The East End anthem ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ has been featured in the furthest reaches of pop culture, from West Ham matches, Mary Poppins and even the Muppets. But where does it really come from, what is its history and what does it mean?
Knees up Mother Brown lyrics
Knees up Mother Brown
Knees up Mother Brown
Under the table you must go
Ee-aye, Ee-aye, Ee-aye-oh
If I catch you bending
I’ll saw your legs right off
Knees up, knees up
don’t get the breeze up
Knees up Mother Brown
East End origins
The exact origin of ‘Knees up Mother Brown’ is unknown, but by the 1800s it had become a popular song in East End pubs and bars. There are no records about who wrote it, but it is thought that like many folk songs, it was passed down generations by word of mouth.
‘Knees up’ meant then what it does now: a party or a dance. In Victorian era London, the working class drunk ale down the pub while rich aristocrats were waltzing around ballrooms. Kicking your legs in the air and getting drunk stood in stark contrast to the prudishness of the Victorian upper-classes. ‘Mother Brown’ became a bawdy Cockney classic – a symbol and product of East End culture.
But around this time there was more than one reading of the song. Queen Victoria was often referred to as the ‘Mother’ of Great Britain, who famously spent years mourning the death of her husband, Albert. It is thought she might have needed a ‘knees up’ to cheer up.
‘Knees up’ also had a ruder meaning, referring to the position of a woman during sex. There was much speculation around whether Queen Victoria was in a romantic relationship with her servant, John Brown (hence Mother Brown). Some people think the song was egging the Queen on to get her ‘knees up’ for him.
Whatever the answer is, the song is bawdy and naughty and boisterous – it is either about sex or pulling someone’s bloomers down (‘I’ll saw your legs right off’) or rowdily dancing in the pub.
Mother Brown during the war
The song’s next appearance in the history books is during the first world war. Sung in the trenches, ‘Don’t get a breeze up’ meant don’t make a fuss, an upbeat way of telling the troops not to be afraid.
There is a record of ‘Mother Brown’ being belted out on Armistice Night, 11th November 1918, the day that the Allies and Germany signed the agreement that brought four years of fighting to an end.
Stories also circulated about American soldiers singing it in Portsmouth in 1918, as they made their way home after the war.
Until this point, there was no written-down version of ‘Mother Brown’. In 1938 it was finally published by Harris Weston and Bert Lee, an English songwriting and producing duo.
After it was officially released, the song became increasingly popular. In 1940 it was performed by Elsie and Doris Waters, a sister comedy act who were known for playing Gert and Daisy, two cockney characters who appeared on radio and film.
Knees Up Mother Brown in popular culture
You might know ‘Mother Brown’ most famously as a West Ham United anthem. It’s unclear how it became attached to the football supporters, but the first record of them singing it is in the 1950s.
A decade later in 1964, the song was rewritten for Disney’s Mary Poppins. Richard Sherman was inspired to write ‘Step in Time’ after he saw Walt Disney being taught the ‘Knees up Mother Brown’ dance by head of special effects and Londoner, Peter Ellenshaw.
In 1965, ‘Mother Brown’ was covered by Bing Cosby and Rosemary Clooney, and in 1971 by Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gillian in a Monty Python album. Noel Harrison and Petula Clark also gave it a crack on the music programme, Hullabaloo (below).
But perhaps the most highly regarded appearance of the song was in 1980, when it was covered by Fozzie Bear in The Muppet Show, a far cry from the spoon clinking, thigh slapping, foot stamping pubs of the Victorian East End.
If you have any more information about the history of ‘Knees up Mother Brown’, please get in touch.
If you are interested in the heritage and history of the East End, you might also be interested in reading about the legacy of boxing At Bethnal Green’s York Hall.
Can you help us?
As a not-for-profit media organisation using journalism to strengthen communities, we have not put our digital content behind a paywall or membership scheme as we think the benefits of an independent, local publication should be available to everyone living in our area.
If a fraction of the local 40,000 residents donated two pounds a month to Roman Road LDN it would be enough for our editorial team to serve the area full time and be beholden only to the community. A pound at a time, we believe we can get there.