The most common version of the rhyme is: There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, She had so many children, she didn't know what to do; She gave them some broth without any bread; Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed. The earliest printed version in Joseph Ritson's Gammer Gurton's Garland in 1794 has the coarser last line: She whipp'd all their bums, and sent them to bed. There were many other variations printed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Origins and meaning
lona and peter opie pointed to the version published in Infant Institutes in 1797, which finished with the lines: Then out went th' old woman to bespeak 'em a coffin, And when she came back, she found 'em all a-loffeing. The term "a-loffeing", they believed, was Shakespearean, suggesting that the rhyme is considerably older than the first printed versions. They then speculated that if this were true it might have a folk lore meaning and pointed to the connection between shoes and marriage, symbolised by casting a shoe when a bride leaves for her honeymoon. Debates over the meaning of the rhyme largely revolve around matching the old woman with historical figures, as Peter Opie observed 'for little reason other than the size of their families'. At first glance this would appear to be a purely nonsense rhyme but in fact it has origins in history! There are two choices of origin. The first relates to Queen Caroline (the old woman) wife of George II who had eight children. The shoe refers to the British Isles. The second version refers to King George who began the fashion of wearing white powdered wigs and was consequently referred to as the old woman! The children were the members of parliament and the bed was the Houses of Parliament which he required them to have sessions in - even today the term 'whip' is used in the English Parliament to describe a member of Parliament who is tasked to ensure that all members 'toe the party line'. This could see social services getting involved or...
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