Monday, 23 April 2012


It has been more than twenty years since I set eyes on this picture, so when I caught a glimpse of it on Google, all those old, 'rusty' memories came rushing back.

 It was one of the books I devoured when I had just learned to read and was excited by the sight of every and any book; testing my reading ability at every turn.

I found the picture in one the children's encyclopedia clogging the bookshelf in my room. Just in case you still haven't figured out what the picture represents, here's a clue:

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke him crown
And Jill came tumbling after

Back then it was such a sweet and simple rhyme that made me think 'poor kids'. Many years later, I'm finding out there could be more to this innocent children's rhyme than meets the eye.

The French Connection
One theory traces the roots of the poem to France. Jack is said to be King Louis XVI who was beheaded (lost his crown) while Jill is the Queen, Marie Antoinette (who was beheaded after her husband). The beheadings took place in 1793 during the Reign of Terror at the beginning of the French revolution. The first publication for date for 'Jack and Jill' is 1795.

A Rhyme on Taxes
A less gruesome theory suggests 'Jack and Jill' represents cunning measures taken by Charles I - King of England, Scotland and Ireland - to raise more money from taxes. His attempt to increase taxes on liquid measures was vetoed by Parliament, so he ordered that the volume of a jack (half a pint) be reduced but the tax was to remain the same.
A jack is half a pint. A gill is quarter a pint. So, when Jack fell down, Gill came tumbling after.
Language of Lovers
William Shakespeare mentioned Jack and Jill in his play 'A Midsummer's Night Dream'. At the end of act three he wrote: "Jack shall have Jill; Nought shall go ill".  He also mentioned the names in 'Love's Labour's Lost'- "Our wooing doth not end like an old play; Jack hath not Jill".

So why tuck political innuendos away in children's rhymes, you may ask? Shouldn't they be innocent and uncoloured?
Well, nursery rhymes were historically used to express opinions that could not be spoken freely. Some seemingly silly rhymes included political statements which, if they had been spoken outright, would be punishable by death. Thank God that is not the case today.


  1. I would never have thought about the political undertones that seem to surround this poem. Very refreshing to read about this and you've educated me today like your blog always do!

  2. Thanks Naija4Life. It was also a surprise to me. I'm glad Fresh Angle can be of service.

  3. I have always wondered the same thing about conveying strong political messages in children's rhymes. I mean the adults have other mediums such as music, movies and even folktales to pass such messages but its rarely used.

    I think the main reason behind putting such deep meaning to children poems are due to the fact that they never get old. Jack and Jill has been going on for decades so if one finds a way to input a political leaning, this will continuously be repeated. That cant be said for a movie or music which goes out of fashion faster than the wind itself - Chuks

    1. Chuks, thanks a lot for your comment. That's an interesting view about the reason for political undertones in children's rhymes. Another reason could be it would be harder for the authorities to detect there was a political meaning since it is a children's rhyme - and rhymes are meant to be innocent.

  4. Wow! This is a new one. If I knew that Jack and Jill were actually beheaded, then maybe I would have stopped reciting the rhyme.

    I'll take it that it's society's way of teaching children the things of old (history) in terms of politics. Take folk takes for example. Like the story of the tortoise and the hare. Although the hare is faster, the tortoise still won the race. As kids, this story was fun to listen to. As we got older, we got to understand that "slow and steady wins the race". A few years later, we then understood that determination is better than overconfidence, and so on. Although the meaning of the Jack and Jill rhyme is deep for even adults, it's just another mode of teaching.

    Perhaps, in the future when my kids ask me, "Daddy, what does this rhyme mean?" I'd say, "Well, Jack and Jill were actually beheaded, but let's just take it that they fell down." lol!

    You know what, because of your post, I'm beginning to suspect the nursery rhyme, "London bridge is falling down". Is there a secret meaning to this one too? Maybe I'll start screening all the nursery rhymes to know those with embedded codes waiting to be cracked.

    1. Ha Ha very funny Lanre. You can't tell your children that they were beheaded. At that age children are to be maintained in the fairy tale version called 'All Things Bright and Beautiful'! Don't want them being introduced to the 'Vanity of Vanity' chapter too early!

    2. Lanre, thanks for your comment. You're actually right. London bridge does have political innuendos. It signifies the various invasions that took place in Britain - e.g. Roman, Vikings - and the collapse of the bridge. There's actually a site that gives the political meanings of various children's rhymes. Check out

  5. oh my! i never thought there could be any story behind the ryhme. interesting. now which of the theories shall we believe?

    1. I am finding it difficult to choose... in the first line both are to go up the hill signifying a togetherness well represented by the king and queen.
      But then the journey is to fetch a pail of water, that represents a pint of beer no doubt.
      In the last line a crown is broken and Jill comes tumbling after...checkmate! See why I find it hard to choose?

    2. Thanks, femmelounge. I didn't realise either. I think there is some truth in them, though like Dlaw pointed out.

  6. Considering that we are the voice of today, representing our generation, if we were to make a nursery ryhme for 'now/today' what would it say?
    Any suggestions? Remember black-white liberalization, colonization, racial discrimination, sexual discrimination, world economic disparity (please note the rise of the BRIC countries and the G20) and arbitrary religious behaviour seem to be going out of fashion. So what's left for our 2012 representative nursery rhyme?

  7. Dlaw, people are not as philosophical/politicised as they used to be. Now who cares about embedding politics in rhyme. They are more concerned about getting the latest gadgets and following the soppy pop culture. Thanks a lot for your comment.

  8. Thanks Oluchi for this refreshing of the Jack and Jill's rhyme, I so loved, it nothing but brings back memories.

    I just hope that these are nothing but conspiracy theories and it's truly a children's rhyme it was meant to be :)

  9. Thanks for stopping by, CFA. To me the theories carry some weight, especially the on the beheading of Louis XVI and his wife. As I mentioned to Lanre, there are loads of rhymes with political meaning. You can check out the link