Memories of the games are of summer days in the school field. Perhaps it was the only place where there was space for the groups of people involved. There would be a dozen or fifteen, led by some of the older girls
Oranges and lemons listed names of churches which we could only imagine. We would sing, “I do not know says the great bell of Bow,” with great gusto. (My father explained to me that the great bell of Bow was important for Londoners, only those born within earshot of Bow bells could be considered really to be “Cockney”).
There were other games that involved the names of flowers, In and out the dusty bluebells involved forming a chain and winding in between people. Wallflowers, wallflowers growing up so high brought a strange thought to primary school pupils, “we’re all children and we shall surely die,” although there was reassurance in the idea that the youngest would not share the fate of the others.
The farmer wants a wife was the most common of the games we played while singing.
A turning circle of children singing of the farmer wanting a wife, who was chosen from the circle. Then the wife wanting a child, who was added to the duo in the middle; and the child wanting a nurse, bringing the circled number to four; and the nurse, wanting a dog, by which time the number in the middle probably matched the number in the circle. Finally, the dog wanted a bone, and a further child was chosen. The entire company then surrounded the person who was the bone and sang, “we all pat the bone,” bringing our hands down with greater or lesser force.
Searching for information on a game that figures large in my memory, I discovered that material relating to the background of the song is sparse. It seems that it dates from Germany in the early-Nineteenth Century, from whence it travelled to North America.
How The farmer wants a wife came to the little English village of High Ham and came to be sung in the primary school will probably remain forever a mystery. Perhaps it was in a book; perhaps it was included in the training of our teachers, who would have attended college in the 1930s; perhaps, in times when the oral transmission of culture was something that happened unnoticed, it just arrived with us by chance.