I'm reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens at the moment, and in Chapter 8 Mr Jarndyce calls Esther Summerson by various nicknames, including Mother Hubbard, Mrs Shipton and Dame Durden. Mother Hubbard was the title character of one of the most popular nursery rhymes of the 19th century. Although some say that the rhyme was originally meant to be a political satire, if the words are taken at face value Mother Hubbard is an ordinary housewifely type who indulges her dog. The OED says that the word Mother was “used as a respectful (or mock-respectful) form of address to an elderly woman, esp. to one of little means or education”.
Mrs Shipton, or Mother Shipton, as the OED has it, was supposedly a 16th-century witch. The only evidence that she actually existed is a pamphlet entitled The Prophesie of Mother Shipton in the Raigne of King Henry the Eighth, which was published in 1641, decades after her death. The prophecy that brought her national fame concerned Cardinal Wolsey. In 1530, Wolsey, who had become Archbishop of York in 1514, was on his way for the very first time to York. Mother Shipton predicted that, though Wolsey might see the city, he would never reach it. According to the pamphlet, Wolsey climbed to the top of the tower of Cawood Castle, from where he could see York in the distance, and vowed that when he got to York he would have Mother Shipton burnt as a witch. Wolsey was arrested while still at Cawood on a charge of high treason, and died shortly afterwards. And so, he never did reach York. Interest in Mother Shipton and her prophecies remained fairly steady over the next couple of centuries, and by the end of the 18th century she was appearing in pantomime as an ugly hook-nosed witch or fairy godmother – Mother Shipton Triumphant, or, Harlequin's Museum was performed at Covent Garden in the 1790s. By the 19th century Mother Shipton was appearing in popular literature as a figure who would prophesy the future for young ladies, so would have been well known to readers of Dickens.
Dame Durden was a name very well known to the Victorian public, mainly thanks to a popular glee, or song, whose first verse began:
Dame Durden kept five servant maids
To carry the milking pail,
She also kept five labouring men
To use the spade and flail;
with the first four lines of the second verse being:
Dame Durden in the morn so soon
She did begin to call;
To rouse her servant maids and men
She then began to bawl;
Dame Durden was also a character in Victorian pantomime, especially in Jack and the Beanstalk (she was Jack’s mother). The pantomime Harlequin Hudibras or Old Dame Durden and the Droll Days of the Merry Monarch played at Drury Lane Theatre in the 1850s, the decade Bleak House appeared. The title Dame originally denoted high rank, but after the 17th century it referred only to women of lower rank.