“A Frog He Would A-wooing Go”, “Georgie Porgie” and the Meaning of Roly-Poly

A Connection Between A Frog He Would A-wooing Go and Georgie Porgie, Which Involves the Meaning of Rowley Powley.

I’ve always been fond of the song A Frog He Would A-wooing Go, which seems to have originated in Scotland in the sixteenth century. There are countless variations of this old favorite – most Americans know it as Froggy Went A Courtin’, He Did Ride, which has been recorded by Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, among others.

Here’s the best known British version:

A Frog He Would A-wooing Go

A frog he would a-wooing go,
Heigh ho! says Rowley,
A frog he would a-wooing go,
Whether his mother would let him or no.
With a Rowley,
powley, gammon, and spinach,
Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley.

So off he set with his opera hat,
Heigh ho! says Rowley,
So off he set with his opera hat,
And on the road he met with a rat,
With a Rowley,
powley, gammon, and spinach,
Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley.

Pray, Mr. Rat will you go with me?
Heigh ho! says Rowley,
Pray, Mr. Rat will you go with me,
Kind Mrs. Mousey for to see…
With a Rowley,
powley, gammon, and spinach,
Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley.

They came to the door of Mousey’s hall,
Heigh ho! says Rowley,
They gave a loud knock, and they gave a loud call.
With a Rowley,
powley, gammon, and spinach,
Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley.

Pray, Mrs. Mouse are you within?
Heigh ho! says Rowley,
Oh yes, kind sirs, I’m sitting to spin.
With a Rowley,
powley, gammon, and spinach,
Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley.

Pray, Mrs. Mouse will you give us some beer?
Heigh ho! says Rowley,
For Froggy and I are fond of good cheer.
With a Rowley,
powley, gammon, and spinach,
Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley.

Pray, Mr. Frog will you give us a song?
Heigh ho! says Rowley,
Let it be something that’s not very long.
With a Rowley,
powley, gammon, and spinach,
Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley.

Indeed, Mrs. Mouse, replied Mr. Frog,
Heigh ho! says Rowley,
A cold has made me as hoarse as a dog.
With a Rowley,
powley, gammon, and spinach,
Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley.

Since you have a cold, Mr. Frog, Mousey said,
Heigh ho! says Rowley,
I’ll sing you a song that I’ve just made.
With a Rowley,
powley, gammon, and spinach,
Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley.

But while they were all a-merry-making
Heigh ho! says Rowley,
A cat and her kittens came tumbling in.
With a Rowley,
powley, gammon, and spinach,
Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley.

The cat she seized the rat by the crown,
Heigh ho! says Rowley,
The kittens they pulled the little mouse down.
With a Rowley,
powley, gammon, and spinach,
Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley.

This put Mr. Frog in a terrible fright,
Heigh ho! says Rowley.
He took up his hat and he wished them goodnight.
With a Rowley,
powley, gammon, and spinach,
Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley.

But as Froggy was crossing over a brook,
Heigh ho! says Rowley.
A lily white duck came and gobbled him up.
With a Rowley,
powley, gammon, and spinach,
Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley.

So there was the end of one, two, three,
Heigh ho! says Rowley.
The rat,
the mouse, and the little froggy.
With a Rowley,
powley, gammon, and spinach,
Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley.

Monique, my colleague at Mama Lisa’s World en français, has been translating many old songs into French. When she came to A Frog He Would A-wooing Go she was unsure what to make of “rowley powley” and she asked me what it meant. Hum, good question I thought. I really didn’t know.

When I thought about it, at first it seemed “With a Rowley, powley, gammon, and spinach” was just a nonsense call or phrase. Was that all there was to it? I decided to investigate.

So, I looked up “gammon” which is also not a common word, at least not in the States. I found out it refers to meat from the hind leg of a pig, often cured. It seems this “nonsense phrase” is talking about food.

Next I took out my Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes by Iona and Peter Opie to see if they refer to “rowley powley”. That’s usually the first book I’ll refer to when there’s a question about a nursery rhyme. Here’s what it had to say:

A Notes and Queries correspondent remembered seeing ‘rowley powley’ given as a name for a plump fowl.

This fit in with the food theme. Next I wanted to see if I could verify what they said. I typed “rowley powley” into Google and found a surprising connection to another popular rhyme: Georgie Porgie

Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry;
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.

It turns out Georgie Porgie was originally called Rowley Powley. (The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes confirms this.)

The rhyme was first recited as…

Rowley Powley, pudding and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry;
When the girls begin to cry,
Rowley Powley runs away.

Interesting… I decided to go back to Google and type in “rowley powley” again. This time I found the quote…

“Here’s your large Rowley Powlies, no more than Six-pence a Peck . . . Rowley Powley, jolly Pease.” -Cries of London (1784)

The quote was on a site called Food Reference Website under food quotes for “peas”. I wrote to James T. Ehler, the publisher of the site, to see if he knew anything more about “rowley powley”. He sent me back the definitions given in the Oxford English Dictionary, pointing out that the quote on his website refers to peas. Peas could also fit into a food theme.

In the definitions of “rowley powley” in the OED I noticed another way to spell it, “roly-poly”, which is in use in modern English. That changed the way I thought of the phrase.

I had thought it rhymed with towel. But seeing it spelled as “roly-poly”, would make it rhyme with roll or bowl. This changes things a little since “roly-poly” can mean short and plump, usually referring to a child. I believe Georgie Porgie can also mean the same thing in modern day usage.

The OED is amazingly comprehensive! Here are some other definitions for “rowley powley” it has, which are interesting in the context of the song A Frog He Would A-wooing Go and the nursery rhyme Georgie Porgie:

1) A rascal (mentioned in the year 1601) – could work for Georgie Porgie – since he’s kissing the girls and running away.
2) The name of different games based on rolling a ball (referred to in 1713) – could work for Georgie Porgie, only because it’s a nursery rhyme and it’s based on playing. I find this interpretation unlikely.
3) Short and pudgy, usually referring to kids. This could fit Georgie Porgie too, seeing as the current day usage of both “roly-poly” and “Georgie Porgie” can refer to a plump child.
4) A funny name for a pea – again, it could work for A Frog He Would A-wooing Go since it’s in the context of other foods.
5) “A kind of pudding, consisting of a sheet of pastry covered with jam or preserves, formed into a roll and boiled or steamed.” (Quoted directly from the OED, they found it mentioned this way in print as early as 1841). This definition obviously fits “Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie” and here we go with a food reference again, so it would fit in with A Frog He Would A-wooing Go too.

Starting with A Frog He Would A-wooing Go, let’s go back to the original context… “With a Rowley, powley, gammon, and spinach”. We’re left with the following choices:

1) A plump fowl
2) Peas
3) The pudding dish

And for Georgie Porgie, we’re left with the following possibilities:

1) A rascal
2) A short, plump kid
3) A kind of pudding

I’m not sure how we can determine which definition to use for A Frog He Would A-wooing Go, but for Georgie Porgie, “rowley, powley” could well be playing on words and mean all of the above.

In the end, as with so many nursery rhyme mysteries, we can only surmise. Maybe someday someone will invent a time machine and we’ll be able to travel back in time and find out for sure!

Many thanks to James T. Ehler from the Food Reference Site and Jason Pomerantz for help with this investigation.

Here’s a recipe for Roly-Poly Jam Pudding.

This article was posted on Friday, October 7th, 2005 at 7:45 pm and is filed under A Frog He Would A-wooing Go, A Frog He Would A-wooing Go, Animal Songs, British Children's Songs, English, English Nursery Rhymes, Frog Songs, Georgie Porgie, History of Nursery Rhymes, History of Nursery Rhymes, Mouse Songs, Scottish Children's Songs, Songs by Theme. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

26 Responses to ““A Frog He Would A-wooing Go”, “Georgie Porgie” and the Meaning of Roly-Poly”

  1. Ian Elliott Says:

    I have heard (though I can’t corroborate it) that the “Georgie Porgie” of the later version referred to George III, and “made them cry” would mean making the girls enceinte.

  2. Lisa Says:

    They often can’t verify it when a nursery rhyme is about a specific king, and I believe that’s the case with Georgie Porgie.

    When I come across more info, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, if anyone else knows, please comment.

    Thanks for writing!

    Lisa

  3. Lisa Says:

    Peter wrote me…

    “Some fascinating research! My mother, back in the 1940s, used to cook roly-poly pudding – a steamed rather substantial doughy concoction, white in colour (the ingredients having been bound up in a tea cloth), but it seems to have disappeared from the scene in recent years.”

    Peter Rowland (Who has cause to remember the name of this particular sweet.)

  4. Richard Miller Says:

    Wouldn’t it make sense that a Roly-Poly as a plump fowl would indeed make girls cry if he pecked them? And, as the story goes, would run away from the boys (better known for carrying rocks and sticks)? Puddin’ and pie would perhaps allude to Roly-Poly’s normal demise as a dinner pie. Just a thought.

  5. Jennifer Jones Says:

    I have always belieieved it was to do with Charles II and his disreputable friends. There is the Rowley Mile at Newmarket Race Course (Suffolk) the Poleys are a 6oo year-old Suffolk Family, Gammon refers to the BAcons – another Suffolk Family and Spinach to is Green – a name that can be found anywhere! , So I wonder why I can’t find any reference to the rhymes origin apart from yours!!

  6. Simon Cox Says:

    Jennifer’s theory sounds like a solid explaination to me. Certainly Charles II was known as “Old Rowley” and could have been described as a frog, for his time in France, French mother, Catholic tendencies etc. It would also fit with the cited change to Georgie Porgy who was almost certainly George IV and who had a similar reputation with women.

    If so, this song probably has a political story behind it (beyond a general satire of Charles II and his gang. It would be good to know who Mr Rat ,Mrs. Mouse and the duck were. I guess the cat and kittens where the Queen and his legitimate children.

  7. Simon Cox Says:

    Ah it seems it may originally been a comment on an even earlier royal relationship:

    http://cjtm.icaap.org/content/18/v18art6.html

    This site shows that it started as a comment on Elizabeth I and the Duc d’Alencon.

    “Satirists have used animal rhymes and fables in every age, and versions of some nursery songs have historical meaning. One seems to have had political significance during the reign of Elizabeth I. The Queen had a custom of giving her courtiers animal nicknames. Sir Walter Raleigh was known as her fish, Leicester her lap dog, and at the time of her proposed marriage to the Duc d’Alencon, Simier, the French ambassador was her ape, and the Duc himself her frog.

    The notion of this foreign marriage was highly unpopular. The licensing of the song in 1580 directly after the affair had blown over seems appropriate.”

    I suspect that this is the explaination of its birth (which is also linked to the earliest nown example of the use of “frog” for a Frenchman) and that it was then later recycled as a satire on Charles II.

  8. jane pearson Says:

    I have come across magistrate records in 18th century Essex (UK) punishing men for playing ‘rowley powley’ in local pubs. So it must have been some kind of rowdy game. I’ll see if I can find out more…

  9. Raquel Ary-DeRozza Says:

    Hi all
    I love this website! I love the Froggie song and all the many versions I have heard – from Britian and from Southern USA and more. I wanted to say that I sing a silly version of it on my own website. I made it quite simple because I worked with preschoolers for many years and many children did not come into my classroom speaking English, so I tried to make the words understandable for them. Parents told me their children loved my songs and were asking for them and listening constantly, thereby learning more English words in a fun way.
    (I had tapes and CD’s made) I also made my own illustrations for my songs, so the kids could turn the pages of each verse like a book. I loved being with kids and I still love it!
    fyi – website is “jollytales.com” but it’s not set up to buy things, so the dot com is silly too!
    Bye now!
    RAquel

  10. Marianne Kordas Says:

    Interesting discussion on the possible meanings of “rowley-powley” or “roly-poly”!

    Music and songs reveal much about a culture, and nursery rhymes can often be used as satire, or satirical songs become nursery songs once they have lost their relevance and bite.

    The different versions of “Froggy” could easily have been used to poke fun at both Elizabeth I and Charles II. While many sources like to speculate that the “Froggy” song originated during the Virgin Queen’s reign, the earliest reference I have been able to find comes from the time of Henry VIII. In 1549, a reference is made in a Scottish book to the song “The frogge came to the myl dur.”
    This makes it a very old song, and one easily adapted for political satire, perhaps for several British monarchs.

  11. Howqrd Vincent Says:

    In studying Suffolk local and church history, I came across the records of the Poly family. There is the suggestion that “Rowley, Powley, Gammon and Spinach” actually refers to the distinquished Suffolk families of Rowley, Poly (now Weller Poly), Bacon and Greene. It seems a plausible explanation and an avenue worth investigating

  12. Chris Binder Says:

    We’ve been reading quite a lot in our homeschool about the Great Fire of London in 1666. It’s my belief that Georgie Porgy refers to King Charles II. The Great Fire started at Pudding Lane, and some say ended at Pie (corner, district, street–I can’t think of it at the moment!). Charles II was known for his many mistresses, and was the father of at least 6 children by them.

  13. L. Jordana Says:

    What must be remembered regarding English nursery rhymes is that A. They are teaching songs to remember events ( ie Ring Around the Rosie, re the black plague ) and B. Satirical slaps at someone with a reputation to lose. The English, German born King George I (known variously as Georgie Porgie due to his weight and Rowley Powely for the same reason. Just old fashioned spelling of Rolly Polly) couldn’t even speak English and was vastly slapped at by satirists of the time. Georgie Porgie is just one of the rymes.. Just a way to make fun of royalty without having your head cut off! These versions of teaching songs go back for donkey’s years. When I was a child there were always different nursery rhymes depending upon which part of England we were in as well as the well known ones. Fascinated me as a child and still does. But as I say, nursery rhymes were teachings songs, whether serious, satirical or memory enhancers for children. There are many avenues of well documented research back home. Thank you for your site. Brought back so many memories!

  14. John Says:

    I heard this old music hall song in the 1940s. It was part of the repertoire of a man who had been a professional music hall performer perhaps 20 years before:

    “Oh for a Rolly Polly
    Mother used to make.
    Rolly Polly treacle duff
    Rolly Polly that’s the stuff!
    Oh just to think about it
    Makes my tummy ache.
    Oh cor lummy I want my mummy
    The puddings she used to make.”

  15. Lisa Says:

    Nigel Horsford wrote: “I know of a roly-poly as a ‘pudding made of a sheet of suet pastry covered with jam etc, formed into a roll and steamed or baked’ (SOED); sometimes referred to a jam roly-poly.

    So that chorus line seems to refer to a meal of ham (gammon), spinach, and roly-poly dessert… rowley, powley, gammon, and spinach.

    ‘Gammon’ in my experience is a table word for ham in England – e.g. gammon steak, gammon rashers. But in France they say JAMBON, in Spain JAMÓN, and one can see that the languages are related.”

  16. Sheila Rotherham Says:

    Has no one looked up Byron’s Poem Don Juan xi.57, where he refers to the Rev George Croly as ‘Rowley Powley’ – so there you have both Rowley Powley AND George ie Georgie Porgie!! HOWEVER, who was Anthony?

  17. Marcela Says:

    I am very grateful for this explanation. I’m from Brazil and I’m interested in studying old nursery rhymes, folk tales, fairy tales and fables from various countries. I had the exact same trouble that your French colleague had while reading “The Frog that would a-wooing go”. Thank you also for mentioning the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. I didn’t know about its existence. I’ll surely come back to this website many times more. Great job!

    Regards,

    Marcela Andrade
    Brazil

  18. Lisa Says:

    Thank you Marcela! We also have a section of Mama Lisa’s World that’s dedicated to English Nursery Rhymes that you might like.

  19. Adair McConnell Says:

    As pre-schoolers about 1940, my brother and I cherished a nice little hardbound book with very well-drawn characters accompanying the Froggie etc. poem. We made up our own tune, I think, and sang it together often to our mom, who [as far as we can remember] never resolved the rime vowel for rOWley pOWley, so we sang rolypoly on alternate verses to match ‘holy’.

  20. Me Says:

    I was walking with my mother and my young daughters this morning singing the The Frog that would a-wooing go nursery rhyme and we discussed the provenance of th rhyme. My family live in Suffolk and have lived in this part of the country for several generations. We have always been under the impression that (and according to my grand father) this rhyme refers to several distinguished Suffolk families The Rowleys, the Poleys, now Weller-Poleys, The Bacons (gammon) and The Greenes ( spinach). We are close friends of the Greenes and they concur with this theory. The Greenes are descended from the novelist and travel writer Graham Greene. Whether the nursery rhyme “The Frog that would a-wooing go” was written about these families or whether the rhyme came first, who knows.

  21. Octopus Says:

    I hope that one day people take my lazy sunday morning silly rhymes and try to figure out their signifance. haha.

  22. Fergus Brogan Says:

    Thank you so much and thank you Simon Cox. All my life I have been saying “Heigh Ho says Anthony Rowly” which is an expression I learned from my mother. I always knew it referred to Sir Walter Raleigh which the English ruling class pronounce ‘Rawley’. But why was Walter changed to Anthony?

    My mother was born in 1910 and had a rudimentary education with the local nuns in Drogheda, Co Louth, Ireland. She could and would recite great epic poems at the drop of a hat – the complete ‘Deserted Village’ and Irish patriotic poems as well as passages from Shakespeare and others. These she would proclaim as she did the ironing and once started she would continue until the end – the poem not the ironing.

    Now I find, as I age, so many of her sayings and quotes are coming out of my own mouth.

    Kind regards.
    FB

  23. Caspian Fawcus Says:

    I was in Suffolk last weekend looking at a painting my Grandmother had done of Sir Joshua Rowley’s house. My Aunt explained the provenance of the song. It does indeed refer to the families of Rowley, Powley, Bacon and Green. They were the families that resisted Henry V111’s reformation and presumably came to a sticky end as per the song!

  24. Cheryl Chastain Says:

    Your site comes into play often, as I seek the original rhymes that inspired Fredrick Winsor’s The Space Child’s Mother Goose (Illustrations by Marian Parry) ISBN 978-1-930900-46-2

  25. Alan Lowe Says:

    I’m in my early seventies and my father, who was a Londoner, used to sing to me and my brothers:-

    It was just before dawn on a holiday morn, our vessel got wrecked at sea,
    And when it was found everybody was drowned, excepting the captain and me,
    We spent forty days on a raft that we made, with nothing to eat, not a thing,
    And each time the captain lay down for a slumber, to cheer him I used to sing

    Oh for the roly-poly mother used to make,
    Roly-poly treacle duff, roly-poly that’s the stuff,
    Only to think about it makes my tummy ache,
    Oh lor lummy, I want my mummy and the pudding she used to make

    I now sing it to my granddaughter.

  26. john chilton Says:

    In our village we have a lady called W. Rowley who is a professional flower arranger and her name always connects in my mind with “A frog he would a wooing go” I got to wondering: “could have a political reference like Georgie Porgie. Was his perhaps a French prince who wanted to marry without the queen, his mother, or the royal family’s approval. The information and speculation on your site has been fascinating. Thank you.

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