Oranges and Lemons

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (Sept 2006)



Following on from last months meandering among the more popular nursery rhymes, this rhyme is a personal favourite, featuring as it does London Churches, many still standing, and several of which have an important place in my family’s history. The usual version is this.


"Oranges and lemons" say the Bells of St Clement’s
"You owe me five farthings" say the Bells of St Martin’s

"When will you pay me?" say the Bells of Old Bailey
"When I grow rich" say the Bells of Shoreditch
"When will that be?" say the Bells of Stepney
"I do not know" say the Great Bells of Bow
"Here comes a Candle to light you to Bed
Here comes a Chopper to Chop off your Head
Chip chop chip chop - the Last Man's Dead."


When I did a bit of research, to confirm whether certain things I believed were true, and to explore other explanations, I discovered that this is not the earliest version, but that the rhyme below, which I was not familiar with, is even older.


Gay go up and gay go down
To Ring the Bells of London Town

"Oranges and Lemons" say the Bells of St Clement’s
"Bullseyes and Targets" say the Bells of St Margaret’s
"Brickbats and Tiles" say the Bells of St Giles
"Halfpence and Farthings" say the Bells of St Martins
"Pancakes and Fritters" say the Bells of St Peters

"Two Sticks and an Apple" say the Bells of Whitechapel
"Maids in white aprons" say the Bells at St Katherine’s

"Pokers and Tongs" say the Bells of St John’s
"Kettles and Pans" say the Bells of St Anne’s

"Old Father Baldpate" say the Slow Bells of Aldgate
"You owe me Ten Shillings" say the Bells of St Helen’s
"When will you Pay me?" say the Bells of Old Bailey

"When I grow Rich" say the Bells of Shoreditch
"Pray when will that be?" say the Bells of Stepney
"I do not know" says the Great Bell of Bow.

Gay go up and gay go down
To Ring the Bells of London Town


The earlier rhyme features many of the trades and skills of London and more of the churches. The link to the site where I read about this is here and I’ll let you follow it and read a little about those churches yourself, if you are interested. The execution ending for the more familiar version was added some time before 1783.


Back to the familiar version. This is as good a description of how to play the game as I have come across.


Two children become the 'chopper' by holding hands and forming an arch. They secretly decide which one of them is ' Oranges' and which one is 'Lemons'.

The other children go through the arch in a line, circling round behind the arch, and going through again, singing the rhyme as they go. At the last line of the rhyme the 'choppers' bring their arms up and down in a chopping motion over each child that goes through. The game can get quite nerve-racking for the children at this point, and they often run through as fast as they can. The child caught in the middle at the last word of the rhyme is out.  The captured child secretly chooses to be Oranges or Lemons, and then moves around to stand behind that child forming the arch. When all the children have been captured, the teams have a tug of war. The winning team is the one left standing, but usually none of the children are by the end.


St Clements’s church may be the one in St Clement’s Lane Eastcheap where fruit was unloaded from nearby wharfs. But some authorities say that it is the better known St Clement Danes in the Strand, opposite the Royal Courts of Justice, which is also the home church of the RAF. That church chimes the tune hourly. When I worked in the area if I heard it chime for 9 o’clock I knew I was on schedule – just. Pictured above.


I had always believed St Martin’s to be St Martins in the Fields in Trafalgar Square but I am told that it is a St Martins church that burned down in 1666 and which parish amalgamated with St Clement’s Eastcheap. It just shows how old this rhyme is.


The notorious Newgate prison, a dark and dismal place which gave us the saying “Black as Newgate’s knocker” only got its own bell to ring for executions after 1783. Up until then the bell of St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church was rung.  The famous Central Criminal Court was later built on the site; it is better known as the Old Bailey after the name of the street in which it stands. Above right is a picture of St Sepulchres and the figure of Justice on top of the Old Bailey, taken from the Stone Gallery around the dome of St Paul's Cathedral.

The Bells of Shoreditch are the peal of St Leonard’s church Shoreditch (below left) where many members of my family were baptized and married over the last 200 years. My late father worked nearby, and worked on the rewiring when some repair work was done 40 years ago. There has been more restoration since and a major project is on going. Shakespeare knew an earlier church on the site when he worked at the Curtain Theatre in what is now Curtain Road. The present church is quite a local landmark, designed by George Dance the Elder and completed in 1736.  I remember listening to the bells as a child. It is still (with St Martin’s in the Fields) the base of the Society of Royal Cumberland Youths a well respected bell ringing society but as the area changed character in the 1980s there were complaints about the ringing.


The bells of Stepney may be those of St Dunstans, which were made in the Whitechapel Bell foundry, or they may be those in the foundry itself. The foundry is one of two places in England still casting bells in the traditional way. It has been there since 1570, is Britain's oldest manufacturing company, and cast Big Ben and the Liberty Bell.


The Great Bell of Bow is that of St Mary le Bow in Cheapside, seen below right. This is the church alluded to when the definition of a cockney is given, ie that we are someone born within the sound of Bow bells. The bells are a bit muffled these days, and their sound doesn’t carry far over the noise of London either. A lot of people think that the church meant is Bow Church in Stratford (Stratforde atte Bow where Chaucer’s Prioress lived) but that is too far out of the City. The day we took these pictures a Kent Bellringing Society were visiting to ring the bells and we could hear them loosening the bells up in preparation.


In recent times the rhyme has given its name to a drink. A St Clements is a mixture of orange juice and bitter lemon, popular in pubs with drivers and the very young.


And finally, from the Diocese of Oxford is a recipe for September’s  St Clement’s Cake. Yum.



Photos by Mistrum Ridcully.







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Esmerelda Weatherwax is a regular contributor to the Iconoclast, our community blog. To view her entries please click here.




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