Church of st clements oranges and lemons

The brutal truth of Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St Clement’s

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Theories abound to the meaning behind the words in the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’. The Bells in the front verses refer to the many churches around the city of London, each with a meaning and its own story. We take a look at some of the stories behind some of the bells as well as the darker meaning of the nursery rhyme.

Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St. Clement’s.

You can hear the bells of the Church of St Clement, today in the Borough of Westminster, but what of the altogether darker thoughts behind the rhyme.

Where is the Church of St Clement’s Danes RAF church?

The Church of Clement’s is near the Royal Courts of justice, notably standing in the middle of the road with traffic passing either side. The date of the site goes back to at least the 9th century when a Danish church occupied the location. The Church of St Clement’s is thought to be named after a patron saint of Mariners St Clement’s.

It suffered some damages over the years and fire damage in 1666 In 1682 Sir Christopher Wren completed the church. James Gibbs built the tower in 1719, during World War 2 the tower had to be rebuilt due to bomb damage. They completed the refurbishment in 1958, some years after the war through the fundraising efforts of the RAF. The Church was fully restored on the 19th of October 1958 and reconsecrated to be the central church of the RAF.

The Service of St Clement’s?

Reverend William Pennington-Bickford started the Service at the Church of St Clement’s in 1919 to celebrate the restoration bells and carillon. It was his idea to make them chime to the nursery rhyme.  The Rector and his wife started a St Clement’s Danes Oranges and Lemon Service. The children at this service received oranges and lemons, they flew some fruits in from RAF Bases in Cyprus in the past.  St Clement’s Dane primary school attend this service every year. It is not the only church associated with the nursery rhyme. The Church of St Clement’s Eastcheap in the East End of London also has an association because of its proximity to the bells of Shoreditch.

Central Church of the Royal Air Force St Clement Danes, Strand
Central Church of the Royal Air Force St Clement Danes, Strand

You owe me five farthings, Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

There is not much of the St Martin’s church today, an unfortunate history of damage during the Great fire of London, rebuilt and subsequently pulled down and then part of the tower was rebuilt in 1851. The remains of the church yard just south of the tower can still be seen today. St Martin’s Candlewick Street. The parish was merged with St Clement Eastcheap. Cheap being the old English word for market, east market and yes you guessed it, there was a west market too.

When will you pay me? Say the bells at Old Bailey.

Well the Bells of old Bailey was a challenges, as St. Old Bailey does not have it’s own bell. Sitting opposite however the church of St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate, the largest church in the city of London, and this did indeed have a bell. This church was right next to Newgate prison, and when the bell of St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate rang, it was the death-knell for executions. Old Bailey today is of course more associated with the Courts of Justice, commonly referred to simply as the Old Bailey, so named after the street it is located on, Bailey Street. ‘When will you pay me’ refers to the debtors housed in Newgate prison and of course, who had been tried at the Old Bailey court house next door.

When I grow rich, Say the bells at Shoreditch.

Back in the old days, this part of London, was quite a poor deprived area, when I grow rich, is quite common thought when you grow up with nothing, but have that sparkle in the eye to be something. The church bell of Shoreditch is the church of St Leonard on Kingsland road. A church has been on this site since the 12th Century

When will that be? Say the bells of Stepney.

The church of the high seas also known as The Church of St Dunstans, located on Stepney high street. There have been 3 churches built on this site, the current one has been there for almost 500 years, with the first one being built 952AD. ‘When will that be’ could be when will the ships return. Many sailors are buried in the church yard here.

I do not know, Says the great bell at Bow.

The church of St Mary-le-Bow, off Cheapside, is another City of London church with a long past, with original church structures on this site from before the Norman invasion of 1066, the name Bow Bells first appeared written in 1469. The Church you see today is one of Christopher Wrens master pieces of the 1670s. The Great Fire of London having taken took out the original church structure. What do you not know? Says the great bell at Bow, what does this one mean

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The brutal truth of Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St Clement's 1The brutal truth of Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St Clement's 2
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Church sign St Clement Danes
Church sign St Clement Danes

What does Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clements mean

Theories abound of what the words to the Nursery Rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’ mean, putting aside the original versions of the lyrics, there is the consensus of its association with Executions, but that is not a given.

RAF Church St Clements
RAF Church St Clements

In print, there is a written record of the song in the book called the Dancing Master of 1665, which depicts the song played against a square 4  eight dance.  The book is a manual with music and dance instructions for English country dances, published by John Playford. We can find the original version of this book in the British Library,

Other Nursery Rhymes that may have other meaning

Leave a comment below if you know of the darker meaning to Oranges & Lemons or any of the other most known Nursery Rhymes.

  1. Mary, Mary Quite Contrary
  2. Jack and Jill
  3. Rub a dub dub
  4. Three blind Mice
  5. Here we go round the Mulberry Bush
  6. Ring a Ring o’ Roses

When is is the service held at the Church of St Clement’s?

They hold services every year in March, usually the 3rd Thursday in March

How to find the Church of St Clement’s

Comment Below your thoughts and interpretations of this nursery rhyme

Would love to read your thoughts and versions of this classic Nursery Rhyme. It does paint an incredible tapestry of London history and London Life.

The London Lifestyle Journal of Arts & Culture and London History

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