Or­anges and Lemons

Evergreen - - News - CHARLES MERED­ITH

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.

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