Oranges and Lemons

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"Oranges and Lemons"
Sidewall, Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St. Clements, 1902 (CH 18604691).jpg
1902 machine print
Nursery rhyme
Publishedc. 1744
GenreChildren's street song

"Oranges and Lemons" is a traditional English nursery rhyme, folksong, and singing game which refers to the bells of several churches, all within or close to the City of London. It is listed in the Roud Folk Song Index as No 13190. The earliest known printed version appeared c. 1744.


Map of the City of London and surrounding area with locations of churches mentioned in the song.
Red pog.svg Definitely one of the churches mentioned in most popular version of the rhyme.
Orange pog.svg May possibly be alluded to in standard version.
Yellow pog.svg Appears in variant versions.

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement's.

You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin's.

When will you pay me?
Say the bells at Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells at Shoreditch.

When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

I do not know,
Says the great bell at Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!
  Chip chop chip chop the last man is dead[1]

An additional church in west London.
One additional church in east London.
Panorama of London in 1543 from a 19th-century engraving by Nathaniel Whittock from a drawing by Antony van den Wyngaerde (c. 1543–50), showing the towers and spires of many of the churches mentioned in the rhym

Alternative versions[edit]

Gay go up, and gay go down,
To ring the bells of London town.

Bull's eyes and targets,
Say the bells of St. Margaret's.

Brickbats and tiles,
Say the bells of St. Giles'.

Halfpence and farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin's.

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement's.

Pancakes and fritters,
Say the bells of St. Peter's.

Two sticks and an apple,
Say the bells at Whitechapel.

Pokers and tongs,
Say the bells at St. John's.

Kettles and pans,
Say the bells at St. Ann's.

Old Father Baldpate,
Say the slow bells at Aldgate.

Maids in white Aprons
Say the bells of St Catherine's.

You owe me ten shillings,
Say the bells of St. Helen's.

When will you pay me?
Say the bells at Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells at Shoreditch.

Pray when will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

I'm sure I don't know,
Says the great bell at Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head.[2]

As a game[edit]

Playing Oranges and Lemons. Picture by Agnes Rose Bouvier Nicholl, 1874
Statue of the game in Surrey, England

The song is used in a children's singing game with the same name, in which the players file, in pairs, through an arch made by two of the players (made by having the players face each other, raise their arms over their head, and clasp their partners' hands). The challenge comes during the final lines beginning "Here comes a chopper to chop off your head"; and on the final repetition of "chop" in the last line, the children forming the arch drop their arms to catch the pair of children currently passing through. These are then "out" and must form another arch next to the existing one. In this way, the series of arches becomes a steadily lengthening tunnel through which each set of two players has to run faster and faster to escape in time.[1]

Alternative versions of the game include: children caught "out" by the last rhyme may stand behind one of the children forming the original arch, instead of forming additional arches; and children forming "arches" may bring their hands down for each word of the last line, while the children passing through the arches run as fast as they can to avoid being caught on the last word.[3]

Origins and meaning[edit]

Illustration for the rhyme from The Only True Mother Goose Melodies (1833)

Various theories have been advanced to account for the rhyme, including: that it deals with child sacrifice; that it describes public executions; that it describes Henry VIII's marital difficulties.[1] Problematically for these theories the last two lines, with their different metre, do not appear in the earlier recorded versions of the rhyme, including the first printed in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book (c. 1744), where the lyrics are:

Two Sticks and Apple,
Ring ye Bells at Whitechapple,
Old Father Bald Pate,
Ring ye Bells Aldgate,
Maids in White Aprons,
Ring ye Bells a St. Catherines,
Oranges and Lemons,
Ring ye bells at St. Clements,
When will you pay me,
Ring ye Bells at ye Old Bailey,
When I am Rich,
Ring ye Bells at Fleetditch,
When will that be,
Ring ye Bells at Stepney,
When I am Old,
Ring ye Bells at Pauls.[1]

There is considerable variation in the churches and lines attached to them in versions printed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which makes any overall meaning difficult to establish. The final two lines of the modern version were first collected by James Orchard Halliwell in the 1840s.[1]

"Oranges and Lemons" was the title of a square dance, published from the third (1657) edition onwards of The Dancing Master.[4] Similar rhymes naming churches and giving rhymes to their names can be found in other parts of England, including Shropshire and Derby, where they were sung on festival days on which bells would also have been rung.[1]

The identity of the London churches is not always clear, but the following have been suggested, along with some factors that may have influenced the accompanying statements:[1]


The tune is reminiscent of change ringing, and the intonation of each line is said to correspond with the distinct sounds of each church's bells. Today, the bells of St Clement Danes ring out the tune of the rhyme—as reported in 1940 the church's playing of the tune was interrupted during World War II due to Nazi bombing of the church during the Blitz.[8][9] As is the case with almost all traditional songs, there were minor variations in the melody. Collector of British folk songs, James Madison Carpenter, recorded two versions of the song in the 1930s which are now available on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website: one in Garsington, Oxfordshire[10] and another somewhere in either Yorkshire or Lincolnshire.[11] These recordings show slight melodic and lyrical variations.

Song settings[edit]

A setting of the full Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book version for choir was written by Bob Chilcott. Entitled "London Bells", it is the third movement of "Songs and Cries of London Town" (2001).[12]

Benjamin Till composed music based upon the nursery rhyme which was performed in 2009 at St Mary-le-Bow, London to honour 150 years of the great bell, Big Ben.[13]

In popular culture[edit]

The nursery rhyme appears several times in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.[14][15] It appears in the Roald Dahl short story "A Piece of Cake," which is included in his collection The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More.[16] The song and its associated game feature in the 1970 British horror comedy, Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly, as well as the novella by its screenwriter, Brian Comport.[17] It also appears in the book Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo and its 2012 film adaption, frequently sung by the character Big Joe.[18] The rhyme, featured in the 2017 supernatural horror film It, was also featured in the piano music that opens and closes the film.[19]

The phrase Here Comes a Candle was used by Fredric Brown as the title of one of his novels. A character in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, writer Erasmus Fry, likewise titles one of his novels Here Comes a Candle. The album Oranges & Lemons by XTC takes its name from the nursery rhyme.[20]

See also[edit]

  • "Dong, Dong, Dongdaemun", Korean nursery rhyme for playing a similar game to "Oranges and Lemons"
  • "London Bridge Is Falling Down", another English nursery rhyme for playing a similar game to "Oranges and Lemons"
  • "The Bells of Rhymney", a similar song about church bells, although in Wales as opposed to London and also telling the story of labor disputes in the mining industry


  1. ^ 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. 337–8.
  2. ^ "The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor, June 29, 2011". Archived from the original on 19 September 2016. Retrieved 22 December 2020.
  3. ^ Oranges and Lemons (article in H2G2, an editable reference site hosted by
  4. ^ Playford’s Dancing Master: The Compleat Dance Guide.
  5. ^ a b "The Meaning of the Oranges and Lemons Nursery Rhyme". Inspiring City. 7 April 2013.
  6. ^ "The Annotated Mother Goose, Nursery Rhymes Old and New, Arr. and Explained by William S. Baring-Gould & Ceil Baring-Gould". C. N. Potter. 5 December 1962 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ Alchin, Linda Kathryn (5 December 2010). The Secret History of Nursery Rhymes. Linda Alchin. ISBN 9780956748621 – via Google Books.
  8. ^ The Layman's Magazine of the Living Church, Issues 1-20. Morehouse-Gorham. 1940. p. 5.
  9. ^ "St Clement Danes, The Strand London WC2 : tourist information from". TourUK. Archived from the original on 22 February 2012. Retrieved 4 May 2012.
  10. ^ "Orange and Lemons (VWML Song Index SN19197)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  11. ^ "Bells of St [Clement's], The (VWML Song Index SN16826)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  12. ^ "Chilcott: Songs and Cries of London Town – Oxford University Press". OUP. 19 July 2001. Retrieved 4 May 2012.
  13. ^ "BBC – Today – Ringing the dust off London's bells". BBC News. 10 July 2009. Retrieved 4 May 2012.
  14. ^ Orwell, George (January 2021). 1984. Kjell Håkansson Förlag. pp. 158, 88, 89, 131. ISBN 9789198577815. Retrieved 15 December 2021.
  15. ^ Hunt, William (1 May 2013). "Orwell's Commedia: The Ironic Theology of Nineteen Eighty-Four". Modern Philology. 110 (4): 536–563. doi:10.1086/670033. ISSN 0026-8232. S2CID 162260176.
  16. ^ Dahl, Roald (1977). The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More (2013 ed.). Puffin Books. p. 207.
  17. ^ "Mumsy's So Proud Of Her Dearest Things: Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny And Girly, 1970". Diabolique magazine. Retrieved 15 August 2022.
  18. ^ "Private Peaceful – Episode 13". BBC School Radio. Retrieved 22 May 2022.
  19. ^ Dry, Jude (13 September 2017). "'It' Composer Benjamin Wallfisch on That Creepy Children's Song and How He Made Pennywise 'Omnipresent'". IndieWire. Retrieved 16 July 2022.
  20. ^ Azerrad, Michael (23 March 1989). "XTC: Oranges & Lemons". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on 3 February 2008. Retrieved 18 June 2022.

External links[edit]