to be a political commentary.[2]

The "Dame Trot" version (cited by Panati as titled "Old Dame Trot, and Her Comical Cat"), is as follows:

Old Dame trot,
Some cold fish had got,
Which for pussy,
She kept in Store,
When she looked there was none
The cold fish had gone,
For puss had been there before.

The "Dame Trot" version was published by T. Evans one year before that of Sarah Catherine Martin.[5]


The book was immediately popular, possibly in part because it was believed to be a political commentary, but it is not clear exactly what readers thought was being satirised.[2] It has been suggested that the character of Mother Hubbard may have its origins in St. Hubert, the patron saint of dogs.[2] It has also been suggested that the rhyme refers to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey refusing Henry VIII's divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon, but the connection is based on speculation.[6]

Comic parodies[edit]

1837, John Hannah, then an undergraduate at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, published a spoof textual criticism of "Old Mother Hubbord" [sic], supposedly written in A.D. 3211 by a New Zealand academic who tries to relate the poem to the nearly forgotten 19th-century civilisation which produced it.[7]

An alternative political meaning was given the rhyme in the United States when Victor Gillam applied it to the 1897 treasury deficit. This was published in Judge, accompanied by a cartoon that showed President William McKinley as Old Mother Hubbard, and her dog as a disappointed Uncle Sam.


  1. ^ British Pathe, 1960 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bo_Z5bMr6eA
  2. ^ a b c d e f g I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 317–22.
  3. ^ Nursery Rhymes from Mother Goose
  4. ^ "Devon collection of children's books: catalogue. 7. Nursery rhymes No.129". Devon.gov.uk. 2006-12-15. Archived from the original on 2013-12-03. Retrieved 2013-11-28.
  5. ^ Charles Panati, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things (Harper & Row, 1987), pp. 194–5.
  6. ^ I. Opie, 'Playground rhymes and the oral tradition', in P. Hunt, S. G. Bannister Ray, International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 175.
  7. ^ Halkett, Samuel (1971). Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous English Literature. Ardent Media. p. 455.; Hannah, John (1837). Critica Novazealandica futura, a notable edition of the melodrame of Old mother Hubbord, foreseen by Alfraganus Trismegistus. Oxford.

External links[edit]