“What was that song about three old dears?”
“The one people used to sing at Ham school.”
“Oh dear, what can the matter be?
Three old dears got locked in the lavatory,
they were there from Monday to Saturday
nobody knew they were there?”
“That’s it. Where did we learn that?”
“I don’t know, everyone knew it. It was just something that was there.”
Our recall of the three unfortunate old ladies stuck in the public conveniences would have been much better than our knowledge of Johnny’s so long at the fair, the English folk song from which the tale of toilets is derived. But how did it come to be part of the repertoire of primary school children? How did stuff get passed around?
Web pages and social media platforms allow for the instantaneous transmission of material. Something will be shared around the world in a matter of a few seconds. In 1960s Somerset, communication was not so instant. Most houses in the village did not have a telephone, some families did not have a car – despite there being no public transport in the village, the nearest bus stop being a three mile walk.
Of course, there was radio and there was television. There were three channels on the television, BBC One and Two and ITV, and the four BBC stations on the radio. (When evening came, Radio Luxembourg might be found at 208 Metres on the medium waveband, but it did not become attractive until teenage years when it was possible to listen to records that had been banned by the BBC). None among those television and radio stations would have been likely to have been sharing irreverent rhymes sung by primary school children.
Had we been asked why we sang about the old ladies, we would probably have said that it made us laugh and admitted that we enjoyed the mild disrespect for our elders implied in the song. A particular old lady, who regarded it her vocation in life to tell off small boys, would have been at the forefront of those whom we would have liked to have been locked in the loo. Had we been asked how we knew the words, we would probably have pointed to someone else in the class.
Oral transmission of songs and stories was a strong tradition; songs and stories could be passed from person to person with little variation. It will be interesting to see if web pages and social media create a similar capacity for remembering what has been heard.