Oranges and Lemons

Above: The tower and church of St Clement, Eastcheap, seen from the eastern end of today’s Cannon Street and looking north at the church which is ‘tucked into’ Clement’s Lane.

You may remember the nursery rhyme that goes . . .

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.
When will that be? Say the bells of Stepney.
I do not know, Says the great bell of Bow.

Although there are several versions of the nursery rhyme, the lines above are probably the ones that you recognise. They were first published in 1744 but they almost certainly date from an earlier time. The nursery rhyme mentions several of the old churches in the City of London and a few in Westminster and other places. It is the first line of the rhyme that we will concentrate on here.

Neither oranges nor lemons are native to London because they grow in much hotter places. While some oranges may have been brought to England by the Spanish or Portuguese traders, the earliest mention of the fruit in London was at a banquet by the Skinners’ Company in 1560. It is known that lemons became popular in northern Europe in the 15th century and they may, therefore, have been known in London from a slightly earlier time.

It is likely that both fruit had been known in London for about 200 years when the rhyme was published. That does not complete the answer to the puzzle about St Clement’s church because there are actually two in Central London. Over time, the two churches have ‘battled it out’ over which church the rhyme might have referred to.

In the City of London, there is St Clement, Eastcheap, which is a short distance north of London Bridge. The thoroughfare called Eastcheap no longer runs past the church. It lies east of the junction with London Bridge at the northern end. In former times, Eastcheap continued west and joined onto the eastern end of Cannon Street. The name ‘Eastcheap’ comes from two words. The ancient word ‘cepe’ (pronounced ‘cheap’) is the Old English word for a market. This particular market was the ‘East Cheap’ because it was on the east side of the City – in distinction to ‘West Cheap’ (later called Cheapside) which on the west side of the City. Eastcheap was a typical ‘fruit and veg’ market and, it is claimed, oranges and lemons were sold there. Hence St Clement, Eastcheap, claims to be the church referred to in the rhyme.

Above: Looking west in Strand at the church of St Clement Danes.

That is only half the story. If you walk west along Strand from the City, you will find an elegant church on an island site, called St Clement Danes. The last name of this church derives from the fact that the area was a Viking settlement in the days before the Norman Conquest (in 1066). The part of the Strand where the church is situated was cleared of its narrow side streets in the 1900s when the Aldwych and Kingsway intersection was ‘bolted onto’ Strand. Before that time, the area was a very poor slum district including a narrow street, called Clare Market, which vanished when the new roads were laid out. Clare Market was, indeed, a market and it sold ‘fruit and veg’. The vicar of this particular church is known to visit the nearby Church of England Primary School and hand out oranges and lemons to the infants, to reinforce the association with the famous nursery rhyme.

Of course, we shall never be able to establish which church has the claim to fame afforded by the rhyme. As it happens, there are only the two churches called ‘St Clement’ in Inner London. They will each have to be left to promote their association with a fruit market as they try to stake their claim to the fame offered by verse.


This entry was posted in /City-Cornhill, /Wes-Strand, COMMON ITEMS. Bookmark the permalink.

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