We all know that the nursery rhymes we sang as children really have some sinister beginnings, right? “Sing a Song of Sixpence” is really a song about piracy, and “Ring Around the Rosy” has to do with the Black Plague. And remember this little ditty?
Lucy Locket lost her pocket
Kitty Fisher found it
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon ’round it.
This one has some really intriguing origins. It stems from an eighteenth-century British courtesan’s romantic entanglements, and it was sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.”
Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra, by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Catherine Maria “Kitty” Fisher was one of London’s most famous courtesans during the 18th century. Little is known about her childhood, but instead of slaving away as a milliner for a pittance, Kitty decided to make a career change to courtesan when she saw how much more money she could be making, what nice things she could get with it, and how much more fun she could be having. Aside from the amusements of the boudoir, Kitty also advertised “clever and witty conversation.” And she was known for her love of sparklies; when he first met her, Giacamo Casanova noted that “[s]he was magnificently dressed, and it is no exaggeration to say that she had on diamonds worth five hundred thousand francs.” She also was a favorite subject of British painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. Yet for all of this, Kitty was known for her lighthearted antics; once she even ate “a thousand-pound banknote on her bread and butter.” This was what made people love Kitty so much; despite her shady way of earning a living, she’d worked her way up from near the bottom of the ladder to a very comfortable position near the top, but she still retained some of her working-class roots.
While riding in St. James’ Park one day, Kitty had a little mishap. She was thrown from her horse and landed on the ground in such a way that her skirts billowed up and some of the public got a free show. Embarrassed, Kitty was tearful, but then she regained her composure and, amused at her little fall, called for a sedan chair to take her home. The press had a field day with this; they came all with all sorts of clever little songs and rhymes about it. Kitty took it all in stride. Really, it may have helped her to remain fresh in the minds of London’s public.
The rhyme above has to do with one of Kitty’s admirers. Apparently, Lucy Locket, a barmaid, gave the guy she’d been seeing the cold shoulder after he had spent all of his money on her. Even though the spurned lover was broke, he certainly wasn’t brokenhearted. He soon found love again on the rebound…in the arms of Kitty Fisher, which didn’t sit too well with Lucy. Funnily enough, at that time, the word locket was a euphemism for the vagina, and aside from the boyfriend being the “pocket” or means of cash, “prostitutes were known to tie their pockets round their thighs with ribbon.” Perhaps another of Kitty’s lovers may have had some bearing on the rhyme; Kitty was having a very passionate, very public affair with Lord Coventry, the husband of Maria Gunning. Needless to say, the two women hated each other and had some very public spats, as well, that were fodder for gossip among the ton of London.
Life in the fast lane soon lost its appeal for Kitty, and she married an MP in 1766 and became a society matron. She became very involved in philanthropic efforts and a well-regarded member of London high society, but it was all too short-lived. After four months of marriage, Kitty died of smallpox, so unfortunately, she was unable to enjoy the fruits of her choice of domesticity. But she still had to go out with style: she was buried in her ballgown, per her last wishes.
Nonetheless, Kitty’s name and reputation have lived on in this little ditty that has now become a child’s nursery rhyme. So now when you hear a little kid reciting or singing it, you’ll know the story behind the audacious woman about whom it was written.
Source: “Kitty Fisher.” The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide to the 18th Century. <www.georgianaduchessofdevonshire.blogspot.com>
*Crossposted from Persephone Magazine.