Three old ladies locked in the lavatory (or were there seven of them?)

I recall a rhyme I heard as a child, it went “Oh dear, what can the matter be, three old ladies locked in the lavatory”.

It was something that amused me as a kid. I was taught it by family and never heard it anywhere else.

I wondered recently if this was a well known ditty, or was it something no-one else knew?

As I remember it the words were:

Oh dear, what can the matter be,
Three old ladies locked in the lavatory,
They’d been there from Monday to Saturday,
Oh what a shocking affair.

Turning to Google I discovered there are many variations. The number of elderly women involved was not constant. Sometimes there were two of them, but most often there were seven, the mind boggled.

Here is one version:

Oh, dear what can the matter be?
Seven old ladies got stuck in the lavatory
They were there from Sunday to Saturday
An nobody knew they were there.

There were more verses too. Again there were differences depending on the source. Most told the tale of how each unfortunate victim became trapped. The old ladies gained names such as Abigail Humphrey and Jennifer Pim. In other renditions they had descriptions not names, one being the ‘Bishop of Chichester’s daughter’.

So yes the song is well known across the English speaking world.

But what is it based on?

Who knows who came up with the lavatorial lyrics. The opening line and the tune come from the old song “Johnny’s so long at the fair”.

This again has variations. Here is a version collected by nursery rhyme experts Peter and Iona Opie.

O what can the matter be
And what can the matter be
O what can the matter be
Johnny bydes lang at the fair

And finally.

There are a few versions of “Seven old ladies” being sung on YouTube. Here is one from Raymond Crooke.

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