Was There a Real Mother Hubbard?

Was there a real Old Mother Hubbard?  Well, references to a Mother Hubbard date back to the waning days of the 16th century.  It has long been assumed that the stories of a Mother Hubbard, the woman who went to the cupboard to fetch her poor little dog a bone traces back to a real figure.  That figure would be rather little known French martyr name St. Hubert who it just so happens was the patron saint of hunters…and dogs.  The only problem with this story is that St. Hubert was not a woman, but a man.  Not a whole terribly lot is known about St. Hubert other than that he was the Bishop of Tongres-Maerstricht and that he died from injuries sustained after going hunting.   

The nursery rhyme that has made Old Mother Hubbard familiar to millions of kids and hundreds of thousands of kindergarten teachers came to us around 1805 in England.  It was allegedly written by Sarah Catherine Martin under suspiciously dramatic circumstances.   Sarah Catherine Martin had quite the interesting life; it is said that she was once the lover of the man who would become England’s King William IV.  It was while visiting the home of her future in-laws that her future brother-in-law with the name, I kid you know, John Bastard, became so incensed by Sarah’s incessant chattering while he was trying to compose a letter that he told her to “run away and write one of your stupid little rhymes.”  And so Sarah Catherine Martin ran away and composed the following:  

Old Mother Hubbard 

Went to the cupboard 

To fetch her poor dog a bone; 

But when she came there 

The cupboard was bare 

And so the poor dog had none.” 

Recognizable and familiar to most, but was it entirely original on Sarah Catherine Martin’s part?  Was it she who had created a fictional nursery rhyme character that appeared to be based on old French martyr?  It would appear the answer to the question is big ol’ negatory, Big Ben.   Roughly one year before Martin’s verse was composed, there had appeared in print in an English book a poem titled Dame Trot that went a little like this: 

Old Dame Trot, 

Some cold fish had got, 

Which for pussy, 

She kept in store, 

When she looked there was none 

The cold fish had gone, 

For puss had been there before.” 

Not exactly the same, but in most courtrooms Sarah Catherine Martin might have some trouble convincing a jury that she had at least not been “influenced” by Dame Trot.  Making matters all the worse is that Dame Trot had not actually been written the year before.  In fact, the funny little poem about the humorous little cat is thought to have been written some 100 years earlier and there is much evidence to suggest that Sarah Catherine Martin, the inventor of Old Mother Hubbard, might have been read the adventures of Dame Trot and her cat when she was a child.  As such, it is entirely possible that it had entered into her subconscious and lay there dormant, just waiting to be plucked out Martin ran off to write one of her stupid little rhymes.  

The upshot is that though Sarah Catherine Martin may have first written some verse using the name Old Mother Hubbard it would be a tragically misguided mistake to assume that she actually created her.