By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ is one of the best-loved nursery rhymes in all of English literature, but its origins are somewhat different from most beloved children’s rhymes. What does this little rhyme mean? And where did it come from? First, here’s a minder of the words:
Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.
It followed her to school one day,
Which was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play
To see a lamb at school.
And so the teacher turned it out,
But still it lingered near,
And waited patiently about
Till Mary did appear.
Why does the lamb love Mary so?
The eager children cry;
Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know,
The teacher did reply.
‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ is so famous that E. V. Lucas went so far as to proclaim that they were the best-known four-line verses in the English language. They must surely be up there with the best-known, even these days (although how well do most people know most four-line English poems – even Blake’s ‘The Tyger’?). But what is unusual about ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, and what distinguishes it from many other well-known English nursery rhymes, is the fact that it was not penned by that prolific writer ‘Anon’: we know who the author of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ was.
Her name was Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), and she lived in Boston. The words were published in 1830 with Hale’s initials. Despite this demonstrable fact, a number of other Americans popped up to try to claim authorship of the rhyme, the most famous of which was a John Roulstone, who was ‘named’ as the author by a Mrs Tyler of Sudbury, Massachusetts. Mrs Tyler had been, as a young girl, Mary Sawyer, and she claimed that Roulstone had written ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ about her. Both Sarah Josepha Hale, the actual author of the rhyme, and her son, refuted Mrs Tyler’s claim; but that didn’t stop the motoring magnate Henry Ford from attempting to prove her claim and even going to the trouble of restoring the old schoolhouse at Sudbury (where the ovine-focused event recounted in the poem was supposed to have happened) as a memorial to ‘the real Mary’. But then on the list of crazy things Henry Ford believed, this one probably wouldn’t even make the top five.
‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ has inspired such far-fetched and easily disproved theories, another of which is that a Welsh girl names Mary Thomas (later Hughes) was the original Mary in 1847. Unfortunately, since ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ had already been in print for seventeen years by the time Mary Thomas’s lamb got round to following her to school, this is impossible.
Still, it’s not improbable that a lamb would have followed a young girl to school, as anyone with a loyal pet can attest when they walk out the front door of a morning. And sheep are known for their ability to follow…
‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ were the very first words recorded on a phonograph, when Thomas Edison recited them into his new invention in 1877.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
The study is a useful reminder of the challenges facing all researchers who, like me, like to rely only on primary sources. It’s bad enough dealing with apocrypha, assumptions and mistakes, but people just making up stuff seems more egregious. At least now is the cold case satisfaction of exposing people who, given their contemporary technology, had every reason to believe they would never be found out!