“Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St. Clements,
You owe me five fathings, 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,
Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head! Chip chop chip chop the last man is dead”
A well know London rhyme but what might be less well-known is that since 1920 it has been commemorated in the church first mentioned, St Clement Danes in the Strand, London. Each year in March school children process down to the church for a service. A more poignant date now.
The custom is associated with The Reverend William Pennington-Bickford who had the bells of the church restored so that they could play the tune of that rhyme. On the day they were blessed they were also dressed with garlands of oranges and lemons. He decided that to march the day the bells were fully restored, 31st March 1920, a special service would be arranged and at the end each child would get an orange and lemon distributed by the city’s Danish community with Danish children dressed in their national colours of red and blue.
For the 1923 service the rhyme was sung with music composed by Pennington-Bickford and his wife. The following year the broadcast became nationally famous as it was broadcast to the nation and the sung became a regular feature
In 1941 the church and its bells were damaged in a bomb blast. Yet despite this the tradition continued and in 1944 despite rationing, twenty-six children received only an orange among the ruined building. It is reported:
“In 1944, it is recorded that the then Priest in Charge of St Clement Danes, the Reverend P D Ellis, distributed oranges – no lemons were available – to 26 children in the bombed-out ruins of the church. Even then, the handbell ringers were present and a choir from the school sang Psalm 122”
when the building was rebuilt and the bells rehung in 1957 the custom was restored to a regular basis in 1959. An account noting:
“Garlands of oranges and lemons were hung above the new bells. For many years, the oranges and lemons were specially flown in from RAF bases on Cyprus. In recent years, the Amicable Society of St Clement Danes has generously funded the gift of oranges and lemons for the children of our school.”
Oranges are the not the only fruit
My one and only time attending the service was back in 1994, I turned up at the church and was warmly welcomed. One of the teachers said to be the best place to observe the ceremony was up it the balcony and from there I watched as the smartly dressed children processed in. The church bells were chiming that famous tune as they had processed holding hands from their church. At the start of the service a group of parishioners played the tune again on hand bells and the service begun.
To be honest I cannot remember much of the actual service but I do remember the children being involved in a presentation. It would have sadly been a special year in 2020 – its 100 anniversary. The school’s website reported it in 1999:
“Just as it had been for the children of St Clement Danes parish 99 years ago at the very first Oranges and Lemons service, today our service opened with the moving sound of handbells ringing the famous nursery rhyme. Continuing the century-old tradition, at the end of the service today each child was given an orange and a lemon as they left the church.”
This time the presentation was to remember the first landing on the moon and the children were suitably dressed as astronauts (not withstanding two dressed as oranges and lemons!):
“This year, 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of the first human landing on the moon. In celebration of this important moment in history, this afternoon the children of St Clement Danes took everyone on A Space Adventure. The children were absolute STARS and their performances were truly OUT OF THIS WORLD!”
Once the church service was finished all the children sensibly lined up to go outside where a table was set up. Upon this was the most memorable part of the service – certainly from the children’s view – for the vicar and church wardens handed out oranges to the children who gleefully took them! Although some had a problem peeling them! They also gave lemons which did not go down as well as the orange. Some younger children looked very confused.
A pithy point
It is thought originally that the oranges and lemons St Clement was the St Clement Eastcheap but since 1920 it has been St Clement Danes. The first event had 500 children at it. The custom was a real hit with the media and Pathe covered it a number of times. Sadly, as noted in 2020 it did not see its 100th anniversary lock down happened too soon but I am sure it will with colour and spectacle.