A HUNDRED years have passed since the first publication of The Nursery Rhymes of England, 'collected principally from oral tradition' by James Orchard Halliwell. This little volume, by the young man of 22 who was later to become world-renowned as a Shakespearian scholar, has been reprinted (in various guises) more times than any of his numerous later, and more ambitious studies. The collection, interspersed with notes about the age and origins of the nursery rhymes, was the outcome of much random delving and is a treasure store of curious information. It was the first work to draw attention to the antiquity of the rhymes with any conviction, and the first collection which attempted to be comprehensive. For a century its authority as the standard work has been unchallenged. Together with his Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales, published in 1849, it is the basis (whether acknowledged or not) of almost every nursery anthology, and it has been the principal English source, often the sole source other than the fertile imaginations of the 'happy guessers', of every essay and paragraph on the origin of nursery rhymes which has been published since.
Halliwell opened the gate to a fascinating field of research and it is strange that little attempt has been made to continue his work. The extent of his reading and his erudition were such that a superstition arose, persisting to this day, that there was nothing more to be learnt about the rhymes. In all these years no attempt has been made to verify his statements; his inaccuracies have been repeated with monotonous regularity, and no attempt has been made even to consolidate the new facts which have come to light in the past three generations. Yet Halliwell himself knew more than he ever cared to publish. Although it may be true that he collected 'principally from oral tradition', there were a number of contemporary rhyme books available to him, and there were others which might have been considered antique when he himself was a child.
In the introduction to his first edition he acknowledges having seen Infant Institutes, published in 1797. In subsequent editions he refers to three other books: Gammer Gurton's Garland or the NurseryParnassus