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

Theories abound to the meaning behind the words of the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’. The leading verses are loaded with the rhythmic stories of different Bells across London. We take a look at identifying some of these bells as well as the broader and perhaps darker meaning of the nursery rhyme.

Lyrics of Oranges and Lemons Nursery Rhyme

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
And when will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney
Oh, I do not know
Say the great bells of Bow
Here comes a candle
To light you to bed
And here comes a chopper
To chop off your head

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

You can hear the bells of 2 Churches of St Clement today in London, the formally becoming known as the RAF church of St Clement Danes and the church at St Clement’s Eastcheap, but first you have to make the call which bell is it, or is it neither?

Where is the Church of St Clement Danes, RAF church?

The Church of Clement Danes is a stones throw from the Royal Courts of justice, notably this is the church that stands in the middle of the road with traffic passing either side. The date of the site goes back to at least the 9th century, where a Danish church once stood. The Church of St Clement Danes is thought to be named after the patron saint of Mariners, St Clement’s.The

The church suffered damage over the years including the great fire of London damage in 1666. In 1682 Sir Christopher Wren completed the church rebuild with James Gibbs, who was responsible for building the tower in 1719.

During World War 2 James Gibbs tower had to be rebuilt, due to bomb damage with refurbishment project finally finishing 13 years after the end of the war in 1958. The cost was covered by the fundraising efforts of the RAF. The church was reconsecrated to be the central church of the RAF, on the 19th of October 1958.

The Service details at St Clement Dane Church of the RAF

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.

When is the service held at the Church of St Clement Danes?

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

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

Can we be sure St Clement Danes church is the one in the nursery rhyme?

St Clement Danes does have a plaque inside stating the link, but there are others in the bidding, St Clement’s Eastcheap is the other, making its pitch as the church close to a wharf where Oranges were unloaded. The jury might be still out on that one, it is also possible the lyrical rhyme of St Clement was based on none of the above specific churches and just a very fitting name to a song, it is not that uncommon lyricists work with words first, but what would be the point of that in this particular Rhyme. None the less there are only two churches that are named after the patron saint of Clements, and both claim to be the one in the Oranges and Lemons Nursery Rhyme. St Clement Danes goes on further to play the tune of Oranges and Lemons three times per day, so that is always a good reason to lean to one or the other.

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

There is not much of the St Martin’s Orgar church today, an unfortunate history of damage during the Great fire of London, rebuilt and subsequently pulled down with part of the tower being rebuilt in 1851. The remains of the church yard just south of the tower can still be seen today. The parish was merged with 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 challenge, the Old Bailey court house does not have a bell, but across the road, St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate, the largest church in the city of London does. This church was once next door to Newgate prison. The bell of St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate rang the death-knell for executions. Old Bailey today is of course more associated with the Central Criminal Court, commonly referred to simply as the Old Bailey, named after the street it is located on, Bailey Street. ‘When will you pay me’ refers to the debtors housed in Newgate prison, with debtors 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 aspiration when growing up with little, with the 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

Amazon Nursery Rhyme book top picks

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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The brutal truth of Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St Clement's 5The brutal truth of Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St Clement's 6
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

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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Gina Folsom
24 days ago

Still searching for the macabre origins of the last few lines…

An Observer
1 month ago

This is quite a gruesome poem upon hearing the lyrics

1 year ago

I have to admit, I do not recall listening to the words, more the rhythm, interesting stuff

Oranges and Lemons: Rhymes from Past Times Hardcover

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