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A PR spectrum from cock and bull to nursery rhyme

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It’s what 18th and 19th century coach travellers did, so the story goes, when they stopped at a town called Stony Stratford, north of London. Travellers would refresh themselves in one of the town’s two main coaching inns, The Cock or The Bull, where fanciful tales and so-called news would become hopelessly embellished. The two establishments still exist.

The town’s website says that “the high street still contains a wealth of coaching inns that thrived in this period, including The Cock and The Bull; in these inns travellers vied with each other in the telling of outrageous stories…”

The story may or may not be true, but it’s an interesting angle on how – in the wrong hands – a perfectly good story can, through spin and exaggeration, devalue both the message and the messenger. At the other end of the scale is the story so subtly told that its significance is hidden. That’s best exemplified in our much-loved nursery rhymes, written in a bygone age when gossip could swiftly lead to the gallows. Back then, subtle PR was a life-saver.

Take, for example, this innocuous rhyme:

Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.

It’s actually about the 16th century Queen Mary of England, whose brutal persecution of Protestants earned her the nickname “Bloody Mary.” The garden is the cemeteries she filled with her victims; silver bells and cockleshells are slang for torture implements, and the maiden was a form of guillotine.

Queen Mary was also the inspiration for another rhyme:

Three blind mice, three blind mice,
See how they run. See how they run.
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife.
Did you ever see such a sight in your life?
As three blind mice.

This refers to three Protestant bishops who were convicted of treason and burned at the stake – but not before being blinded and dismembered.

Equally loved is the tale of Jack and Jill who went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack and Jill are King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antionette. They both lost their crowns (and their heads) in the French revolution of 1793-94.

The derivation of ring-a-ring o’ roses is more widely known. In the USA, the third line – A-tishoo! A-tishoo – is often reproduced as Ashes! Ashes! It’s actually about the 17th century bubonic plague, with one of the first symptoms being a rosy rash. For protection, people would carry sweet-smelling herbs with them.

Other rhymes describe historical events, for example, Humpty Dumpty.No, it’s not about a giant egg. It’s actually a large cannon that was sited on a tower during the English Civil War. The tower was hit by cannon fire, and the tower and Humpty fell down.

Other rhymes are more complex:

Old Mother Hubbard,
Went to the cupboard,
To give the poor dog a bone.
When she came there,
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.

These are the lyrics that were published in 1805, although the rhyme is much older. One explanation is that it goes back to Henry VIII, with the King wanting a divorce from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. The “dog and bone” refer to the divorce, the cupboard is the Catholic Church and Cardinal Wolsey, the highest Papal representative, is Old Mother Hubbard.

One rhyme stands out for being utterly salacious:

Georgie Porgie,
Pudding and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry.
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.

This is poking fun at a (reputed) gay relationship between King James I and the Duke of Buckingham, who was also an (alleged) lover of the French Queen Consort.

Goosey goosey gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs,
And in my lady’s chamber.
There I met an old man,
Who wouldn’t say his prayers,
So I took him by his left leg,
And threw him down the stairs.

The derivation of this is less clear, but is probably anti-Catholic propaganda. Catholic prayers were said in Latin; Protestant prayers in English. There again, “goose bumps” was 16th slang for the symptoms of venereal disease – and being “bitten by a Winchester goose” was slang for how you caught it. The “Winchester geese” in question were south London prostitutes.

Lastly, this:

Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,
Your house is on fire, 
And your children are gone.

The ladybird was regarded with affection by farmers as it ate aphids, and it’s thought that this rhyme may be about encouraging the bugs to fly off before the farmers burned stubble in their fields. However, it may not be that simple. Another possible derivation is that the rhyme was a warning to Catholics who wouldn’t attend Protestant services.

Nowadays, in an age of free speech, we can write what we want and make the meaning clear. But we shouldn’t forget that the right of free speech has been hard won and that, in past times, it could get you into all sorts of trouble.

In PR terms, it was therefore better to invent a nursery rhyme than a cock and bull story. Nowadays, neither end of the PR spectrum is much good!

Charlie Laidlaw is a director of David Gray PR and a partner in Laidlaw Westmacott

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