The traditional nursery rhyme/riddle "As I was Going to St. Ives" appears to have a simple answer

Q. How many were there going to St. Ives?
A. Just the traveller.

But is this what the author originally intended? Surely he could have met the man, the wives and the menagerie traveling in the same direction, not least because a single unencumbered man/woman could undoubtedly move faster than a family and several thousand cats.

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    What author? This is so old and traditional, I doubt it had a single author, or that that person's intention would tell us anything useful about the poem. It's up to your own interpretation really.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Apr 8, 2017 at 13:10
  • @Randal'Thor - Well, for starters the version I know is written in modern English. Are earlier versions more clear, perhaps?
    – Valorum
    Apr 8, 2017 at 13:21
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    Strong views expressed elsewhere (that it was intended to have the answer one) but without strong evidence. The problem is at least as old as the Rhind Papyrus (c.1550BC) then about mice and sacks. It is repeated in the 13th century Liber Abaci, then about women with mules on their way to Rome. In both cases inviting you to answer the obvious problem. Presumably along the way the message got garbled and some pompous ass decided the answer was one (which, as you point out, is neither obvious nor necessary). Presumably said ass was not very good at pragmatics. Apr 8, 2017 at 19:47

1 Answer 1


Rand al'Thor makes the valid comment that as with many nursery rhymes it doesn't have an author.

The earliest known published version of it comes from a manuscript dated to around 1730 , though as it was a nursery rhyme it was probably in use orally beforehand. The modern form was first printed around 1825.

You ask about earlier versions being clearer in the comments, but the only difference in the earliest known version is it says nine instead of seven.

The riddle doesn't have a definite answer, though 1 is the general accepted answer. While the answer could be 7+49+343+2401+16807+1 which is 19608, remember this is a children's nursery rhyme, and the purpose of it wouldn't be to make little children do ridiculously long sums, so the intended answer is likely to be 1. The riddle would have been designed to surprise people with the simple answer.

The poem may have been developed to help the lateral thinking and problem solving skills of the children, to make them think which way the people were travelling. The words in nursery rhymes are usually included to make the poem humorous, or just to make it rhyme, usually both reasons are present. They need to be simple and words children would know or will know in the near future.

Nursery rhymes also often create nice visual images for the reader, and woman, sacks, cats and kittens would be easy to visualise for the child.

All info from wikipedia

  • I was rather hoping for a slightly deeper level of analysis
    – Valorum
    Apr 8, 2017 at 13:29
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    @Valorum its a childrens nursery rhyme. Its not meant to make sense, and there isn't really anything to analyse Apr 8, 2017 at 13:30
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    @BeastlyGerbil yes there is: why cats? why not dogs? Why did he have that many wives? why were the wives carying the sacks, not the man? som many unanswered questions. Apr 8, 2017 at 14:55
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    @BeastlyGerbil that doesn't mean that they can't be analysed. Since only the numbers changed, there must be a reason for the other things to remain unchancged. Apr 8, 2017 at 14:59
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    @MarkGardner nursery rhymes are traditional poems which are often nonsense. The words selected are probably just selected because they are simple words for kids which rhyme and may make the child laugh. Sure, you could analyse them, but I don't think you get any decent results. I imagine the numbers changed just because of either word of mouth or to make it sound better Apr 8, 2017 at 15:02

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