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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 October, 2004, 09:06 GMT 10:06 UK
Reasons behind the rhymes
by Caroline Briggs
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Chris Roberts
Author Chris Roberts is now working on his second book

New book Heavy Words Lightly Thrown, published on Thursday, takes a fresh look at some of our well-known nursery rhymes - and comes up with some rather interesting results.

When librarian Chris Roberts decided to delve into the meanings behind various nursery rhymes he was not prepared for the sordid tales of sex, religion and politics that would emerge.

Take Goosie, Goosie Gander.

The seemingly innocent tale about a goose wandering up and down the stairs is actually about a prostitute.

The word "goose" was a common term for a lady of the night in days gone by, while to be "bitten by a goose" referred to the swellings caused by venereal diseases.

Likewise, Jack and Jill, it is suggested, is a story about losing virginity, with "up the hill to fetch a pail of water" being a euphemism for having sex.

Georgy Porgy
Georgy Porgy pudding and pie
Kissed the girls and made them cry
When the boys came out to play
Georgy Porgy ran away

But not all the meanings behind the rhymes are so salacious.

Baa, Baa Black Sheep refers to taxation, while Three Blind Mice refers to the fate of heretics during the reign of Mary Tudor.

Others were just a simple message to pass on to children, as Roberts explains.

"Some were deliberately created to serve as a simple way to tell children a story or give them a warning," he says.

"Take Georgy Porgy. I kind of wish it had been about George IV as some suggest, but it is just a childhood obesity warning.

"Others rhymes were for adults and sometimes in code during times of political dissent.

The illustrations were specially commissioned for the book

"They were folk songs and tales told as part of a story telling tradition," he says.

"Football chants are the nearest we have today. They are songs by the people, almost organic, and no-one ever seems to know who started them."

Roberts says his favourite nursery rhyme character is Kitty Fisher, who appears in the rhyme Lucy Locket.

"She was one of those women who, a bit like Nell Gwynn, came from nowhere and made her way up through London society.

"We know a Kitty Fisher existed because her portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery."

'Contemporary context'

Throughout the book, Roberts places the rhymes into a contemporary context and draws parallels with popular culture.

"It was something I always set out to do. I wanted to bring them up to date to make people see them in a different way," he says.

"Today, for example, if Kitty Fisher had been around she would have been mentioned in newspapers and magazines or on television.

"That is why I have included things like Dick Whittington, because even though they don't have hidden meanings, they still have a contemporary relevance to the 21st Century."

Roberts got the idea for writing the book while spending his days walking around London.

"I run a small walking tour around London and it is not something you want to be doing in wintertime," he says.

"So I started doing some research into London Bridge and found out the origins of that, which set me off onto Oranges and Lemons.

"They got me thinking about other nursery rhymes and then I went off on a complete tangent and got carried away!"


Roberts trawled websites, books and academic papers to research the book.

"Some nursery rhymes had 20 different theories, like Humpty Dumpty, so it was a case of finding out what was right and what was unlikely."

He originally self-published the book in November last year, where it was snapped up by family and friends.

Lucy Locket
Lucy Locket
Lost her pocket
Kitty Fisher found it
Not a penny was
There in it, but a
Ribbon around it

But he says he "was not prepared" for the media interest that followed.

"It blew me away. I went into work one Monday afternoon and I don't think I slept again until Friday night.

"The phone was ringing constantly, there were bits of paper stuck all over the house. I can't even remember what I said to some people."

But the risk to self-publish paid off and when the media storm cooled, the book was picked up by Granta who commissioned a longer edition.

Roberts is now in the middle of his second book for Granta looking at the history of London's bridges.

Heavy Words Lightly Thrown is published on 14 October 2004.

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