As I was going to St Ives

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"As I was going to St Ives"
Roud #19772
Written byTraditional
Publishedc. 1730
FormNursery rhyme/riddle
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"As I was going to St Ives"
Roud #19772
Written byTraditional
Publishedc. 1730
FormNursery rhyme/riddle

"As I was going to St Ives" is a traditional English-language nursery rhyme in the form of a riddle. Its Roud Folk Song Index number is 19772.


The most common modern version is:

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?[1]


The earliest known published version of it comes from a manuscript dated to around 1730 (but it differs in referring to "nine" rather than "seven" wives).[1] The modern form was first printed around 1825.[1] A similar problem appears in the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus (Problem 79), dated to around 1650 BC, which could be described with the following text:

There are seven houses;
In each house there are seven cats;
Each cat catches seven mice;
Each mouse would have eaten seven ears of corn;
If sown, each ear of corn would have produced seven hekat of grain.
How many things are mentioned altogether?[2]

There are a number of places called St Ives in England and elsewhere. It is generally thought that the rhyme refers to St Ives, Cornwall, when it was a busy fishing port and had many cats to stop the rats and mice destroying the fishing gear, although some people argue it was St Ives, Huntingdonshire as this is an ancient market town and therefore an equally plausible destination.[3][4]


All potential answers to this riddle are based on its ambiguity because the riddle only tells us the group has been "met" on the journey to St. Ives and gives no further information about its intentions, only those of the narrator. As such, the 'correct' answer could be stated as "at least one, the person asking the question plus anyone who happens to be travelling in the same direction as him or her".[5]

If the group that the narrator meets is assumed not to be travelling to St. Ives the answer would be one person going to St. Ives: the narrator. This is the most common assumption,[1] as the purpose of the riddle was most likely to trick the listener into making long winded calculations only to be surprised by the simplicity of the answer.[6]

If it is not accepted that there is a 'trick' answer, then there are numerous (possibly infinite) mathematical answers, the most common of which is 2802: If the narrator met the group as they were also travelling to St. Ives and were overtaken by the narrator [1] the answer in this case is all are going to St. Ives. The ambiguity that leads to this answer may be a less strict modern use of the word 'met' where it replaces the more accurate 'passed' or 'overtook'; "to meet someone on the road" may have been commonly used for those going in opposite directions on narrow roads as in the first edition of The Highway Code.[7]

Rhind mathematical papyrus[edit]

A similar problem is found in the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus (Problem 79), dated to around 1650 BC. The papyrus is translated as follows:[8]

A house inventory:
411,204spelt2,301 [sic]

The problem appears to be an illustration of an algorithm for multiplying numbers. The sequence 7, 7 × 7, 7 × 7 × 7, ..., appears in the right-hand column, and the terms 2,801, 2 × 2,801, 4 × 2,801 appear in the left; the sum on the left is 7 × 2,801 = 19,607, the same as the sum of the terms on the right. Note that the author of the papyrus listed a wrong value for the fourth power of 7; it should be 2,401, not 2,301. However, the sum of the powers (19,607) is correct.

The problem has been paraphrased by modern commentators as a story problem involving houses, cats, mice, and grain, although in the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus there is no discussion beyond the bare outline stated above. The hekat was 130 of a cubic cubit (approximately 4.8 l or 1.1 imp gal or 1.3 US gal).

Use in popular culture[edit]

As I was going to St Ives
I met a man with seven wives
Of course, the seven wives weren't his
But here in France, that's how it is


As I was going to St Ives
I met a man with seven wives
I know this sounds absurd and loony
But that poor man was Mickey Rooney!

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 376–7.
  2. ^ "Transcript EPISODE 17 – RHIND MATHEMATICAL PAPYRUS". A history of the world. BBC. Retrieved 26 February 2012. 
  3. ^ Hudson, Noel (1989), St Ives, Slepe by the Ouse, St Ives Town Council, p. 131, ISBN 978-0-9515298-0-5 
  4. ^ Flanagan, Bridget (2003), The St Ives Problem, a 4000 Year Old Nursery Rhyme?, ISBN 0-9540824-1-9 
  5. ^ Gibson, Bryan (April 18, 2014). The Legend of St Yves. Waterside Press. p. 76. 
  6. ^ Ore, Oystein (1948). Number Theory and Its History. Courier Dover Publications. p. 118. 
  7. ^ The Highway Code. The Stationery Office. 1931. p. 9. 
  8. ^ Maor, Eli (2002) [1988], "Recreational Mathematics in Ancient Egypt", Trigonometric Delights, Princeton University Press, pp. 11–14 (in PDF, 1–4), ISBN 978-0-691-09541-7, retrieved 2009-04-19