Beyond Survivalism: Regional Folkloristic in Late-Victorian England

By Ashton, John | Folklore, Annual 1997 | Go to article overview

Beyond Survivalism: Regional Folkloristic in Late-Victorian England


Ashton, John, Folklore


In 1894, Albert Robert Tomlin a pharmacist, amateur naturalist and well-respected member of the Wesleyan Church congregation in the Yorkshire mining town of Barnsley compiled and published a fifteen-page pamphlet devoted to the subject of "Local Folk Lore."(1) This collection, unremarkable in most respects, includes examples of supernatural beliefs, calendar customs and local legends. Those items are accompanied by the author's observations on possible Nordic, Roman and other pagan antecedents as well as the seemingly obligatory lamentation as to how much other potentially valuable material has disappeared without being recorded and is now beyond retrieval.

Tomlin's excursion into the field of folklore is typical of his generation and finds parallels in dozens of similar contributions from scholars and hobbyists throughout Britain in the late-Victorian period. What may, however, be of more significance to those interested in the historical development of English folklore studies are the writer's brief introductory remarks concerning sources and methods. Here he complains that:

In attempting a compilation of the Folk Lore characteristic of the neighbourhood of Barnsley, it has been impossible for me to gain much help from published works. Local Histories, Antiquities, Biographies &c., appear to have ignored the subject in a superior sort of way, and it is only here and there that a scant notice can be found. What follows has, for the most part, been gleaned in conversation with villagers in the neighbourhood of Barnsley (Tomlin 1894, 1).

Tomlin proceeds to express his gratitude to

... a number of ladies and gentlemen who have in many ways exerted themselves to help me and who have, with cheerful resignation, submitted themselves to the indignity of being interviewed. [concluding that] Every care has been used to secure accuracy in this record (ibid.).

Shortly after the collection of Barnsley folklore appeared, William Sykes, a local doctor and antiquarian, began a serialised column entitled "Local Notes and Queries from a Common Place Book," in the Sheffield Miscellany. In his introduction to the first instalment Sykes asserts that:

The folk-tale must be noted down from the lips of the teller, not culled from newspapers. The folk-speech must be copied from the accents of the speaker, not extracted from the dialect almanac or dictionary (Sykes 1897, 35).

Given the intellectual climate pervading English folklore studies in the late-nineteenth century, the reader may be forgiven for imagining that statements such as those above represent little more than isolated anomalies. This was, after all, the great age of armchair scholarship(2) and blanket theories, and these men are complaining at the inadequacy of literary sources and advocating field-based collecting and the faithful reproduction of texts. Moreover the works which contain these pronouncements would not be likely to feature in any canon of late-Victorian folkloristics. Their authors might be reasonably termed "obscure," their contributions to the discipline neither frequent nor voluminous. Nevertheless, they represent a body of literature and a stream of thought in English folkloristics which has been under-represented and undervalued, and the continued neglect of which prolongs one of the inadequacies of conventional accounts of the history of folklore studies in England.

The published record of English folklore is largely that of the Folklore Society and the activities and intellectual products of its leading figures. It chronicles the rise of evolutionary theory and its folkloristic incarnation in the doctrine of survivals and the ensuing prevalence of comparative, re-iterative armchair scholarship.(3) It documents the relegation of fieldwork and collection to the status of secondary activities undertaken primarily around the Celtic fringe and in the far-flung corners of Empire, and engaged in with the principal objective of "testing the theory of cultural evolution in a living laboratory" (Bennett 1993, 88). …

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