Do you know the nursery rhyme Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush?
I remember it from when I was a girl. The girls used to hold hands and dance in a circle singing the lyrics and doing the actions.
These are the first two stanzas of the most modern version:
This is the way we wash our face,
Wash our face,
Wash our face.
This is the way we wash our face
On a cold and frosty morning.
The rhyme was first recorded by James Orchard Halliwell, an English Shakespearean scholar, antiquarian, and a collection of English nursery rhymes and fairy tales, as an English children’s game in the mid-nineteenth century.
The song and associated game are traditional in England and different versions are found in Scandinavia and the Netherlands.
R.S. Duncan, a prison governor at HM Prison Wakefield in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England suggested that the nursery rhyme was about female Victorian prisoners exercising in the yard at Wakefield. A mulberry tree grew in the yard and women inmates would dance around the tree with their children and sing the song. The tree died in May 2019.
About the Victorian prison system
The Victorian prison system was created by men for men. Accommodation for women was usually an after thought and the penal system designed for them as generally a modified version of the men’s prison.
Women convicts were considered to need saving twice, firstly from their criminality and secondly from their deviance from expected female behaviour.
To this end, instead of being subjected to hard labour, women progressed through several disciplinary stages intended to put them on the path to reform. The stages were separate confinement for four months (men had to endure nine months of separate confinement), associated labour and, finally, a transfer to a female-only institution.
Prison authorities had to deal with pregnant and postpartum women. Lying-in wards and nurseries had to be created and the regulations relating to exercise, communication, and dietary provision had to be modified for such women.
Another possible interpretation of the rhyme is that it references Britain’s struggle to produce silk. Silkworms eat mulberry leaves and during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain tried to emulate the success of the Chinese silk production industry. Britain’s cold winters with frost proved to be to harsh for the mulberry trees to thrive and this hampered the development of a successful silk production industry.
The lyrics: “Here we go round the mulberry bush / On a cold and frosty morning” are thought to be a joke about the difficulties experienced by the industry.
About Roberta Eaton Cheadle
I am a South African writer specialising in historical, paranormal and horror novels and short stories. I am an avid reader in these genres and my writing has been influenced by famous authors including Bram Stoker, the Bronte sisters, Amor Towles, Stephen Crane, Enrich Maria Remarque, George Orwell, Stephen King, and Colleen McCullough.
I was educated at the University of South Africa where I achieved a Bachelor of Accounting Science in 1996 and a Honours Bachelor of Accounting Science in 1997. I was admitted as a member of The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants in 2000.
I have worked in corporate finance from 2001 until the present date and have written seven publications relating to investing in Africa. I have won several awards over my twenty year career in the category of Transactional Support Services.
I have been published a number of anthologies and have two published YA books, While the Bombs Fell and Through the Nethergate. I have recently published my first adult novel called A Ghost and His Gold which is partly set in South Africa during the Second Anglo Boer War.
Find Roberta Eaton Cheadle
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