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"Oranges and Lemons" is an Englishmarker nursery rhyme and singing game which refers to the bells of several churches, all within or close to the City of Londonmarker. It is listed in the Roud Folk Song Index as #3190.


Common modern versions include:

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,Says the great bell of Bow

Here comes a candle to light you to bedAnd here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

As a game

The song is used in a children's singing game with the same name, in which the players file, in pairs, through an arch made by two of the players (made by having the players face each other, raise their arms over their head, and clasp their partners' hands). The challenge comes during the final lines:

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.)

On the last word, the children forming the arch drop their arms to catch the pair of children currently passing through, who are then "out" and must form another arch next to the existing one. In this way, the series of arches becomes a steadily lengthening tunnel through which each set of two players have to run faster and faster to escape in time.

Alternative versions of the game include: children caught "out" by the last rhyme may stand behind one of the children forming the original arch, instead of forming additional arches; and, children forming "arches" may bring their hands down for each word of the last line, while the children passing through the arches run as fast as they can to avoid being caught on the last word.

Origins and meaning

Various theories have been advanced to account for the rhyme, including: that it deals with child sacrifice; that it describes public executions; that it describes Henry VIII's marital difficulties. Problematically for these theories the last two lines, with their different metre, do not appear in the earlier recorded versions of the rhyme, including the first printed in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book (c. 1744), where the lyrics are:

Two Sticks and Apple,
Ring ye Bells at Whitechapple,Old Father Bald Pate,Ring ye Bells Aldgate,Maids in White Aprons,Ring ye Bells a St. Catherines,Oranges and Lemmons,Ring ye bells at St. Clemens,When will you pay me,Ring ye Bells at ye Old Bailey,When I am Rich,Ring ye Bells at Fleetditch,When will that be,Ring ye Bells at Stepney,When I am Old,Ring ye Bells at Pauls.

There is considerable variation in the churches and lines attached to them in versions printed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which makes any overall meaning difficult to establish. The final two lines of the modern version were first collected by James Orchard Halliwell in the 1840s.

Oranges and Lemons was the name of a square-four-eight-dance, published in Playford's, Dancing Master in 1665, but it is not clear if this relates to this rhyme. Similar rhymes naming churches and giving rhymes to their names can be found in other parts of England, including Shropshire and Derby, where they were sung on festival days, on which bells would also have been rung.

The identity of the churches is not always clear, but the following have been suggested, along with some factors that may have influenced the accompanying statements:

The tune

The tune is reminiscent of change ringing, and the intonation of each line is said to correspond with the distinct sounds of each church's bells. Today, the bells of St. Clement Danes ring out the tune of the rhyme.

Cultural references

The song is one of nursery rhymes most commonly referred to in popular literature:

In literature

  • In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) it is used as a snippet of nursery rhyme part of which the protagonist Winston Smith cannot remember. Various characters contribute snippets of the rhyme as the book goes on, and the last lines figure symbolically into the closing events of the second section. It serves as an example of the near-complete eradication of shared culture, and is foreshadowed as being lost forever after the final few people who remember it die.

  • The novel "The First Verse" by Barry McCrea features a mysterious character named Pablo Virgomare whose appearance is marked or brought on by a line from "Oranges and Lemons".

  • In the novel Private Peaceful (2004) by Michael Morpurgo the song is the favourite of the character Big Joe. He sings this song continuously throughout the novel and the children use it as a song of resistance to the authoritarian Grandma Wolf.

  • In Roald Dahl's short story A Piece of Cake, the song is part of Dahl's dreams while recovering from the crash of his fighter plane.

  • In Edward Rutherford's novel London (1997), "Oranges and Lemons" is one of the nursery rhymes invoked by the characters.

  • In Martin Langfield's 2009 novel The Secret Fire, "Oranges and Lemons" is said to reveal, in coded form, the path of the London (or "St Paul's") ley line].

  • In the Newbery Medal award-winning book, "The Graveyard Book" (Neil Gaiman, 2008) two villainous characters have trapped the protagonist, "Bod", a boy of eight years age, in a back room. One character explains his forthcoming plan to turn Bod over to hyper-villain "Jack", waving Jack's calling card and reciting the second to last line of this verse: "Here comes a candle to light you to bed". The other antagonist intones with the finishing couplet "and here comes a chopper to chop off your head."

In music

  • "Oranges & Lemons" is the name of an album by British post-punk/alternative-rock band XTC (their most successful album, by chart position).

  • The widely covered folk music song "The Bells of Rhymney", with words by Idris Davies and music by Pete Seeger, closely follows the metrical form of the classic nursery rhyme and is based upon the similar idea of bells "saying" mnemonic phrases, using place names from Walesmarker.

  • The song "Clash City Rockers" by The Clash features a parody on the rhyme with a verse altered to reflect the music scene of that time: "'You owe me a move', say the bells of St. Groove/'Come on and show me', say the bells of Old Bowie/'When I am fitter', say the bells of Gary Glitter/'No one but you and I', say the bells of Prince Far-I".

  • The Clash also reproduced the melody of the nursery rhyme in the very first notes of the introduction to "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe", on their 1980 Sandinista! album.

  • In the song "Stop Crying" (1979) by Th' Dudes, the last two lines of the chorus are the same as that of the nursery rhyme: "Here comes the candle to light you to bed, here comes the chopper to chop off your head."

  • Benjamin Till composed music based upon the nursery rhyme and performed 11 July 2009 at St Mary Le Bow Church, London to honour 150 years of the great bell, Big Benmarker.

In video games

  • In the game Silent Hill: Origins (2007) the protagonist finds a note saying 'here comes a candle to light you to bed, here comes the butcher to chop of your head'. The Butcher is a monster similar to Pyramid Head/Boogeyman monster in the series.

  • In the game Half Life 2 (2004) graffiti of Oranges and Lemons can be seen spray painted on a wall.

In film

  • An instrumental version of the rhyme's melody appears in the 1973 film The Wicker Man as "Chop Chop". The tune soundtracks a scene in which characters, chanting "chop chop", conduct a ceremony with swords reminiscent of the children's party game mentioned above.

  • The tune makes a brief appearance in Howard Blake's score for the 1982 animated film The Snowman, in a scene in which the Snowman is trying different fruits for his nose.

  • The Interrogator sings the last two lines near the end of the 1991 film Closet Land.

In bartending

  • A half-and-half mixture of orange juice and bitter-lemon soda water is known as a "St Clements".

External links Audio of song at Museum of Childhood site


  1. I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 337-8.
  2. Oranges and Lemons (article in H2G2, an editable reference site hosted by
  3. 'St Clement Danes, The Strand London WC2',, retrieved 12/04/09.
  4. G. Orwell, 1984: a Novel (Signet Classic, 1990), pp. 178-9.
  5. Langfield, Martin. The Secret Fire. ISBN 0141025077. See “Oranges and Lemons” – a London secret, hidden in plain sight.
  6. Oxford University Press 2001
  7. BBC Radio 4

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