Oranges and Lemons
There are several variations of this rhyme but the one above is the most common version used in children’s games, when two youngsters secretly decide which is an orange and which is a lemon. The others then file underneath the arch made by the couple joining hands, who move them up and down while chanting the rhyme. They finish with a loud “chop” and bring down their arms on another child who has to secretly choose to be an orange or lemon, then stand behind their leader. When everyone has been chopped, the two teams hold a tug of war. Simple but fun!
The churches still exist, except for one which was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. There are two rivals for St. Clement’s, though, namely Eastcheap and the more well- known St. Clement Danes in Westminster. Both have a claim because they lie close to the old Thames quayside where wooden boats unloaded their cargoes of Mediterranean fruit. When each ship arrived the church rang its bells, with Charles Dickens suggesting porters paid a toll for using the grounds as a short cut to transport their oranges and lemons to market.
St. Martin’s was St. Martin Orgar, most of which succumbed to the flames in 1666 after which the parish amalgamated with St. Clement, Eastcheap, suggesting this may have been the original church in the rhyme. However, St. Clement Danes still rings the chimes on its bells every day and holds an annual Oranges and Lemons service.
Old Bailey refers to the church immediately opposite, namely St. Sepulchre- without- Newgate where the church clerk, known as the Bellman, rang a hand bell outside a condemned criminal’s cell the night before execution. Why? Read on ...
The bells of Shoreditch belong to St. Leonard’s Church while Stepney refers to St. Dunstan and All Saints. The great bell of Bow is St. Mary- le- Bow which rang out the curfew at 9pm, thus giving rise to true cockneys being born within the sound of Bow bells ( not the district of Bow, however, which lies elsewhere), whereas those outside its range were not deemed to be true Londoners.
The rhyme has a much more sinister connection, though, because it is believed to have traced the last hours of a condemned man who ended up on the wrong side of the chopping block. After being unloaded from a ship he would have been paraded through the streets, each church ringing his death knell. He may have been a debtor in which case “You owe me five farthings” may have been shouted by someone he had failed to pay. The bells of Old Bailey marked the actual execution suggesting “When will you pay me?” was not a monetary request; “When I grow rich,” meant it would never happen; and “When will that be?” was a question which could never be answered.
It is rather morbid but the game is great fun and what a pity it is not played in school playgrounds much these days. If you would like to know variations on the rhyme, which name many other churches then please send an sae marked “Oranges and Lemons”.
A colourful display of fruit, but was “Oranges and Lemons” a sinister rhyme?
St. Mary- le- Bow as it looked when the nursery rhyme was first written.
Ships in London Docks not only delivered meat, fruit and vegetables, but also condemned criminals.