​The Morbid Messages Hidden in Beloved Nursery Rhymes

Many of us can probably recite, "Pop! Goes The Weasel" by heart. Passed down across the centuries, the anachronisms in the lyrics sound like playful nonsense words. In truth, this and other rhymes were practical lessons for children, trying to survive amid death, plague, crime and poverty.

The Londonist explores the origins of several popular nursery rhymes, which have preserved the social history of Britain in the form of lyrical time capsules.

For instance, what to make of "Pop! Goes The Weasel"?

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,

Half a pound of treacle.

That's the way the money goes,

Pop! goes the weasel.

Up and down the City Road,

In and out the Eagle.

That's the way the money goes,

Pop! goes the weasel.

According to author James Fitzgerald:

Although its date of origin is unclear, "Pop! Goes the Weasel" has its geographical roots clearly in London. The City Road and Eagle pub are identifiable landmarks, and it's believed that the rhyme uses traditional rhyming slang — "weasel" being Cockney shorthand for "weasel and stoat," which means "coat." "Pop" is a colloquial term for pawning, so the first verse suggests the gaining of food money by trading in a coat…. this nursery rhyme still versifies a harrowing dilemma: the choice between eating and heating.

And then there's "London Bridge Is Falling Down," which might refer to a gruesome medieval ritual:

London Bridge is falling down,

falling down,

falling down.

London Bridge is falling down,

my fair lady.

Build it up with wood and clay,

wood and clay,

wood and clay,

Build it up with wood and clay,

my fair lady.

Wood and clay will wash away,

wash away,

wash away,

wood and clay will wash away,

my fair lady.

There are verses upon verses, each suggesting then dismissing different materials for rebuilding the bridge. As the main conduit from historic, walled London into the outlying Borough, the bridge was instrumental in the city's development, and its apparent fragility was doubly concerning because people actually lived on it. When one of the later verses suggests "setting a man to watch all night" we enter the shadowy realm of superstition. Some scholars argue that "setting a man" refers to a medieval ritual of burying human bodies in walls to fortify them.

Still, Fitzgerald is reluctant to describe these rhymes as macabre and horrifying: "Weren't their morbid physicality and interest in social ruin also an effective means of teaching the city's generally-unschooled children about life and death — about basic hygiene, say, or due financial diligence? Doubtless the youth of bygone London grew up faster than that of 2014. In the 1600s, perhaps three in five would die before age 16. Back then, parental guidance meant introducing children to the world's cruelties as directly as possible."

[Source: The Londonist]