Origin of “Rub-a-dub-dub” Nursery Rhyme

As part of my writing of “The Prosecution of Mr. Darcy’s Cousin,” I completed research on “Rub-A-Dub-Dub,” an English language nursery rhyme first published at the end of the eighteenth century. The nursery rhyme plays out as part of the mystery in newest novel. The rhyme has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 3101.

Lyrics

This rhyme exists in many variations. Among those current today is:

Rub-a-dub-dub,
Three men in a tub,
And who do you think they were?
The butcher, the baker,
The candlestick-maker,
They all sailed out to sea,
‘Twas enough to make a man stare.

Origins and Meaning
The earliest versions of this rhyme published differ significantly in their wording. The first recorded version in Christmas Box, published in London in 1798, has wording similar to that in Mother Goose’s Quarto or Melodies Complete, published in Boston, Massachusetts around 1825. The latter ran:

Hey! rub-a-dub, ho! rub-a-dub, three maids in a tub,
And who do you think were there?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker,
And all of them gone to the fair.

This led Iona and Peter Opie to conclude that they were three respectable townsfolk “watching a dubious sideshow at a local fair.”

By around 1830 the reference to maids was being removed from the versions printed in nursery books. In 1842, James Orchard Halliwell collected the following version:

Rub a dub dub,
Three fools in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker,
The candlestick maker.
Turn them out, knaves all three.

Some believeĀ the rhyme’s origin comes from the tale of a fair with three maids reclining in a tub. The women were being watched by a mostly male audience. As such, three men decided to join them, but they were turned out by the fair’s owner.

On Reason Behind the Rhyme on NPR, Chris Roberts, author of “Heavy Words Lightly Thrown,” describes the origin of Rub-a-dub-dub as, “The original version goes: `Hey, rub-a-dub, ho, rub-a-dub, three maids in a tub. And who do you think were there? The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, and all of them going to the fair.’ Now this version goes back to about the 14th century. And in a sense, it’s bang up to date at the same time. British tabloids love stories about respectable tradesfolk doing–being caught in places they shouldn’t be caught in. Today it would be perhaps a lap-dancing venue. They love celebrities being caught out. In this case, it’s a fairground attraction with naked ladies, which the–can you say pooge on American radio? The upper-class, the respectable tradesfolk–the candlestick maker and the butcher and the baker–are ogling, getting an eyeful of some naked young ladies in a tub. And that’s “Rub-a-Dub-Dub,” essentially.”

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in British history, language choices, legends and myths, Living in the UK, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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