The song, although humorous, also reflects some of the hardships of working class life in London at the beginning of the 20th century. It joined a music hall tradition of dealing with life in a determinedly upbeat fashion. In the song a couple are obliged to move house, after dark, because they cannot pay their
rent. At the time the song was written, most London houses were rented, so moving in a hurry – a moonlight flit – was common when the husband lost his job or there was insufficient money to pay the rent.
The couple rush to fill up the van, and its tailboard, with their possessions, in case the landlord appears. When the van is packed up, however, there is no room left for the wife. The husband therefore instructs her to follow the van, which she does, carrying the pet bird. Unfortunately, en route, the wife loses her way after stopping at a pub for a drink. Thereafter, she reflects that it would be ill-advised to approach one of the volunteer policemen (a "special"), as they are less trustworthy than a regular police constable (a "copper") and might take advantage of her inebriation. Alternatively (according to the physical gestures accompanying the song) they may simply be less qualified to give dependable street directions.
The song forms the basis of a football chant in the UK at clubs such as
Manchester United and
Glentoran F.C. In the chant, the narrator's old man suggests being a fan of a rival club. The narrator responds aggressively and reveals a negative opinion of all fans of that club, using obscene language.
Cardinal Fang (
Terry Gilliam) briefly began to recite the tune under his breath after citing charges of heresy against the Holy Church, but was subsequently cut off by
Cardinal Ximénez (
Michael Palin) before completing the first line. This was part of the famous
Spanish Inquisition Sketch from the
Monty Python comedy troupe. Palin,
Jones, and Gilliam would burst into the room whenever someone uttered a form of the trigger phrase, "I didn't expect a Spanish Inquisition."
It is sung in the opening of the 1974 TV play "Regan", written by Ian Kennedy Martin and starring
John Thaw as the titular character, which served as the pilot episode of The Sweeney.
The first verse and chorus is sung in
Upstairs, Downstairs by the servants as part of their New Year's celebrations in Series 4, Episode 9, "Another Year." The group seems to mix up the line about the "special" and the old-time copper, but it may be because the butler, Mr. Hudson, serves as a "special." (See Series 4, Episode 3, "The Beastly Hun.")
In an episode of The Archers broadcast on Monday 28 September 2015, the chorus is sung by Ruth Archer and her mother immediately before the latter's collapse from a stroke and subsequent death. An alternative third line is used - "Off went the van with me old man in it".
In a commercial for
Jerry Seinfeld is shown singing the song with others in an English pub, part of a montage showing the comedian's adjusting to British culture.
^Caged song birds were very popular in Victorian and Edwardian England, and the male, or cock, linnet was common.
^During World War I "Special Constabulary" were recruited on a part-time basis to replace or augment the regular "old-time coppers" of peacetime. The purported untrustworthiness of the "specials" may simply reflect their inability to provide reliable street directions