This recording was made by Iona Opie in Huddersfield in 1978. According to the Opies this song originally started out as an 'adult-sponsored party game' although it often spilled out onto streets and playgrounds. The date when this song began as a game is unknown, although the earliest known version of the lyrics is found in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book (1744). The actions may possibly be a variation of the routine to a dance entitled ‘Oranges and Lemons’ published in John Playford’s English Dancing Master (1670). According to Roud, the head-chopping is a much later edition as there is no record of this line being added to the song until the 1840s.
The game is now played by children dancing through an arch made by two players holding hands (facing each other, arms raised). On the final line word the pair drop their hands to try and capture the child, or children, passing under the arch at the time. If the children were dancing under the arch in pairs, the captured pair joins hands and created a new arch and the game continues. If the children were passing through the arch in single file then the captured child goes to stand behind one of the children creating the arch. This process is repeated until each child has been captured and has joined a line so that a game of ‘tug-of-war’ can take place.