Here is the text of the children’s poem “Oranges and Lemons”, as published in 1774. The Victorians added lots of lines and silly rhymes, but we’ll stick with the earliest printed version. If you listen to the cadence, it cleverly mimics the sounds of English change-bell ringing. We have already seen St Mary le Bow.
“Oranges and lemons” say the bells of St Clements
“You owe me five farthings” say the bells of St Martins
“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.
This is St Clement, Eastcheap. It used to be close to the wharf where Spanish oranges and lemons were unloaded and it pealed a bell when the ship arrived.
St Martin Orgar was a tiny church. All you can see now is the blue plaque marking its site in Martin Lane near Monument. Not replaced after the Great Fire of 1666.
The bells of Old Bailey are actually those of St Sepulcre, Newgate. And the mention of Old Bailey is for Newgate Prison, most used for incarcerating those in debt. The tenor bell tolled on the morning of execution day and up to 100,000 people would turn up to celebrate and party. There is a bricked-up stone staircase in St Sepulcre which used to lead to a passage under the road to Newgate Prison, and prisoners would be brought to St Sepulcre for final prayers. The execution handbell, below, would be rung by a prison official as he walked to “The Tyburn Tree” in front of the procession. There’s a story that the prisoners were given alcohol to drink (a tot of rum? Small beer?) before they were loaded onto the dray that took them to Tyburn, which stood where Marble Arch is now. During the procession, sympathetic members of the public might approach the prisoners and offer them some drink. The gaoler would say,
“Oh, sorry, Ma’am ‘e can’t take drink now; he’s on the wagon…”
This is the bell that was rung at the head of processions taking the condemned from Newgate Prison to Tyburn.
I have not found “the bells of Shoreditch” nor “the bells of Stepney” so this story will need to end here, until I have.
St Clement Danes church, in The Strand near the Royal Courts of Justice, likes to advertise that it is the church of “Oranges and Lemons” but St Clement, Eastcheap, has a much better claim.