Near the beginning of my North and South Walk we pass the Church of St Clement Danes situated on a traffic island near the Royal Courts of Justice.
It has a brass plaque just inside the door with the line “Oranges and Lemons say the Bells of St Clement’s”, a line from the 17th century children’s poem which relates to some of the many churches in London and sung to the tune of the individual church bells.
But what do the lyrics refer to? The full version of the poem mentions 15 bells but let’s look at the short version of the poem.
“Oranges and Lemons” say the Bells of St Clements.
Christopher Wren designed the present church in 1687. It is the third occupying the site on the Strand and is the home church of the RAF. The “Oranges and Lemons” refer to the citrus fruits unloaded at the nearby wharves.
“You owe me five farthings” say the Bell of St Martins. St Martin Orgar church, situated in Martin Lane, was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Only the bell tower, complete with the original bell, has survived in the rectory of St Clements Eastcheap. “You owe me five farthings” relates to the moneylenders who traded nearby.
“When will you pay me?” say the Bells of Old Bailey. Since the Old Bailey did not have its own bell this refers to the bells of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate church and the bell of Newgate prison. Rebuilt in 1671, St Sepulchre is the largest church in the City of London and was sited opposite the infamous Newgate prison which housed both criminals and debtors. The phrase “When will you pay me?” refers to the Debtors housed in Newgate and those tried at the Old Bailey.
“When I grow rich” say the Bells of Shoreditch. The bells are those of St Leonard’s Church, Hackney. It was popular amongst Elizabethan actors as it was close to the first purpose built theatre called ‘The Theatre’ and the ‘Curtain Theatre’, built by William Shakespeare’s friend, Richard Burbage, who is buried at St Leonard’s. The area was extremely poor so the “When I grow rich” line was inconceivable.
“When will that be?” say the Bells of Stepney. St Dunstan’s Church in Stepney High Street was erected in 1580, although a church stood on the site prior to 952AD. Its ten bells date back to 1385, some of which were made at the nearby Whitechapel foundry (who also cast Big Ben and the Liberty Bell). The church has a long association with the sea and it is thought the line “When will that be?” relates to wives who would have to wait for up to two years for their husbands to return with wages.
“I do not know” says the Great Bell of Bow. St Mary-le-Bow is a historic church off Cheapside. There has been a church on the site before the arrival of the Normans in 1066 and its bells were first mentioned in 1469 during the construction of the steeple. Dick Whittington, a real person and four times Lord Mayor of London, was called back with his cat by the sound of the Bow Bells. Traditionally it is said that to be a true cockney you must be born within hearing distance of the sound of Bow bells.
“Here comes a Candle to light you to Bed. Before 1783 condemned prisons were transported three miles from Newgate Prison to Tyburn-gate (now Marble Arch) to face execution. At midnight, on the Sunday before their imminent fate, the Bellman of St Sepulchre would inform them of their execution by candlelight. The executions would commence at 9 o’clock on Monday morning and 100,000 people would line the route.
Here comes a Chopper to Chop off you Head. Chip chop chip chop – the Last man’s Dead.” The words of the nursery rhyme are chanted by children as they play the game ‘Oranges and Lemons’, the end of which results in a child being caught between the joined arms of two others, emulating the act of chopping off their heads.
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