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English Folk-Rhymes

by William Andrews

ENGLISH folk-rhymes are very numerous and curious. Characteristics of persons and places have given rise to not a few which are frequently far from complimentary. Weather-lore is often expressed in rhyme; the rustic muse has besides rendered historic events popular, and enabled persons to remember them who are not readers of books. The lines often lack polish, but are seldom without point.

Amongst the more ancient rhymes are those respecting grants of land. The following is a good example, and is from Derbyshire:—

“Me and mine
Give thee and thine
Millners Hay
And Shining Cliff,
While grass is green
And hollies rough.”

The old story of the grant is thus related. Years ago, a member of the ancient family of Lowe had the honour of hunting with the king and his nobles. Lowe rode a splendid horse, the only one in at the death. The king admired the animal very much, and the owner presented it to His Majesty. The horse “mightily pleased the king.” Some little time afterwards, Lowe waited upon the king to beg a brier bed and a watering-place, which were Shining Cliff and Millners Hay. The request was at once complied with. The tale does not end here. It is related that “an envious courtier told the king that he did not know what he was doing, for what he was giving away was a great wood with a large tract of land.” Upon this, Lowe said to His Majesty: “King or no king?”—“Why, king, Lowe.” Adding with prompitude: “The brier-bed and watering-place are thine:” the rhyme above quoted being given as the title for the grant.

It is asserted that Athelstan granted the first charter to the ancient borough of Hedon, Yorkshire, in these words:—

“As free make I thee
As eye see or ear hear.”

It is said a similar charter was granted by the same king to the neighbouring town of Beverley.

An old, old Norfolk rhyme says:—

“Rising was a seaport town,
And Lynn it was a wash;
But now Lynn is a seaport town,
And Rising fares the worst.”

It is said at Norwich:—

“Caistor was a city ere Norwich was none,
And Norwich was built of Caistor stone.”

“About half-way between Curbar and Brompton, to the right of the turnpike leading from Barlow to Sheffield,” writes William Wood, “there is, far on the moor, a very level flat piece of ground, near a mile square, most remarkable for its boggy nature, so much so that it is dangerous to cross, or at times to approach. Here, before the Roman invasion, says the legend, stood a town or village, the inhabitants of which lived, according to Diodorus Siculus, in small cots or huts built of wood, the walls of stakes or wattles, like hurdles, and covered with rushes or reeds. These dwellings, with their inhabitants, were swallowed up by one of those convulsions of nature so destructive at times to the habitations of mankind.” Respecting Leechfield and Chesterfield are the following lines current in Derbyshire:—

“When Leechfield was a market town,
Chesterfield was gorse and broom;
Now Chesterfield’s a market town,
Leechfield a marsh is grown.”

Respecting Nertoun, a Somersetshire village, near Taunton, is this couplet:—

“Nertoun was a market-town
When Taunton was a furzy down.”

A Scottish rhyme says:—

“York was, London is,
And Edinburgh will be
The biggest of the three.”

Says a popular English rhyme:—

“Lincoln was, London is,
And York shall be
The fairest city of the three.”

In the days of old it was the practice to allow the wives of the Lord Mayors of York to retain by courtesy the title Lady for life, and this custom gave rise to the following couplet:—

“The Lord Mayor’s a lord but a year and a day;
But his Lady’s a lady for ever and aye.”

Few English towns have made greater progress than the thriving port of Hull. Its prosperity was predicted long ago:—

“When Myton is pulled down,
Hull shall become a great town.”

As a matter of history, it may be stated that when the town was threatened by Charles I., a number of houses in Myton Lane, as well as the Charter-house, were laid in ruins by Sir John Hotham, governor of Hull, so that they might not give shelter to the Royalists. Ray refers to this couplet, and, in error, calls Myton, Dighton.

Selling church-bells has given rise to satirical rhymes. Here are three Lincolnshire rhymes on this topic:—

“The poor Hatton people
Sold the bells to build up the steeple.”

The next says:—

“Owersby’s parish,
Wicked people,
Sold their bells to Kelsey
To build a steeple.”

It is stated in the third:—

“Poor Scartho people,
Sold their bells to repair the steeple.”

About 1710, the spire of Arlesey Church, Bedfordshire, fell down, and it is believed the bells were broken. The metal was sold to a distant parish to raise money to rebuild the spire, and until the year 1877 only one small bell was suspended in the steeple to call the inhabitants to the house of prayer. The transaction gave rise to the saying:—

“Arlesey, Arlesey, wicked people,
Sold their bells to build their steeple.”

About half a century later, a similar accident occurred at Welstead, and the bishop granted a license to sell three of the bells, to enable the parishioners with the proceeds to restore the tower. It gave rise to a taunting distich similar to the one at Arlesey.

On the walls of Newington Church, London, in 1793, was written a rhyme anent the rebuilding of the church without a steeple and selling the bells:—

“Pious parson, pious people
Sold the bells to build the steeple;
A very fine trick of the Newington people,
To sell the bells to build a steeple.”

Rhymes on steeples are very common; perhaps the best known is the one on Preston, Lancashire:—

“Proud Preston, poor people,
High church and low steeple.”

In a somewhat similar strain is the one on Bowness-on-Windermere:—

“New church and old steeple,
Poor town and proud people.”

Lincolnshire rhymes are very numerous, and a complete collection would almost fill a book. Here are three:—

“Gainsbro’ proud people
Built a new church to an old steeple.”

According to the next:—

“Luddington poor people
Built a brick church to a stone steeple.”

A question is put and answered thus:—

“Boston! Boston!
What hast thou to boast on?
High steeple, proud people,
And shoals that souls are lost on.”

The village of Ugley, Essex, supplies a satirical couplet:—

“Ugley church, Ugley steeple,
Ugley parson, Ugley people.”

An old triplet describes the characteristics of three church spires thus:—

“Bloxham for length,
Adderbury for strength,
King-Sutton for beauty.”

Almost every district furnishes examples of bell rhymes. We give one example, and it is from Derbyshire:—

“Crich two roller-boulders,
Winfield ting-tangs,
Alfreton kettles,
And Pentrich pans,
Kirk-Hallam candlesticks,
Cossall cow-bells,
Denby cracked puncheons,
And Horsley merry bells.”

It is very generally believed in Derbyshire that the town of Alfreton was once the stake at a game of cards—“put,” and that the loser exclaimed on the cards being dealt out:—

“If I have not an ace, a deuce, and tray,
Farewell, Alfreton, for ever and aye.”

There is a similar couplet respecting Carnfield Hall, near to Alfreton. It is related by Mr. E. Kirk, a Lancashire folk-lorist, that the owner of a large farm in Goosnargh, called Landscales, staked his land at a game of “put.” He received his three cards, which were a tray, a deuce, and an ace, and he put—that is, struck the table with his fist, in proof of his resolution to abide by the issue of his cards. His opponent had two trays and a deuce. The farm was consequently lost, and its owner exclaimed:—

“Ace, deuce, and tray,
Landscales, go thy way.”

A Derbyshire rhyme refers to the inhabitants of four places as follows:—

“Ripley ruffians,
Butterly blocks,
Swanwick bulldogs,
Alfreton shacks.”

Equally severe is the following on the people of the villages between Norwich and Yarmouth:—

“Halvergate hares, Reedham rats,
Southwood swine, and Cantley cats,
Acle asses, Moulton mules,
Beighton bears, and Freethorpe fools.”

Of Derbyshire folk it is said:—

“Derbyshire born and Derbyshire bred,
Strong in the arm, but weak in the head.”

The next are two Kentish rhymes:—

“Sutton for mutton
Kerby for beef,
South Darve for gingerbread,
Dartford for a thief.”

This is complimentary:—

“English lord, German count, and French marquies,
A yeoman of Kent is worth all three.”

It is said of Herefordshire:—

“They who buy a house in Herefordshire
Pay three years’ purchase for the air.”

Says a Gloucestershire rhyme:—

“Blest is the eye
Betwixt Severn and Wye.”

In the same shire is the next couplet:—

“Beggarly Birley, strutting Stroud,
Hampton poor, and Painswick proud.”

Many more rhymes similar to the foregoing might be given, if space permitted; but we have only room for a few more examples, and they relate to the weather. An old distich says:—

“When clouds are on the hills,
They’ll come down by the mills.”

Another rhyme states:—

“When the mist comes from the hill,
Then good weather it doth spill.
When the mist comes from the sea,
Then good weather it will be.”

In Worcestershire there is a saying:—

“When Bredon Hill puts on his hat,
Ye men of the vale, beware of that.”

Says a Yorkshire rhyme:—

“When Oliver’s Mount puts on his hat,
Scarbro’ town must pay for that.”

In the same broad shire is a similar couplet:—

“When Ingleboro’ wears a hat,
Ribblesdale’ll hear o’ that.”