Saturday 5 December 2009

Girls and boys come out to play

It is usual for young puppies to want to go outside during the night to relieve themselves. Small as they are, bladder and bowels soon reach capacity and need to be emptied.

The last couple of nights the waning gibbous moon has shone so brightly that an outside light has not been necessary for me to see our small black Gus. Feeling comfortable once more he scampers back upstairs, climbs into Frodo's bed and then returns to his pen when Frodo grumbles at him. In two shakes of a lamb's tail – or a puppy's tail – he's asleep and dreaming once more.

On the other hand I am now wide awake, though tired and needing to sleep. The brilliance of the moon has led my mind to the old Nursery rhyme 'Girls and boys come out to play' and I begin to wonder about its origins.

There are regional variations of this rhyme but the commonest one is as follows:

Girls and boys come out to play,

The moon doth shine as bright as day;

Leave your supper and leave your sleep

And come with your playfellows into the street.

Come with a whoop and come with a call,

Come with a good will or not at all.

Up the ladder and down the wall,

A halfpenny loaf will serve us all.

Some versions add the following:

You find milk and I'll find flour

And we'll have a pudding in half an hour.

Alternative renderings place boys before girls.

The rhyme has been in existence since at least 1708 when the first two lines were printed in dance books. The earliest known collection of nursery rhymes was published in London in 'Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book' in 1744 and contained the first six lines.

Why, though, would children be invited to play in the street by moonlight?

Prior to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution children often worked alongside their parents when the work load was heavy, for example during harvest. Once the Revolution was under way they became essential to the domestic economy when all able-bodied members of poor working class families were expected to work to bring in money. Under the Poor Laws failure to provide for the family often meant that its members were sent to the Workhouse, where husband and wife would be separated from each other and their children. Workhouse conditions were grim and degrading and people did their very best to avoid the destitution that would force them to seek support from the parish.

Thus were children from a tender age put to work, often in appallingly dangerous conditions. Many employers preferred to hire children as they were cheaper to employ than adults, were nimbler and could be used in confined spaces. For example in the coal mines a child might start work at 2 o'clock in the morning opening and shutting wooden doors to let air into the tunnels. He or she sat in the cold damp dark, alone, with a single candle until 8 o'clock in the evening. Other children pulled the heavy trucks of coal or worked on the surface sorting coal.

Some boys were employed as chimney sweeps, often climbing up inside the narrow branching chimneys of grand houses, scraping off soot. When they emerged, cut and bruised, their master would rub salt water on their elbows and knees before sending them up other chimneys. Charles Kingsley wrote 'The Water Babies' which gives an idea of the life of a young sweep before his escape.

In the textile factories children might work for 16 hours cleaning machines while they were still running. Workers lost fingers and some were crushed by the huge machines. The smallest children were sent under the machines to tie broken threads. It mattered little to the factory owners if their defenceless labourers died – children were cheap in all senses for a dead child was easily replaced from the many in orphanages.

So the poverty-stricken, hard-working children had little time for leisure. Generally starting work at the age of five many of them were dead before they were twenty-five, killed in accidents or through ill-health caused by lack of fresh air, good food, exercise, poor working conditions.

However, children will play when they have opportunity and this nursery rhyme gives an indication of when they might have been able to forget the harshness of their lives and enjoy themselves for a short while.

The YouTube clip is (I think!) an Australian rendition of the rhyme and dance. It amuses me for many reasons!

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