Behind the Meaning of the Traditional Song, “London Bridge Is Falling Down”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Isn’t it strange how so many of our favorite nursery rhymes are about death and decay?

Endings are as much a part of life as beginnings, so, it would seem, they make for some of the best and most lasting ditties that we learn from childhood through adulthood. For other examples, see “Humpty Dumpty” and “Ring Around The Rosie.”

Here, though, we will talk about a bridge. London Bridge, to be exact, and its never-ending failure to stay intact within the song, “London Bridge Is Falling Down.”

Let’s dive in.

Origins

The traditional English nursery rhyme is also a singing game (more on that below). It’s also been known as “London Bridge” or even “My Fair Lady” (more on whoever this lady is below).

As far as the content, the rhyme deals with the deterioration of the famous and large London Bridge, along with attempts to fix the ailing construction with things like mortar and metals.

Some say the song may date back to the Late Middle Ages, but the earliest records of the song come from the 17th century. The lyrics for the rhyme were first printed as they are generally known today in the mid-18th century. They became popular in the U.K. and the U.S. in the 19th century, which is also when the melody for the rhyme was recorded.

The London Bridge, Itself

Until the middle of the eighteenth century, the London Bridge was the only crossing for people on the Thames River in London. The structure was damaged in a big fire in 1633 and narrowly escaped more damage in the fire of 1666.

With its 19 thin arches, the structure impeded river traffic and flow, experts say. Widening of the bridge took place in 1763, but even then it remained narrow and needed constant repairs. The bridge was replaced in the early nineteen century.

The New London Bridge was opened in 1831 and survived until it, too, was replaced later in 1972. At that time, the 1831 bridge was taken apart and reconstructed in, of all places, Lake Havasu City, Arizona in the United States.

The Lyrics

While there are many verses attributed to the song throughout history, mostly having to do with which substance was being used to potentially fix the bridge, the most frequent first verse often goes:

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.

The rhyme for the song is made of “quatrains” in “trochaic tetrameter catalectic,” meaning that each line is made up of four metrical feet of two syllables, with the stress coming on the first syllable in a pair. This is common for nursery rhymes.

The Singing Game

One of the lasting aspects of the nursery rhyme is the physical game that can be played along while singing it. In this production, two children often line up face-to-face with their arms in the air and hands held together, like arches. Other children run underneath their arms as the two sing the nursery rhyme. At some point, they lower their arms, “catching” whoever is in their grasp at the time.

Similar to the recitals of “Ring Around The Rosie” and “Humpty Dumpty,” there is a “falling down” component to the rhyme and physical enactment, which brings smiles to children’s faces.

“London Bridge Is Falling Down” Meaning

The precise actual meaning of the rhyme is not entirely certain, although it could be an elaborate metaphor for either death or just the eventual decay of aspects (or the whole) of society at any given point. If something like the actual London Bridge can crumble, anything can.

Not to mention, the actual building of the great London Bridge must have been arduous, with failures along the way to its eventual finality, and many of its elements at times breaking off and floating away in the waters, from metal girders to bolts and more.

One thought, though, is that the rhyme dates back to the destruction of the London Bridge by the Viking Olaf II in 1014. The nineteenth-century translation of the Norse epic, the Heimskringla, published in 1844, includes a verse that resembles the rhyme:

London Bridge is broken down. —
Gold is won, and bright renown.
Shields resounding,
War-horns sounding,
Hild is shouting in the din!
Arrows singing,
Mail-coats ringing —
Odin makes our Olaf win!

In more recent history, though, scholars have thought the above verse, and the now-common nursery rhyme, are likely not related. Some historians have even wondered if the Viking attack even took place.

Human Sacrifice

Some have put forward the claim that the nursery rhyme refers to the burying—perhaps even alive (!)—of children at the base foundation of the bridge. This is based on the myth that a bridge would collapse unless a body of a human sacrifice was buried in its foundation as a “watchman.”

There is no archaeological evidence for any human remains in the foundation of the actual London Bridge, however. Yet, bodies were found beneath the actual bridge in 2007 during excavation work, though that is more than likely not related to its original construction.

Identity Of The “Fair Lady”

There have been many guesses as to who the “fair lady” is at the end of the nursery rhyme’s many refrains.

Some say it’s the Virgin Mary. When the Vikings attacked it apparently took place on the birthday of the Virgin Mary. The Vikings attacked the bridge but couldn’t take the city—it was protected by Mary, some say.

Others have argued the “fair lady” is Matilda of Scotland. who lived from 1080 to 1118. She was responsible for the building of a series of bridges. Some have said the “fair lady” is Eleanor of Provence (1223-1291), who had custody of the bridge revenues from 1269 to 1291.

The Leigh family of Stoneleigh Park claims in a traditional family story that they have a family member buried under the bridge as part of a human sacrifice. Again, that is likely not true, however.

Legacy

The nursery rhyme remains one of the most famous in the world. It was referenced by T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, The Waste Land and some say the “fair lady” inspired the 1956 musical, My Fair Lady.

The rhyme is still changed by children often, who sing:

London Bridge is falling down
Falling down, falling down
London Bridge is falling down 
My fair lady

Build it up with iron bars
Iron bars, iron bars
Build it up with iron bars
My fair lady

Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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