The history and story behind “Pop goes the weasel” and other Children’s Playground Singing Games.
The games children play
Throughout history, children have played to the lines of songs, and songs have been written to children’s games.
Some of these songs and games go back a long long time, many are linked to events, some happy, some sad, some devastating, and some that have reflected changes in history.
Many of the songs in countries other than the UK have different explanations and different lyrics
The meaning behind the words
Pop goes the weasel, can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century 1853, in the UK children have played pop goes the weasel since 1890 it’s a London song game.
The children form several rings, in each ring one child stands he or she is the weasel the children dance around and sing the song, as the last line is reached (Pop goes the weasel) all the children rush to a new ring, the last child to join the ring is eliminated until only one child is left. “Pop goes the weasel”
Another explanation of the words is how a family’s money stretches out through the week,
In the days of the song, men and their families were poor; the only good thing they owned of any value was their Sunday coat.
The men would walk up and down the city road looking for cheap food, often on the way home they would call into the local music hall, the Eagle for a drink, realizing they had spent all their money on drink, They would pop their coat to get some more money.
Gotcha! Bang to rights, now has butchers at this.
First I ought to explain some cockney rhyming slang.
A Weasel is short for Weasel and Stoat, a coat
Pop is short for popcorn, pawn
Monkey in my mind is short for Monkey house meaning a Mouse
The Eagle referred to in the song was a music hall in Shepherdess Walk just off city road in London, it is now a pub
All together now
Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel
Up and down the City Road
In and out the Eagle
That’s the way the money goes
Pop goes the weasel
Every night when I get home
The monkey’s on the table,
Take a stick and knock it off
Pop goes the weasel
Another very popular song was sung a song of sixpence
In the sixteenth century, it was a common thing at large banquets to have live birds in a pie, as it was served, out would fly the birds.
Children would get some seed to catch the birds, and then sell them on to the cooks. Maybe for sixpence
As the birds were released from the pie, they would often fly around and sometimes peck the guests.
Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing
Oh wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?
The king was in his counting-house counting out his money
The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey
The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose!
Moving on to our next playground singing game let’s take a look at “Mary Mary”
Mary, Queen of Scots, was the queen of Scotland in 1542, not to be confused with Mary I of England, she married at the age of sixteen to Francis II of France in 1558 but he died in 1560 and Mary returned to Scotland and four years later she marries Henry Stuart, unfortunately, he was strangled, Poor Mary then marries James Hepburn, but Mary was imprisoned following an uprising and abdicated.
After her release Mary fled to England in the hope of inheriting her cousin, Elizabeth I throne, however because of her threat to Elizabeth she was executed for treason.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary. How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row
Ring a-ring o’ roses
It is widely believed that the great plague of London is the explanation for a ring of roses, one of the symptoms of the plague would be a rosy rash followed by sneezing and then falling to die However as the song had no mention until 1951 it seems very unlikely that it had anything to do with the Plague.
Ring a-ring o’ roses, A pocketful of posies.
a-tishoo! a-tishoo!. We all fall down.
I would like to think a more reasonable meaning of the song would be, that in the summertime children would often make garlands of roses and other flowers, placing the garlands on their head, causing hay fever.
The Oxford English Dictionary mentions a drink of brandy boiled with ale, this drink was very popular in the seventeenth century, and it had the same name as a short clumsy person, a 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