Nursery Rhymes for little Anglo-Indians

(notes by John Radcliffe and John McGivering)


Published in Echoes by Two Writers in Lahore in August 1884. One rhyme “I had a little husband” had already appeared in “Music for the Middle-Aged” an article by Kipling in the Civil and Military Gazette on 21 June 1884. (See Andrew Rutherford p. 220). They are listed in ORG as No 122. ORG (p. 5071, notes that a number of the rhymes included in Echoes were omitted when the poem was later collected.

They are based on old English nursery rhymes which would have been very familiar in Victorian households.


Collected in:

  • The Outward Bound Edition vol xvii (1900)
  • Edition de Luxe vol xviii (1900)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling (1986) Ed. Rutherford, p. 230
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Pinney, p. 1223

The rhymes

Kipling used these ‘Nursery Rhymes’, which as Harry Ricketts points out (p. 65) are not strictly parodies, to offer an unappealing account of life in India for the ‘Anglo-Indians’ he wrote for in the CMG. (In Kipling’s day the expression ‘Anglo-Indian’ referred to British people living in India, rather than to people of mixed British and Indian parentage.)

In the hot season babies will die, says the poet, wives taking refuge in the hill stations will have affairs while their husbands are sweltering in the plains, or remarry when they die of typhoid, or malaria, or cholera. Under future changes in the law, venal Indians will rejoice when the jurisdiction of Indian judges is extended. and landowners will be unable to evict improvident tenants who fail to pay their rent. It is not a pretty picture, and far removed from the traditional English childhood jingles whose forms they borrow, though it reflects the grim realities of life for Anglo-Indians as Kipling observed them.

Many of the traditional rhymes have interesting and sometime political origins. See “The Roud Folk-song Index” by Steve Roud.

An interesting point arises here, the infant Kipling was brought up to the age of five by Indian servants, including an ayah whom he loved and went to some trouble to see on his last visit to India in December 1891. His well-remembered nursery-rhymes would have been Indian, like “Shiv and the Grasshopper”. It seems unlikely that Alice Kipling sang “Rock-a-by Baby” to little Ruddy and Trix.


Kipling left United Services College in July 1882, and in October became Assistant Editor of the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore. See our notes on “A Vision of India” for an account of his experiences and state of mind at that time.

Notes on the Text

[1. Hush-a-by, Baby]

The infant mortality rate among British families living in India was high. As Mulvaney in “The Daughter of the Regiment” recalls (Plain Tales from the Hills p. 207):

‘Whin the childher wasn’t bornin’, they was dying; for, av our childher die like sheep in these days, they died like flies thin. I lost me own little Shad—but no matther. ’Tis long ago, and Mrs. Mulvaney niver had another.’

The risk to children’s health in India was one reason why mothers like Alice Kipling sent their infants back to England to be brought up. See “Kipling and Medicine”.by Dr Gillian Sheehan.

pukka tomb meanss a permanent tomb. Many such tombs of young children can still be seen in graveyards im Imdia.

[2. I had a little husband]

In the hot months life for Europeans working in the plains was rendered very hard by the heat. Between April and September the average temperature in Lahore is over 26 degrees, rising to over 30 between May and August. Often it is considerably hotter. To escape the heat the headquarters of the Indian Government moved from Calcutta to Simla (now Shimla), 7500 feet (2276 metres) up in the Himalayas, in the summer months. Soldiers and civilians would send their wives and children up to the hill stations like Simla, or Mussoorie, or Kasauli, and continue their work in the plains, with the chance for some of leave in the hills. There was a lively social life in the hill-stations, as Kipling described in many stories; many extra-marital affairs, and a ready flow of rumour and gossip.

[3. ‘Ba-Ba-Babu, have you got your will?’]

This refers to the Ilbert Bill, introduced by the Liberal-appointed Viceroy Lord Ripon, which aimed to extend the powers of Indian magistrates to try British subjects. This was strongly opposed by the mass of Anglo-Indian opinion. See Rutherford (p. 184); also Something of Myself pp. 50-51 for Kipling’s account of being hissed in the club because his paper – which had the government printing contract – had failed to oppose the Bill.

This rhyme was included in Echoes, but not in the later collected editions, perhaps
because it would have meant little to readers outside India.

babu Strictly a term of respect for educated Bengalis, who often worked as clerks; here used disrespectfully of Indian magistrates. Hurree Chunder Mookerjee in Kim is called a Babu.

Barra Lat Sahib The great Lord Sahib, the Viceroy.

Kipling later (1888) used “Baa Baa Black Sheep” as the title for the heart-rending story of his unhappy time with a cruel foster-mother in Southsea between the age of five and eleven.

[4. See-saw, Justice and Law,]
Rutherford notes (p. 231) that this is a reference to the projected Bengal Tenancy Bill which was thought to favour tenants over landlords, making it hard for them to evict tenants who could not oay their rent. For the Government of India’s concern over land tenure, and for scepticism about Indian representation on goverment bodies, see “Tods’ Amendment” (Plain Tales from the Hills) (p.196).

raiyats tenant farmers, peasants. See also “The Indian Farmer at Home.”

Zamindar Landowner holding land directly from the Government,

[5. Sing a Song of Sixpence,]

Kipling’s reflections on the heat, disease, and danger of snakebite faced by Anglo-Indians. See also “A Vision of India” . See “Kipling and Medicine”.by Dr Gillian Sheehan.

the krait ,,, The Cobra Venomous snakes often to be found in Indian gardens. See “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”. and “The Return of Imray” Life’s Handicap p. 275.

[6. With a lady flirt a little­ ]

See “I had a little Husband” above. As Philip Holberton notes this is an echo of “Comin’ through the rye” by Robert Burns: ‘Gin a body meet a body/ Comin’ thro’ the rye…’

[7. Jack’s own Jill goes up to the Hill ]

See “I had a little Husband” above.

[8. Mary, Mary, quite contrary]
where do your subalterns go ? Subalterns were junior officers in the army, normally unmarried, but liable to be posted off at very short notice because of the demands of the service.

©John Radcliffe and John McGivering 2017 All rights reserved