St Ives .mobi

st ives harbour

St Ives Cats Nursery Rhyme

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, wives
How many were going to St Ives?


Can you work that out in your head?
This classic rhyme has puzzled people for centuries. If you're on the beach without a calculator this might help:

1 husband + 7 wives + 49 sacks + 343 cats (that's 49 sacks x 7 cats per sack) + 2401 kittens (that's 343 cats x 7 kittens/cat)
- and let's assume they weren't Siamese cats so there weren't any Siamese twins -
= total of 2,801.

Or is it?

Should we also count the person telling the story? That means the traveller who said "As I was going to St Ives."



That would make a grand total of 2,802 going to St Ives for a nice holiday. But is this really the right answer? Have we missed anything here? How did those lucky cats get counted anyway, and to produce litters of exactly seven kittens every time had they been genetically engineered, possibly by aliens? And is the rhyme really asking us to count the sacks as well as part of the riddle, or just count the living creatures? There might have been mice in the sacks too.

Many people have scratched their heads over this tale over the years and sackfuls of wrong explanations still litter the internet, so without further pause lets get right to the one true answer to the timeless riddle. Ready? Let's go and let the cat out of the bag!

The classic answer to to this riddle is actually just 1 - assuming the husband and his wives are not going to St Ives, and only the person telling the story is going there and meets them as they come the other way. But more likely the man with seven wives is going to prison for bigamy (illegally marrying more than one woman at the same time), the wives are tired and hungry from each carrying 49 cats and 343 screaming kittens and are going to just sit down, and the hungry cats are sensibly just going to the nearby fishing port of Mousehole.

If you are interested in the formulas and mathematics behind this hairy problem, the mathematical formula for finding the solution is the standard Geometric Series which is carefully applied in a demonstration at Wolfram.com, which points out that if the narrator has companions then the number of people going there may be greater than one. It also relates this puzzle to the Rhind papyrus of 1650 BC which counts 7 houses, each with 7 cats, 7 mice, 7 spelt, and 7 hekat. The total number of items in that answer was over 19,000 and rising, as mice reproduce very fast.

How much does a cat weigh ? How much does a kitten weigh? How many could you carry?