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Halamus Publishing - Archive Articles - # 12, March, 2003



The Articles from the Monthly Newsletters

Written by

M. Lesley Halamek

March, 2003:–

SONG: "Oranges and Lemons" – England
– a Traditional Song about the Bells of London Town

In the 16th Century, the City of London had 111 Churches.

Some 80-87 were burned and/or destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire of London.

51 were rebuilt from 1670, under the direction of Sir Christopher Wren, King Charles II's architect. Today 47 churches survive.

Of others, only the tower remains.

The children's Game Song "Oranges and Lemons", is sung to the tune of the bells of
St. Clements Danes, The Strand.

According to different sources, the churches in the song are:–

  • St. Clement, Eastcheap… or …St. Clement Danes, The Strand
  • St. Martins Orgar, Cannon Street… or …St. Martins-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square
  • St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate…Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Newgate (Old Bailey)
  • St. Leonards, Shoreditch... or ...St Bride's, Fleet Street (Fleetditch)
  • St. Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney
  • St. Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside

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 of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch (or Fleetditch).

When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

I'm sure I don't know,
Says the great bell at Bow.

Here come a candle to light you to bed,
Here come a chopper to chop off your head.

Chop, chop, chop
The last man's dead!"

In the game, two children decide who will be the orange and who the lemon. They join hands to form an arch and sing the song, while the other children pass under the arch in a line. At the end of the song, the two children forming the arch bring their arms down on the child passing under the arch, who has to decide whether to be an orange or a lemon.

I remember playing the game as a six-year-old in the school playground. The decision process was accompanied by whispered bribes of fabulous make-believe jewellery offered by the orange or lemon leader, and usually added to by successive members of the team – the team which could secretly offer the most gold, diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires gained the next recruit, who joined the line of her choice up behind one of the two parts of the arch. (Boys didn't play 'sissy' girl's games when I was six, though mediaeval lads may well have enjoyed a respite from work!).

When all the children have been 'chopped' there is a tug of war to decide which team wins.

The song "Oranges and Lemons", in the version with the executioner, may have been sung to taunt Mary, Queen of Scots, before her execution (for plotting treason) on the order of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.

(There is a short version, with just the Churches, and at least 2 longer versions including a number of other churches).

Like most old children's rhymes, "Oranges and Lemons" had an historical, possibly even a political beginning.

There seems to be some confusion as to which St Clement's, and which St Martin's are the Churches referred to in "Oranges and Lemons".

"Oranges and Lemons
Say the Bells of St. Clement's"

may refer to the toll, or tax, of oranges and lemons paid to the church wardens of St. Clement Eastcheap, 'by the wharf where fruit was unloaded'. This toll was paid for the right to carry cargo from ships moored in the River Thames through the churchyard of St. Clement Eastcheap.

The church of St. Clement, Eastcheap, after which the Clement's Lane (and previously St. Clement's Court) are named, is the third on the site. Little is known of the first church (demolished in the 15th Century), dedicated to St. Clement, Bishop of Rome, in AD 100.

The present-day St. Clement Eastcheap was built by Wren in 1687 to replace an earlier building destroyed in the Great Fire. By comparison with many of Wren's creations it is a plain structure of almost entirely stuccoed brickwork.

"Actually, it is not in Eastcheap as we know it now, but in St. Clement's Lane off King William Street, though this apparently was the old Eastcheap in days gone by. Its exterior is not impressive, as it is sandwiched between two office blocks, and, indeed, unless you are searching diligently for it, you can easily not notice a church is there. (Cheap, or chepe was an old name for a market).

The old nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons say the Bells of St. Clement's" originated here because the wharf where cargoes of citrus fruits were unloaded, lay just the other side of King William Street when the Thames was a much wider river than it now is, and the church bells were reputed to ring a peal when a cargo arrived."

The other contender for "Oranges and Lemons" fame is St Clement Danes, The Strand, London (the Fleet Street end of The Strand), between London and Westminster. (St Clement Danes would also have been closer to the river than it is today – 'strand' refers to the edge of the sea, or, in this case, to the edge of the river).

The confusion may arise because apparently it was the bells of St Clement Danes which played the tune "Oranges and Lemons".

Saint Clement was the patron saint of Danish sailors. The Danes raided Britain at various times between the 8th and 11th Centuries, and began to settle in England in 851. However, they did not actually enter the walled City of London itself, but had a colony outside the walls (between London and Westminster) at about the present site of the church.

This Danish colony may date from about 994, when Olaf of Norway and Sweyn of Denmark besieged London. England was ruled by Danish Kings (Canute and his sons Harold I and Hardicanute) from 1016 until 1042. St Clement Danes is claimed to be the burial site of Harold I who died in 1040.

The Church of St. Clement Danes was first built early 12th century, and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, King Charles II's famous Architect, who rebuilt London, including 51 churches (of 87 burned) after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Building of the church began in 1680 and it was completed in 1681 or 1682 (depending on the reference source!) The tower was added in 1719-20.

The church was destroyed by bombing in 1941, and completely restored in 1958 by the RAF. St. Clement Danes is now the church of the RAF.

"You owe me five farthings,
Say the Bells of St. Martin's"

Which St Martins?

St Martin Orgar, Cannon Street (?)

There is a 16th Century reference to St Martin Orgar (in a genealogical webpage) as a record of a birth in a family history.

The later available history of this church is very brief:

  • 1630 Steeple of the church was repaired.
  • 1666 The body of the church was destroyed in the Great Fire. The tower survived, as did part of the nave and these remains were utilised as a place of worship for French Protestants who continued to meet there until 1820.
  • 1670 Parish united with that of St Clement Eastcheap.
  • 1671 Bell cast by John & Christopher Hodson.
  • 1820 The building was pulled down leaving the tower standing.
  • 1851 The tall brick tower was rebuilt on the site of the previous one. The old bell was rehung dead as a clock bell with its projecting clock.


St Martins-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, also between London and Westminster, at the other end of The Strand, near Charing Cross.

A Church of St Martin's at this location was first mentioned in 1222. This early church was rebuilt in 1544, and replaced by the present church by James Gibb in 1726. St Martins-in-the-Fields is famous for the Academy founded in 1959.

Farthing: small English coin, valued at 4 to the penny. Before the Danegeld (annual protection tax paid to the Danes as a relief from attack and plunder) devalued the currency, pennies were of gold, later silver, and finally copper and copper alloy, after subsequent inflations.

A mediaeval farthing would buy, at least, a loaf of bread.

"When will you pay me?
Say the Bells of Old Bailey"

The Parish Church of St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate (Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Newgate) is the largest church in the City of London.

The first church which stood on this site was dedicated to St. Edmund the Martyr, King of East Anglia, who was killed by the Danes in 870.

At the time of the Crusades the church was known as "St. Edmund and the Holy Sepulchre" and eventually "St. Sepulchre" – after the Holy Sepulchre of Christ in Jerusalem.

The Crusaders left for the Crusades from this church.

The Church was rebuilt in 1450 by John Popham, Treasurer to Henry VI. The main body of the building was gutted by the Great Fire of London in 1666, and rebuilt in 1670-71. The present layout dates from 1875 with a re-modeled interior in 1932 by Sir Charles Nicholson. The roof and plaster ceilings were made in 1834.

"Bells of Old Bailey"

The Great Bell hung in the tower and tolled for prisoners about to be executed in Newgate Prison, until 1783 when Newgate prison acquired its own bell and the great tenor was no longer rung from 6-10 a.m. on execution mornings (though some authorities think it was rung up to the time public executions ceased in 1868).

The 150 feet high tower now contains a ring of twelve bells, restored in 1985, famous in the nursery rhyme as "The Bells of Old Bailey". Most of these were made in 1739 and replaced bells brought from the Priory Church of St. Bartholomew in 1537.

  • 1552 Record of 6 bells
  • 1666 All bells melted in the Great Fire. Enough metal to cast 3 bells was salvaged…
  • 1677 2 new small bells cast, making 8.
  • 1690 The College Youths rang the first ever touches of Grandsire Triples (on 7 bells) and completed the first ever peal of 5040 changes (Plain Bob Triples).

    (See "Change Ringing" by Charles A.W. Troyte, 1869).

"When I grow rich,
Say the Bells of Shoreditch"

Shoreditch is situated about a mile north of Whitechapel. The original settlement was founded at the junction of two Roman Roads, Kingsland Road and Old Street.

St. Leonard's church was founded about the 12th century. The parish also includes the hamlets of Hoxton and Haggerston, both of which are mentioned in the Domesday Book (1085).

St Leonards is the ancient church of the original parish. The land in the parish was owned by Holywell Priory, the hospital of St. Mary Spital, the Canons of St. Paul and the Bishop of London.


"When I grow rich,
Say the Bells of Fleetditch"

My thanks to Dickon Love for the following...

While updating the links to his website, "Church Bells of London", (, he suggested that:

"...the original version of "Oranges and Lemons" used the name "Fleetditch" and not "Shoreditch". Fleetditch church is St Bride's, Fleet St.

Basically ALL the churches in the rhyme were City of London churches (hence the writer is correct to suggest St Martin Orgar rather than St Martin in the Fields, and St Clement Eastcheap rather than St Clement Danes)."

There has been a stone church on the site of St Bride's (named for St Bridget of Kildare) since the 6th Century (1500 years), and probably a wooden church before that. Archaeological excavations at the site revealed the remains of a Roman house and a Roman pavement.

St Bride's was destroyed in the Great Fire of London (1666), rebuilt with its wedding-cake spire by Sir Christopher Wren, mostly destroyed in WWII bombing, and rebuilt.

In 1205 the Curia Regis (King's Court) met at St Bride's, and in 1210 King John held a parliament there.

500 years ago (1501) William Caxton's assistant, Wynkyn de Worde, brought England's first moveable-type printing press to St Bride's Churchyard – 16th century churchyards resembled small villages, with inns, taverns, houses and commercial buildings.

There is a later American connection, with the sucessful resettling of orphans from Bridewell Hospital Orphanage in Virginia, with the Pilgrim Fathers, and with Benjamin Franklin.

"When will that be?
Say the Bells of Stepney"

"The Mother Church of East London"

St Dunstan and All Saints Church, in Stepney High Street, is a church of great antiquity. About the year 952 Dunstan, Bishop of London and Lord of the Manor of Stepney, replaced the small wooden church on this site with a new stone church dedicated to All the Saints. When Dunstan was canonised in 1029 the name was changed to St Dunstan and All Saints.

Until the early 1300s, when new churches were built at Whitechapel and Bow, this church served the whole of Middlesex east of the City of London – an enormous area.

The present church is the third one on this site and dates mainly from the 1400s although the chancel, where the altar stands, is 200 years older. The font is over 1,000 years old and has Norman work on two sides…

The bells are commemorated in the rhyme "Oranges and Lemons"…

"When will that be? say the bells of Stepney".
The oldest of the ten bells was recast in 1385.

"I'm sure I don't know,
Says the great Bell at Bow"

St Mary-le-bow has a winged dragon on its tower.

The Church of St Mary-le-Bow was first built in the 10th century, the first church to be built on bow shaped arches of stone.

The church was originally called St. Mary New Church (St. Mary
Aldermary in Bow Lane was the 'Older' Church)

By the Norman period this New Church was called Sancta Maria de Arcubus. Arcubus refers to the bow-shaped arches of stone in the crypt, which Sir Christopher Wren commemorated in the bows on top of the spire, when he rebuilt (1670-83) the St Mary-le-Bow church destroyed in the 1666 Fire.

St Mary-le-Bow was bombed in 1941, and restored in 1964 by Lawrence King.

"The Norman Crypt was the unusual setting for the infamous 'Court of Arches' (an Ecclesiastical Law Court from that time where Bishops' Elections were also confirmed ) and was also the scene of a treacherous murder.

In the 11th century a hurricane carried the roof away "like a leaf", and in 1271 the steeple fell and killed many people.

When Christopher Wren rebuilt the Church he kept the original bow arches – they still survive today."

Bow Bells tolled the Curfew between 1469 and 1876 (9pm: 'cover fire' – i.e. it's bedtime": put out your household fires and candles, and your wooden house (hopefully) won't catch fire and burn down. Also, 9pm was the end of an apprentice's working day!… and they probably started at sun-up…).

"Bellringing prospered in the seventeenth century and in 1603 the Society of Cheapside Scholars was founded. Fabian Stedman, the father of modern bellringing, was a member.

The Ancient Society of College Youths, which was founded in 1637, still has a close association with the bells and its members regularly ring them. The other London ringing societies hold practices too and ringers from all over the world have rung on the bells.

The first full peal of over 5000 changes was rung on 12 January 1731 by the College Youths. By 1939 only 65 peals had been rung in the tower. The first peal on the new bells was 5007 Stedman Cinques, again by the College Youths on 9 November 1962. 300 peals have been rung on Bow Bells making St Mary le Bow the leading peal ringing tower in the City of London."

The bells of St. Mary-Le-Bow are those referred to in the nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons". The B.B.C. used a recording of Bow Bells as an interval signal during the second World War.

According to the Legend, Dick Whittington may have heard the tolling of Bow Bells on Highgate Hill, where he turned around and returned to London : "Turn again, Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London".

A Cockney is defined as being a person born "within the sound of Bow Bells" (or where they would have been heard if the church tower was in commission at that time!).

"Here come a candle to light you to bed,
Here come a chopper to chop off your head"

Chop, chop, chop (or..chipper chopper, chipper chopper)
The last man's dead!" (or..Last man's head goes OFF!)

This refers to the execution by beheading of (usually) noble political prisoners - common felons were still hanged.

Queen Ann Boleyn was beheaded.

Her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I narrowly escaped beheading.

Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded.

It was considered an improvement over the "hung, drawn and quartered" political executions of earlier times.

For Photographs and more info, go to:

For Photographs of St Clement Eastcheap and St Martin Orgar, go to:
View St Clement's then click "Ruined Churches" at the top of the page.

For a Photograph and info about "Old Bailey", go to:

For a Photograph, and info about St Leonard's Shoreditch, go to:,_Shoreditch

For a Photograph, and info about St Bride's Fleet Street, go to:

For a History of the Fleet River (Fleet Ditch), go to: (The photos have been removed from this site, though those on the next site are similar.)

For a Photograph and info about St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney,
go to:,_Stepney

For a Photograph (+Winged Dragon) and info about St Mary-le-Bow,
go to: (Dragon weathervane atop St Mary-le-Bow church, Cheapside - scroll down)

For a brief history, go to:

For the Plain Course of Stedman's Doubles, go to:
To hear it (synthesized), click on "Listen"

For the True Story of Dick Whittington (c.1350-1423) four times
(appointed 1397, elected 1398, 1406-7, 1419-20) (Lord) Mayor of London,
go to:

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