Britain by the Book: The Curious Origins of Old Mother Hubbard

This week, the paperback edition of our literary travelogue, Britain by the Book, was published by John Murray. In honour, here is a shortened version of one of the entries from the book…

The village of Yealmpton (pronounced ‘Yampton’) is a few miles east of Plymouth. Market Street boasts a house built around 400 years ago with something you don’t see everyday: a thatched dog on the roof. This is ‘Mother Hubbard’s Cottage’, and it was supposedly the home of the woman who inspired the nursery rhyme of Old Mother Hubbard.

I say ‘supposedly’ because it’s nearly always impossible to pin down a nursery rhyme’s origins in any definite way. ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ was one of the most popular publications of the entire nineteenth century, with sales in the tens of thousands within just a few months of publication. Its instant bestseller status may partly have stemmed from the public’s belief that it was some sort of political satire, but nobody seems to know what it was satirising. A sequel to the story was published very shortly after. It inspired rival productions, such as ‘The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Lantry and Her Wonderful Goat’, and gave its name to a style of dress (a loose-fitting smock) and, in Canada, a kind of duffel coat. It might even be viewed as a precursor to the nonsense verse of later nineteenth-century writers like Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, given its surreal touches. When Mother Hubbard returns from buying red and white wine for her dog (a detail it’s probably best to gloss over), she finds it standing on its head. At other points, it’s variously smoking a pipe, dancing a jig, feeding her cat, reading a newspaper, and riding a goat.

Who ‘Mother Hubbard’ was remains shrouded in mystery. The name first appeared in the late 1570s when Edmund Spenser, the author of The Faerie Queene, wrote a satirical poem called ‘Mother Hubberd’s Tale’ – but in Spenser’s poem, Mother Hubberd is the narrator rather than the subject of the tale, and she has no connection to bones or cupboards, although a dog is mentioned. The nursery rhyme as we know it came into existence in 1805, and this is where the cottage in Yealmpton enters the story.

The author of the poem, Sarah Catherine Martin (1768-1826), is a curious character all by herself: she was a vivacious socialite and a lover of Prince William, the future King William IV. She came up with ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ while she was staying with her future brother-in-law, a Tory MP named John Pollexfen Bastard, at Kitley House. Martin, who had something of a reputation as a chatterbox, had begun to irritate her host while he was trying to write, until he reportedly told her to ‘run away and write one of your stupid little rhymes.’

It would appear that she based the rhythm of ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ on an earlier rhyme, ‘Old Dame Trot, and Her Comical Cat’, which had been published in 1803 but had been in circulation for nearly a hundred years before that. As Iona and Peter Opie note in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, the similarities between the two rhymes are too close to be considered coincidental:

Old Dame Trot,
Some cold fish had got,
Which for pussy,
She kept in Store,
When she looked there was none
The cold fish had gone,
For puss had been there before.

She went to the butcher’s
To buy her some meat,
When she came back
She lay dead at her feet.

Why Old Dame Trot’s cat perished into the mists of nursery-rhyme history while Old Mother Hubbard’s dog flourished is difficult to say; as the Opies note, ‘Old Dame Trot’ is an altogether more modern piece of verse. What’s more, the first stanza of Martin’s rhyme has a different form and metre from the subsequent poem, so it may be that the first six lines are substantially older than the rest. But it was Martin’s surreal rhyme about a talented dog and a bare cupboard that would grip the public imagination.

In Yealmpton you can visit Mother Hubbard’s Cottage and find the cupboards anything but bare. Indeed, there’s plenty of food on offer: it’s now a Chinese takeaway and restaurant.

Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape by Oliver Tearle is out now in glorious paperback, published by John Murray.