London Bridge is Falling Down

‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ is an English nursery rhyme that has been found in various iterations all over the world. The meaning behind ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ is not certain. There are several different theories about who the “fair lady” mentioned so frequently in the poem could be. At its simplest, the poem could be about the difficulty of building the bridge. 

Others have suggested that it was coined in reaction to a Viking attack that resulted in the destruction of the bridge in 1014. There is a passage from the Norse saga Heimskringla that some have used as shaky evidence that this is the case.

 There is another even darker theory that it is in reference to the buying of children alive in the foundations of the bridge. An ancient superstition suggests that bridges will collapse unless the body of a human being was put into the foundations. There is no solid evidence that this is the genuine meaning behind the poem.

Finally, there is a theory relating to the great fire of 1666. A prior fire 33 years before damaged the bridge and that damage helped prevent the flames from traveling to the south side of the Thames. 

London Bridge is Falling Down


The Fair Lady 

In regards to who the very mysterious and important “fair lady” is in the poem, there are also several theories. She might be the Virgin Mary, whose birthday falls on the supposed day the Viking attacked occurred. Others suggest that “she” is Matilda of Scotland, a consort to Henry I who was responsible for building a series of bridges.  One final theory, she might be Eleanor of Provence, a consort of Henry II. She was attacked on the bridge with eggs and stones in response to political discontent. 


History of London Bridge is Falling Down

As with the vast majority of nursery rhymes that are popular today, ’London Bridge is Falling Down’ has its first records in the seventeenth century. The lyrics developed over the years, changing and growing. They were printed in the eighteenth century in a very close form to that which is known today. 

The melody with which the lines are sung has changed throughout time At one point it was matched to “Nancy Dawson,” also known as “Nuts in May”. At another point, in 1797, another melody was recorded in Juvenile Amusements, a book by Samuel Arnold. Another iteration appeared in Nursery Rhymes by E.F. Rimbault.

Other versions of the rhyme have been found around the world, in places such as Denmark, Germany and Italy. It has been suggested that the rhyme was adopted from one of these other sources and altered to fit with London Bridge. 


The Game 

This is one of several nursery rhymes that can be accompanied by a game played by children. The actions are similar to those played with other rhymes. In its most common form, children form their arms into an arch while others pass under single-file. Eventually, they lower their arms, catching one of the children. There is evidence that in the nineteenth century the game included a circle dance. 



London Bridge is Falling Down’ makes use of a very consistent rhyme scheme and a slightly unusual metrical pattern. The lines rhyme AAAB CCCB. The “B” in this pattern is repeated throughout the poem. It corresponds with the word “lady” which ends the refrain, “My fair lady”. 

In regards to the meter, the poem makes use of trochaic tetrameter catalectic. This unusual pattern means that each line is made up of four metrical feet, or four sets of two syllables. The first pair of syllables is stressed, and the final pair is missing the last unstressed syllable. This pattern is most common among nursery rhymes. 


Poetic Techniques

The text that modern lovers of nursery rhymes are most familiar with is only four lines long. It reads: 

London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down, falling down.

London Bridge is falling down,

My fair lady.

There are additional verses connected to the song as well. They speak to the reconstruction of the bridge after it’s fall. These lines are all fairly straightforward. Through the use of anaphora, epistrophe, and repetition of phrases, the nursery rhyme depicts the collapse of London Bridge. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession.

This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. In this case, the technique is very clear. Multiple lines begin with “London Bridge,” such as in the first verse that is well known. Examples appear throughout the other verses, such as “Build it up” and “Wood and clay”. Here is evidence of this technique in two lesser-known quatrains: 

Build it up with wood and clay,

Wood and clay, wood and clay,

Build it up with wood and clay,

My fair lady.


Wood and clay will wash away,

Wash away, wash away,

Wood and clay will wash away,

My fair lady.

Epistrophe can also be seen in these lines. It is the repetition of the same word, or a phrase, at the end of multiple lines or sentences. For example, “clay” and “away”. The refrain, “My fair lady” is a great example as well. By using such repetitive phrasing, the creators of the rhyme were able to create a sing-song like rhythm and pattern that should appeal to young readers/listeners. This is usually the case in the most popular nursery rhymes.

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Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
  • Michael Kumpmann says:

    I think the song has likely a freemasonic connection. Freemasonry has a central initiatory myth about the temple of solomon. The temple is fallen down. And the mason has to rebuild it. Central elements are 2 pillars. One has the symbol of the sun and of gold and the other one of the moon and of silver. And coincidentially, the london bridge consists of 2 towers, which can be seen as a form of pillars.

    The 2 pillars also represent male virtues and female virtues. Freemasonry teaches that enlightened people display both female and male virtues. Sometimes, on some paintings, this is symbolized by building an arch or a kind of bridge between the 2 pillars. Often, Pictures of George Washington a drawn this way.

    (Rosicrucians call this unity the “chemical wedding” because its seen as a merger between gold and silver.)

    In Tarot, there is a card depicting the 2 pillars and in the point between them, there is a depiction of the great godess, which in christianity is seen as the virgin mary or the gnostic sophia.

    Also, many cultures depict the age of decline as a metaphorical building which slowly collapses. Mostly, you can say the collapse happens by the destruction of pillars or legs. In india and ancient judaism, this was seen in form of statues. And enlightenment was seen as a rebuilding of these buildings.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Wow, this is the most interesting thing I have read today. Thank you for your input!

  • Simple words in beautiful rhyme for all and sundry

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      I agree. A classic nursery rhyme.

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