Folklore Collection and Social Investigation in Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Century England

By Freeman, Mark | Folklore, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Folklore Collection and Social Investigation in Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Century England


Freeman, Mark, Folklore


Abstract

This article compares the different, but related, activities of folklore collection and social investigation in an important period of English rural history. It is argued that the outputs of both activities reflected a complex series of social and cultural interactions in rural theatres of inquiry, and as such that the methods and concepts underpinning them can themselves illustrate important facets of the social history of the period. The article draws on the model of transition from an "informant" method of data collection--characterised by the consultation of elites rather than the investigated population itself--to a "respondent" method, which relied on first-hand contact with the subjects of inquiry. It is suggested that this model, devised to explain the history of social research, is also relevant to the history of folklore collection. The transition was not smooth, however: rather, it initiated intense methodological conflict between different investigators; and even where the "respondent" method was enthusiastically advocated, there were limits to the extent of empathy that was achieved by collectors and investigators with the population in which they were interested. The article draws on a variety of published sources from the period, including the 1890 and 1914 editions of The Handbook of Folklore.

Introduction

The collection of English folklore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was largely a rural activity; and the upsurge of interest in folklore, reflected in the formation of The Folklore Society in 1878, coincided with a rediscovery of rural poverty that had remained hidden since the days of the "Swing" riots and the "Hungry Forties." Following the formation of the National Agricultural Labourers' Union in 1872, and continuing unabated until 1914, there came a steady stream of social investigations of country life, focusing on low wages, poor housing and the paucity or unwholesomeness of village recreational opportunities. The rural poor and the conditions in which they lived came under intense and arguably unprecedented scrutiny; indeed in 1895 one commentator wondered whether "this passion for inquiry ... may not become extravagant" (Gamier 1895, 407). The founding fathers of the urban social survey, Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree, also worked in rural areas; the government carried out extensive surveys of the condition of the agricultural labourer; and books and pamphlets of all kinds described the rural population and suggested schemes for the improvement of rural life (Freeman 2003). Folklore collection was part of this "passion for inquiry." Vic Gammon has linked folklorists and social investigators (along with folk-song collectors) in this period within the broader context of the nineteenth-century "genius for collection and classification" (1980, 74).

This paper focuses on the methodologies developed by folklore collectors and social investigators, mainly at the level of first-hand information gathering, and explores the frequently conflicting constructions of rurality and rusticity that shaped the development and contestation of rural social investigative methods. Social investigations of all kinds in this period transmitted a wide variety of information about the conditions and outlook of the English agricultural labourer: they ranged from poverty surveys along the lines of Booth's (1892-7) and Rowntree's (1902) studies of London and York, through explorations by special-correspondent journalists, to official inquiries into agricultural wages and rural depopulation. Alongside these surveys, a popular genre of country literature conveyed ideas about the English "peasantry" (as the non-landed agricultural labouring classes were frequently labelled) to a broader audience of literate, urban middle-class readers. Much of the information on British folklore and on rural social conditions was transmitted by the same people--Henry Moule (Vicar of Fordington in Dorset), for example, was both an active folklore collector and a campaigner for improved rural housing, while Richard Jefferies (one of the most popular country authors of the late nineteenth century) and Augustus Jessopp (Vicar of Scarning in Norfolk and one of the most prolific writers on rural life in the 1880s) conveyed information and analysis of both folkloric interest and sociological value (Fraser 1961; Drew 1967). …

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