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Church of st clements oranges and lemons
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 of the Church of St Clement’s can be heard today, in the Borough of Westminster, but what of the altogether darker thoughts behind the rhyme.

Danes primary school in St Clement’s Danes RAF church

Church sign St Clement Danes
Church sign St Clement Danes

Where is the Church of St Clement’s?

The Church of Clement’s can be found near to 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.

Church of st clements RAF Central Church
Church of St Clement’s RAF Central Church

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 0f St Clement’s Eastcheap in the East End of London also has an association because of its proximity to the bells of Shoreditch.

The Lyrics to the traditional English Nursery Rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’

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 at Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells at Shoreditch.

When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

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

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!
Chip chop chip chop the last man is dead

The Brutal Truth behind the words

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.

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,

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

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

How to find the Church of St Clement’s

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Virtual Walking Tour of World War One Remembrance Art Trail – Mark Humphrey – Royal British Legion


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