Haunted Yorkshire

They're Closer Than You Think!

Grim Nursery Rhymes


Did you know that a lot of nursery rhymes have hidden meanings, Haunted Yorkshire have listed some of these below!


Just scroll down the page for the one you require to view.

Mary Ann Cotton
Three Blind Mice
Mary Mary
Ladybird Ladybird
Baa Baa Black Sheep
Ring a Ring 'O' Roses
The Grand Old Duke of York
Humpty Dumpty
Little Jack Horner
Seesaw Margery Daw
Pat a Cake
Goosey Goosey Gander
Oranges and Lemons

Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton poisoned 21 people including her own mother, children and husbands.

This is the home in which Britain’s first serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton, claimed her final victim. It is the house in which she was arrested and then taken away to be incarcerated, before eventually being executed at Durham Jail in March 1873.

Few have heard of the so-called ‘Black Widow’ killer who posed as a wife, widow, mother, friend and nurse to murder perhaps as many as 21 victims, living off her husbands before eventually claiming their estates. Two decades before Jack the Ripper would terrorise the streets of Whitechapel in London, Mary Ann Cotton had already become a killing machine, perhaps murdering as many as eight of her own children, seven stepchildren, her mother, three husbands, a lover – and an inconvenient friend.

Many of the local children would sing this nursery rhyme after Mary was convicted and her secret was out.


Mary Ann Cotton, she's dead and she's rotten,

Lying in bed with her eyes wide open.

Sing, sing, oh what should I sing?

Mary Ann Cotton, she's tied up with string.

Where, where? Up in the air.

Selling black puddings, a penny a pair.


Mary Ann Cotton, she's dead and forgotten,

Lying in bed with her bones all rotten.

Sing, sing, what can I sing?

Mary Ann Cotton, tied up with string.

Three Blind Mice

Three blind mice, three blind mice,
See how they run, see how they run,
They all ran after the farmer's wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a thing in your life,
As three blind mice?


Nursery Rhyme & History

The origin of the 'tale' of Three blind mice!
The origin of the words to the Three blind mice rhyme are based in English history.


The 'farmer's wife' refers to the daughter of King Henry VIII, Queen Mary I. Mary was a staunch Catholic and her violent persecution of Protestants led to the nickname of 'Bloody Mary'.

The reference to 'farmer's wife' in Three blind mice refers to the massive estates which she, and her husband King Philip of Spain, possessed.

The 'three blind mice' were three noblemen who adhered to the Protestant faith who were convicted of plotting against the Queen - she had them dismembered and blinded as inferred in “Three blind mice”


Mary Mary Quite Contrary

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.


Mary Mary Quite Contrary: meaning and Historical connetion

The origins are steeped in history... Bloody Mary!

The Mary alluded to in this traditional English nursery rhyme is reputed to be Mary Tudor, or Bloody Mary, who was the daughter of King Henry VIII.

Queen Mary was a staunch Catholic and the garden referred to is an allusion to graveyards which were increasing in size with those who dared to continue to adhere to the Protestant faith - Protestant martyrs.

Instruments of Torture!

The silver bells and cockle shells referred to in the Nursery Rhyme were colloquialisms for instruments of torture. The 'silver bells' were thumbscrews which crushed the thumb between two hard surfaces by the tightening of a screw. The 'cockleshells' were believed to be instruments of torture which were attached to the genitals!

The " Maids" or Maiden was the original guillotine!

The 'maids' were a device to behead people called the Maiden. Beheading a victim was fraught with problems. It could take up to 11 blows to actually sever the head, the victim often resisted and had to be chased around the scaffold. Margaret Pole (1473 - 1541), Countess of Salisbury did not go willingly to her death and had to be chased and hacked at by the Executioner.
These problems led to the invention of a mechanical instrument (now known as the guillotine) called the Maiden - shortened to Maids in the Mary Mary Nursery Rhyme.
The Maiden had long been in use in England before Lord Morton, regent of Scotland during the minority of James VI, had a copy constructed from the Maiden which had been used in Halifax in Yorkshire.
Ironically, Lord Morton fell from favour and was the first to experience the Maiden in Scotland!


Another form of execution during Mary's reign was being burnt at the stake - a terrible punishment much used during the Spanish Inquisition.
The English hated the Spanish and dreaded the idea of an English Inquisition.
The executions during the reign of Bloody Mary were therefore viewed with a greater fear of the Spanish than the executions themselves - it is interesting to note that executions during her reign totaled less than 300 an insignificant amount compared to the executions ordered by her father King Henry VIII which are believed to have numbered tens of thousands!



Ladybird Ladybird

"Ladybird, ladybird fly away home,
Your house in on fire and your children are gone"

The English word ladybird is a derivative of the Catholic term " Our Lady". The tradition of calling this rhyme was believed to have been used as a seemingly innocent warning cry to Catholic (recusants) who refused to attend Protestant services as required by the Act of Uniformity (1559 & 1662). This law forbade priests to say Mass and forbade communicants to attend it. Consequently Mass was held secretly in the open fields. Laymen were subject to jail and heavy fines and priests to execution. Many priests were executed by the terrible death of being burnt alive at the stake or, even worse, being hung, drawn and quartered. The most famous English recusants were Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot Conspirators.

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full!
One for the master, one for the dame,
And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.

Nursery Rhyme meaning & History

This popular rhyme probably dates back to the Middle Ages, possibly to the 13th Century, and relates to a tax imposed by the king on wool. One-third went to the local lord (the 'master'), one-third to the church (referred to as the 'dame') and about a third was for the farmer (the 'little boy who lives down the lane').

More recently it has been the subject of some controversy in the UK where nurseries are citing a 'rainbow' sheep for fear of upsetting children with the idea that any sheep might possibly be black!!! Political correctness gone mad !!

Ring a Ring 'O' Roses


Ring a ring o' roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down

Nursery Rhyme meaning & History

The poem has Connections to the Bubonic Plague (Black Death)?

The words to the Ring around the rosy children's ring game have their origin in English history .
The historical period dates back to the Great Plague of London in 1665 (bubonic plague) or even before when the first outbreak of the Plague hit England in the 1300's.

The symptoms of the plague included a rosy red rash in the shape of a ring on the skin (Ring around the rosy).

Pockets and pouches were filled with sweet smelling herbs ( or posies) which were carried due to the belief that the disease was transmitted by bad smells.

The term "Ashes Ashes" refers to the cremation of the dead bodies!

The death rate was over 60% and the plague was only halted by the Great Fire of London in 1666 which killed the rats which carried the disease which was transmitting via water sources.

The English version of "Ring around the rosy" replaces Ashes with (A-tishoo, A-tishoo) , the sneezing which accompanied the final fatal moments of the victims when they would all fall down - dead!

The Grand old Duke of York

The Grand old Duke of York he had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again.
When they were up, they were up
And when they were down, they were down
And when they were only halfway up
They were neither up nor down.

"The grand old Duke of York" Nursery Rhyme & History
The Wars of the Roses
The origin to the words of "The grand old Duke of York" are believed to date back to the Plantagenet dynasty in the 15th century and refer mockingly to the defeat of Richard, "The grand old Duke of York" in the Wars of the Roses (1455).

This war was between the house of York (whose symbol was a white rose) and the house of Lancaster (whose symbol was a red rose).

The Wars of the Roses lasted for over thirty years and were equivalent to a Civil War.

Origins of the Rhyme

The words of the Nursery rhyme are believed to refer to Richard, Duke of York, claimant to the English throne and Protector of England and the Battle of Wakefield on December 30, 1460.

The Duke of York and his army marched to his castle at Sandal where Richard took up a defensive position against the Lancastrian army.
Sandal Castle was built on top of the site of an old Norman motte and bailey fortress.
Its massive earthworks stood 33 feet (10m) above the original ground level ("he marched them up to the top of the hill").

In a moment of madness he left his stronghold in the castle and went down to make a direct attack on the Lancastrians " he marched them down again". His army was overwhelmed and Richard the Duke of York was killed.

Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King's horses, And all the King's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again!

Alternative Words...

Humpty dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty dumpty had a great fall;
Threescore men and threescore more,
Could not place Humpty as he was before.

Nursery Rhyme meaning & History
The imagery of Humpty Dumpty
Humpty Dumpty was a colloquial term used in fifteenth century England describing someone who was obese.

This has given rise to various, but inaccurate, theories surrounding the identity of Humpty Dumpty. However, Humpty Dumpty was not a person pilloried in the famous rhyme!

The History and Origins of the Rhyme
Humpty Dumpty was in fact a large cannon! It was used during the English Civil War ( 1642 - 1649) in the Siege of Colchester (13 Jun 1648 - 27 Aug 1648). Colchester was strongly fortified by the Royalists and was laid to siege by the Parliamentarians (Roundheads).

In 1648 the town of Colchester was a walled town with a castle and several churches and was protected by the city wall. Standing immediately adjacent the city wall, was St Mary's Church.

A huge cannon, colloquially called Humpty Dumpty, was strategically placed on the wall next to St Mary's Church. The historical events detailing the siege of Colchester are well documented - references to the cannon ( Humpty Dumpty) are as follows:
June 15th 1648 - St Mary's Church is fortified and a large cannon is placed on the roof which was fired by ‘One-Eyed Jack Thompson'

July 14th / July 15th 1648 - The Royalist fort within the walls at St Mary's church is blown to pieces and their main cannon battery ( Humpty Dumpty) is destroyed.

August 28th 1648 - The Royalists lay down their arms, open the gates of Colchester and surrender to the Parliamentarians

A shot from a Parliamentary cannon succeeded in damaging the wall beneath Humpty Dumpty which caused the cannon to tumble to the ground.

The Royalists, or Cavaliers, 'all the King's men' attempted to raise Humpty Dumpty on to another part of the wall.

However, because the cannon , or Humpty Dumpty, was so heavy
' All the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put Humpty together again!'

This had a drastic consequence for the Royalists as the strategically important town of Colchester fell to the Parliamentarians after a siege lasting eleven weeks. Earliest traceable publication 1810.

Little Jack Horner

Little Jack Horner,
Sat in a corner,
Eating a Christmas pie,
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said What a good boy am I.

meaning and historical connection.

There is a very interesting story surrounding the origin of this rhyme.
During the reign of Henry VIII at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, many Roman Catholic priests were in fear of their lives. In order to carry favour with the King, Richard Whiting, the Abbot of Glastonbury in Somerset which was then the richest abbey in the kingdom, sent him a gift.

The gift was a pie which contained the title deeds to twelve manor houses, and the person entrusted with delivering this gift to the King was Jack Horner, the abbot's steward.

On his way to London, Jack Horner stole one of the deeds and soon after the Dissolution, the Manor of Mells became the residence of Thomas Horner, whose descendants lived there until 1975.

The Horners always claimed that Mells Manor was bought along with various other manors and nearby farms for the sum of £1,831,9s,3d 3farthings and that the rhyme has nothing to do with their ancestor. It is true that their ancestor's name was Thomas Horner but the common name for someone who was a rogue or a knave was then, (and is still now), Jack!

The idea of carrying such important items in a pie was not as silly as it may seem, for in those days the countryside was rife with highwaymen and common theives. In order to disguise their valuables, travellers used many different and ingenious ways of hiding them including sewing them to the inside of their clothes and putting them in pies.

It is an interesting addition to the story to note that Thomas Horner was in fact one of the jurors who condemned Abbot Whiting to death!

Seesaw Margery Daw

Seesaw Margery Daw
Johnny shall have a new master
He shall earn but a penny a day
Because he can't work any faster

Meaning & History
History in a game for children in "Seesaw Margery Daw"
The seesaw is the oldest 'ride' for children , easily constructed from logs of different sizes.

The words of "Seesaw Marjorie Daw" reflect children playing on a see-saw and singing this rhyme to accompany their game.

There was no such person that we can identify who had the name Marjorie Daw and we therefore make the assumption that this was purely used to rhyme with the words 'seesaw' i.e "Seesaw Marjory Daw".

The last three lines of "Seesaw Margery Daw" appear to reflect the use of child labour in work houses where those with nowhere else to live would be forced to work for a pittance (a penny a day) on piece work (because he can't work any faster). The words of "Seesaw Margery Daw" might be used by a spiteful child to taunt another implying his family were destined for the workhouse.

Pat a cake

Pat a cake, Pat a cake, baker's man
Bake me a cake as fast as you can;
Pat it and prick it and mark it with a 'B',
And put it in the oven for Baby and me.

Historical Note & hidden meaning
The Bakers of London
The Picture depicts fire-fighting in London. The Great Fire of London of 1666 was started in a Baker's shop, in Pudding Lane and ravaged the City.

Bakeries were always viewed as Fire Risks and the premises of the baker to King Charles I was also situated in Pudding Lane
The fire started in Pudding Lane in the house and shop of Thomas Farynor who was baker to King Charles II.

The King was aware of the risk of fire in Baker's shops and ensured that this task was conducted away from the palaces.

In the London of 1666 the medieval houses were half timbered, with pitch, and most had thatched roofs - the recipe for disaster in terms of fire risks! The old St Paul's cathedral was destroyed in the fire together with 87 .churches.

A total of 13,200 houses were also destroyed but amazingly only 6 were known to have died!

Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect, was tasked with the reconstruction of London and built 49 new churches together with the great cathedral of St. Paul's over a period of 35 years! The city was not subject to re-planning and houses were replaced on exactly the sites of the buildings which were destroyed.

To this day the City of London has the same structure which dates back to medieval times! A final note on the Great Fire! A year before, in 1665, the City was decimated by the Great Plague of London which killed 16% of the inhabitants (17,500 out of the population of 93,000) - The Great Fire whilst destroying most of London also purged it of the Plague!

Goosey Goosey Gander

Goosey Goosey Gander

Goosey Goosey Gander where shall I wander,
Upstairs, downstairs and in my lady's chamber
There I met an old man who wouldn't say his prayers,
I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.

nursery Rhyme meaning & History

Zealous Protestants & Secret Priest Holes
Goosey, Goosey Gander is a Rhyme with Historical undertones - an attention grabber for a nursery rhyme which uses alliteration in the lyrics designed to intrigue any child.

The 'lady's chamber' was a room that once upon a time a high born lady would have her own chamber, (also referred to as a solar).

The origins of the nursery rhyme are believed to date back to the 16th century and refer to necessity for Catholic priests to hide in 'Priest Holes' ( very small secret rooms once found in many great houses in England) to avoid persecution from zealous Protestants who were totally against the old Catholic religion.

If caught both the priest and members of any family found harbouring them were executed. The moral in Goosey Goosey Gander's lyrics imply that something unpleasant would surely happen to anyone failing to say their prayers correctly - meaning the Protestant Prayers, said in English as opposed to Catholic prayers which were said in Latin!

Oranges and Lemons Rhyme

Oranges and Lemons Rhyme

Orange & 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."

Nursery Rhyme & History

The origin of the words to "Oranges and lemons" - strange & sinister!
The exact date of origin is unknown but there was a Square Dance called 'Oranges and Lemons' dating back to 1665, unfortunately there are no known record of the lyrics which accompanied the dance but is likely that the words were similar to that of the nursery rhyme.

The words to "Oranges and lemons" have been much loved by numerous generations of children.

The neighbourhood names relate to some of the many churches of London and the tune that accompanies the lyrics emulates the sound of the ringing of the individual church bells.
The Tyburn Gallows Execution Procession at Tyburn, London

The words of the nursery rhyme are chanted by children as they play the game of 'Oranges and lemons' the end of which culminates in a child being caught between the joined arms of two others, emulating the act of chopping off their head!

The reason for the sinister last three lines of the lyrics of "Oranges and lemons" are easily explained, they were added to the original rhyme, probably by children! This addition dates to some time before 1783 when the infamous public execution gallows (the Ty burn-tree) was moved from Tyburn-gate (Marble Arch) to Newgate, a notorious prison for both criminals and debtors hence "When will you pay me"?". This move was necessary to reduce problems caused by the crowds, often exceeding 100,000, gathered along the execution procession route.

This stretched along a three mile route from Newgate Prison to Tyburn and around the Tyburn tree itself.Newgate Prison
The 'Bells of Old Bailey', or more accurately the tenor bell of St Sepulchre, had been utilised prior to 1783 to time the executions but after the gallows had been moved, Newgate prison (now the site of the Old Bailey) obtained its own bell.

As the words to the poem "Oranges and lemons" indicate the unfortunate victim would await execution on 'Death Row' and would be informed by the Bellman of St. Sepulchre by candle light 'here comes the candle to light you to bed', at midnight outside their cell , the Sunday night prior to their imminent fate, by the ringing of the 'Execution Bell' (a large hand bell) and the recitation of the following :
All you that in the condemned hole do lie,
Prepare you for tomorrow you shall die;
Watch all and pray: the hour is drawing near
That you before the Almighty must appear;
Examine well yourselves in time repent,
That you may not to eternal flames be sent.
And when St. Sepulchre's Bell in the morning tolls
The Lord above have mercy on your soul.

The executions commenced at nine o'clock Monday morning following the first toll of the tenor bell. Who would have thought that "Oranges and lemons" a childrens rhyme could have such a sinister historical connotation?