Alice E. Gillington: Dweller on the Roughs

By Yates, Michael; Roud, Steve | Folk Music Journal, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview
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Alice E. Gillington: Dweller on the Roughs

Yates, Michael, Roud, Steve, Folk Music Journal

Alice E. Gillington was a pioneer collector of songs from English Gypsies and yet today she remains largely unknown. Although invited to join the Folk-Song Society, she never did so. This paper considers her collection and collecting methods, asks why Gillington remained apart from other collectors, and tries to discover why she chose to follow her own path.


  The rosy musk-mellow blooms where the south wind blows,
    O my gypsy rose!
  In the sweet dark lanes where thou and I must meet;
    So sweet!
  From 'The Rosy Musk Mellow; or, Romany Love Song', by Alice E.

ON 21 July 1907, Cecil Sharp, the leading English folk song collector of his day, wrote to his wife to tell her of an encounter with a Gypsy folk singer:

  Talk of folk-singing! It was the finest and most characteristic bit of
  singing I had ever heard. Fiendishly difficult to take down, both
  words and music, but we eventually managed it! I cannot give you any
  idea what it was all like, but it was one of the most wonderful
  adventures I have ever had. (1)

The singer was called Betsy Holland and the 'fiendishly difficult' tune was one used for the song 'The Murder of James MacDonald'. The encounter is remarkable for two separate reasons. Firstly, according to A. H. Fox Strangways, the tune used for the song was in the Lydian mode and this was the only time that Sharp was to discover any melody in this rare mode in England. (2) Secondly, this was almost the only occasion on which Sharp collected songs from a Gypsy singer. There were a few other occasions, including one Christmas morning on which Sharp was using a phonograph to record songs from a female Gypsy singer, when

  suddenly she stopped singing and, turning deathly white, announced
  that she heard her husband approaching, and as he was of a jealous
  disposition she was afraid he would kill Mr Sharp. Sharp did not want
  to be killed, and there was nothing for it but to present a bold face.
  Opening the caravan door, he shouted to the man: 'A happy Christmas to
  you. Stop a moment and listen. I've got your wife's voice in a box.'
  The man listened to the record of his wife's song and was so amazed
  and delighted that he forgot to kill him, and instead they became
  great friends. (3)

Cecil Sharp, however, was not the first person to visit Gypsies in search of songs. Charlotte Burne, the first female President of the Folk-Lore Society, included a few songs collected from Gypsies in her survey of Shropshire Folk-Lore. (4) In 1891 Dr John Sampson, Librarian of Liverpool University from 1892 to 1928, contributed an article, 'English Gypsy Songs and Rhymes', to an issue of the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society. (5) Sampson was an authority on the Gypsies of Wales, some of whom began calling him 'the Rai', or 'Gentleman'. His later publications include The Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales and Welsh Gypsy Folk-Tales. (6) Certain members of the Folk-Song Society, including Lucy Broadwood and Ralph Vaughan Williams, were also visiting Gypsies at about the same time that Sharp was meeting Betsy Holland. And Ella Mary Leather interviewed Gypsies for her book The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire, which appeared in 1912. (7) However, the first book to be devoted solely to Gypsy songs was Laura Alexandrine Smith's Romany Song Land, published in 1889, which contains songs collected from Romanies throughout Europe, Russia, and India. (8) It was not, however, until 1910 and 1911 that two books devoted to songs collected from English Gypsies appeared. These were Alice E. Gillington's Old Christmas Carols of the Southern Counties (1910) and Songs of the Open Road: Didakei Ditties & Gypsy Dances (1911), two pioneering works by an author who is almost unknown today (Figure 1). (9) It is our intention to examine how these books came to be written and why it is that their author has been ignored for so long.

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