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Darton’s Nursery Songs

March 9, 2019
by the gentle author

I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Nick Darton whose ancestor William Darton Junior (1781 – 1854) was a publisher in the City of London two hundred years ago and published these charming Nursery Songs on June 15th 1818.

The Juvenile Review described it  as ‘A very foolish book, ….. what, for instance,  can be more ridiculous than the idea of “a dish running after a spoon,” or the moon being in a fit?’ yet it was published in many editions over the next fifty years and numerous other publishers followed in a similar tradition.

William Darton Junior attended the Friends School in Clerkenwell but was removed at the age of eight to help in his father’s publishing business in Gracechurch St. After two years, he was sent to Ackworth School in Yorkshire before returning to London when he began his apprenticeship with his father at the age of fourteen. He showed early promise as an engraver and was adding his signature his own work even before his full seven years of apprenticeship were up. In 1804, he left his father’s business in his early twenties to set up by himself at Holborn Hill, concentrating on the publication of children’s books, games, educational aids, pastimes and juvenile ephemera.

Over coming weeks, I shall be publishing more from Nick’s collection of his ancestor’s wonderful chapbooks.

Let us go the wood, says this pig

What to do there? says this pig & c.

When the bough breaks,

The cradle will fall,

And sown will come cradle

And baby and all.

To bed, to bed, says sleepy head.

Let’s stay awhile says slow,

Put on the pot, says greedy gut.

We’ll sup before we go.

See Saw Margery Daw

Pat it and prick it and mark it with C

And then it will serve for Charley or me.

The Clock struck one,

The mouse came down,

Hickory Diccary Dock.

Who comes here? A Grenadier

What do you want? A pot of beer

Where’s your money? I’ve forgot

Get you gone, you drunken sot.

Cushy Cow bonny, let down thy milk.

Jack & Jill

Baa baaa, black sheep, have you any wool?

Little Jack Horner

The Lion & The Unicorn

Little Robin Redbreast sat upon a tree

Little boy blue, blow your horn

The cat’s run away with the pudding bag string

There was an old woman, she lived in a shoe

Ding Dong Bell, Pussy Cat’s in the Well

The Man in the Moon

The little husband

There was a little man & he had a little gun

Little Johnny Pringle

Taffy was a Welchman, Taffy was a Thief

Four & Twenty Blackbirds baked in a pye

He’ll sit in a barn

And keep himself warm

And hide his head under

his wing, Poor Thing!

Images courtesy of Nick Darton

You may also like to take a look  at

The Tragical Death of Apple Pie

Old Mother Hubbard & Her Wonderful Dog

18 Responses leave one →
  1. Caroline Bottomley permalink
    March 9, 2019

    I went to Ackworth School in Yorkshire!

    And I like the idea of a little husband. Very handy.

  2. March 9, 2019

    Great work & story! Me as a Children’s Book Collector do love the historic nursery rhymes of A.A.MILNE, which are very speshal! One of the most enjoyable:

    When I was one,
    I had just begun.
    When I was two,
    I was nearly new.
    When I was three,
    I was hardly me.
    When I was four,
    I was not much more.
    When I was five,
    I was just alive.
    But now I am six,
    I’m as clever as clever.
    So I think I’ll be six
    now and forever.

    Have a look at my site for more about all this!

    Love & Peace

  3. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 9, 2019

    Great engravings! And interesting to see which songs and rhymes have come down to us and which ones are no longer around. Who was Little Johnny Pringle for example? And what’s with the dead pig??

  4. March 9, 2019

    These are lovely. Are the tunes to be found in the book please and are they available somewhere?

    Many thanks, Gavin

  5. Nick Darton permalink
    March 14, 2019

    The term nursery rhyme didn’t come into use until the 1830’s and ‘Songs for the Nursery’ was a different attempt to group them together rather than use names such as Tommy Thumb or Mother Goose Songs which is how they used to be known.

    Apart from the title and the mention of favourite national melodies, there are no other direct references to music in this or in other editions of the same book I’ve seen. At the same time we all know that nursery rhymes are often sung and still are. Maybe that’s why the references are made.

    If anyone’s interested in their origins they could try looking at this site: But beware! It makes addictive reading. Nick Darton

  6. susan mudgett permalink
    March 15, 2019

    +what happened after the cat got the pudding bag stinrg? and why are Jack and Jill both dresses as boys?

  7. March 15, 2019

    There are no titles to any of the nursery rhymes in the book. The words to the first one you’re interested in go like this:
    “Sing, sing; what shall I sing?
    The cat’s run away with the pudding bag string.”
    Not surprisingly none of the others are any shorter than this!

    And as far as Jack and Jill are concerned I’ve wondered the same thing myself. If anyone else has an answer I’d be very pleased to hear.
    Thanks for your questions, Susan. They and others will help me learn a lot about the complicated world of nursery rhymes.
    The other day I was on the City Road and not surprisingly thought of ‘Pop goes the Weasel’. Trouble was I didn’t know what the words really meant until I was able to look them up later on. This is where I found the answer

    Nick Darton

  8. March 15, 2019

    Thanks Caroline. I hope this reply finds its way back to you.
    Ackworth School must have made a big impression on William Darton Junior and particularly its writing master, James Dombavand (1758 – 1831). Soon after William set up his own firm on Holborn Hill he published a book titled ‘Lectures at my School’. In the chapter on skipping the writer (most probably W.D. Junr.) mentions a boy at Ackworth ‘who made the rope turn three, and sometimes four times at one jump.’ What’s really impressive about the book are its profuse illustrations, each one printed from a wood engraving in a very distinctive style.
    Another early publication at Holborn Hill had been written by Dombavand: ‘Studies in Penmanship’. Would that have become a National Curriculum subject of its day?
    Nick Darton

  9. March 15, 2019

    Thanks for your questions, Jill. I hope this answer gets back to you.

    ‘Who was Little Johnny Pringle for example? And what’s with the dead pig??’

    It’s not one of the best rhymes but it goes like this.

    Johnny Pringle had a little pig
    It was very little, so not very big:
    As it was playing on a dung hill,
    In a moment poor piggy was killed.
    So Johnny Pringle, he sat down and cried;
    Betsey Pringle, she laid down and died.
    This is the story of one, two, three,
    Johnny Pringle, Betsey Pringle, and little piggy.

    Nick Darton

  10. Marcia Howard permalink
    March 16, 2019

    There were only a couple of rhymes here that I didn’t know when I was growing up. I know many of the ‘stories’ behind the rhymes, but glad to say, my own nursery rhyme book didn’t have quite such scary looking pictures in it, than on the engravings above! My granddaughter age 6 knows all her nursery rhyme verses too, so hope other children are still taught them.

  11. Laurel permalink
    March 18, 2019

    The version of the cat poem I’m familiar with is a bit longer; it has four lines:

    Sing, sing, what shall I sing?
    The cat has taken the pudding-bag string.
    Do, do, what shall I do?
    The cat has bittten it quite in two.

  12. Nick Darton permalink
    March 19, 2019

    Thanks, Laurel
    I hadn’t heard your version but have made a note of it and will see if the Opies or others recorded it. Of course, they may have other versions still.
    I’m trying to compile a list of nursery rhymes strongly connected with London and learn about their meaning – often macabre. A short list to start with includes
    As I was Going to Charing Cross
    London’s Burning
    Pop Goes the Weasel
    Oranges and Lemons
    Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat

    Any other suggestions?

    Regards Nick Darton

  13. Robert Catt permalink
    March 19, 2019

    I enjoyed these enormously. Yes, the little husband. New to me. What’s going on there? And the cruelty: the poor grenadier – probably with PTSD and a history of loyal service – turned away from the door; the children being flogged in the shoe; the cat in the well; the child with the gun. Uneasy situations depicted in easy rhymes. The illustrations are wonderful. Is that boy trying to hypnotise the sheep?
    Were these hand coloured and, if so, would this be by children working at home?

  14. John McCartney permalink
    March 21, 2019

    Are your ancestor’s books referenced by the Opies Nick?

  15. Nick Darton permalink
    March 22, 2019

    Thanks Robert and John. A couple of good questions that I can’t answer very well.

    For a start my copies of the Opies’ books have disappeared! Were they lent or are they just misplaced? I’m not sure but will have to look for replacements.

    On the matter of hand colouring of the plates I think it’s unlikely that they were done by young children and certainly not inexperienced ones. The standard of colouring is pretty good. That’s appropriate for a book that was fairly expensive in its day – ‘1/6d plain or 2/6d coloured.’ in the 1820s. )
    The cheaper ‘toybooks’ that the firm produced were coloured much more crudely. There’s a story that they would be passed between family members , each with one colour and whoever had the least experience or talent would tackle the easiest part – perhaps the sky. Another maybe with brown for britches and tree trunks. And so on. While this may have been true for cheaper books, others selling at a higher price tend to be coloured much more carefully – either in-house or farmed out and coloured elsewhere before being returned for binding. Nick

  16. Christy Grigg permalink
    March 27, 2019

    I found this fascinating. How much has changed since the days when these books were published – and yet how much has stayed the same, too. Rhythm and rhyme, vibrant illustrations are still the things that children love in their books today. Wonderful to read. Christy Grigg.

  17. Liz Urwin permalink
    April 8, 2019

    Really interesting! As a grown-up I find the illustrations intriguing but wonder whether kids actually liked them as they are frightening. And I wonder how they d be received by children today… and am curious to know how many parents still recite these rhymes -and if so to what extent they have changed/remained the same.


  18. Stella permalink
    July 2, 2021

    I too found them all a bit creepy!

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