It is perhaps fitting, although sad, to pay tribute to Ursula Vaughan Williams in a year that marks the fiftieth anniversary of her husband's death. On 23 October 2007, at the grand age of ninety-six, Ursula's passing saw arguably the final intimate link with what is still commonly regarded as the golden era of folk music and dance collecting of the early twentieth century, gone forever. An inspiring film about Ralph by Tony Palmer, O Thou Transcendent (2008), plus somewhat more salacious radio and television productions by the BBC, (1) have no doubt further raised this formidable woman's profile for a more general public, but it would be wrong to assess Ursula's worth in some kind of shadow of her famous husband. Ursula was a very much her own person and one whose character was imbued with loyalty and determination for the things she believed in.
Joan Ursula Penton was born into a military family in Valletta, Malta, on 15 March 1911, and was brought up in that unsettled but rather controlled environment. Her passion for literature and drama, however, shaped her early life and, after completing her schooling in Brussels, she escaped to London in 1932 to become a student at the Old Vic. Perhaps ironically, she married a soldier, Michael Forrester Wood, in May 1933, but he shared her tastes in the arts and supported her developing literary interests, which manifested themselves in the writing of verse, producing poetry programmes for the BBC, and reviewing for the Times Literary Supplement.
Her time at the Old Vic was fateful in that it introduced her to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. After experiencing a performance of the ballet Job, choreographed by Ninette de Valois, she was so inspired that she wrote a scenario for a masque and sent it to the composer in 1937. This produced little enthusiasm on Ralph's part but did result in a luncheon engagement the following spring, arranged with the help of Douglas Kennedy, the EFDSS director, to whom the scenario, being based on a folk ballad, had been sent. The sixty-five-year-old composer was hugely impressed with this young, vibrant woman and a friendship was forged that day that proved collaborative, lasting, and ultimately binding.
Michael Wood died suddenly of a heart attack in 1942, and Ralph and his invalid wife, Adeline, often invited the young widow to stay with them at their home in Dorking, Surrey, until she found her feet again. She did this by giving up her voluntary work with the St Marylebone Citizens' Advice Bureau and acquiring a salaried job as secretary-receptionist to a London-based paediatrician. Her love of folk dancing was also significant at this time, and brought her into closer contact with the EFDSS (of which Ralph became president in 1946, and she herself in 2005), Cecil Sharp House, and in particular her great friend Maud Karpeles, whom she had met while helping administer a committee for refugees from Nazi oppression.
Ursula's close relationship with Ralph was not a secret and she became a constant companion, although it is clear from his correspondence that Ralph's devotion to Adeline was absolute. …