The Nigel Kelsey Collection of Children's Folklore, 1962-1990

By Wiltshire, Robin | Folklore, April 2001 | Go to article overview

The Nigel Kelsey Collection of Children's Folklore, 1962-1990


Wiltshire, Robin, Folklore


In 1988, Nigel Kelsey bequeathed to the University of Sheffield's Centre for English Cultural Tradition and Language (now National Centre for English Cultural Tradition NATCECT) a number of manuscript, printed and audio-tape items relating to his research into children's folklore. This collection was transferred to the Centre's archive in February 1991, following his death in November 1990.

The following biographical note and information on the creation, extent and subsequent transfer of Nigel Kelsey's collection to the Centre form part of an introductory section in a catalogue compiled by the author. This catalogue replaces an earlier, preliminary listing made shortly after receipt of the collection, and also includes series- and item-level descriptions of all constituent parts of the collection (including a separate listing of Nigel Kelsey's fieldwork tape-recordings, cross-referenced to transcripts and field notebooks), a subject, personal, place and corporate name index.

Nigel Kelsey (1919-90) worked as a primary school teacher in London from 1952 until his retirement in 1982. [1] He had trained as a teacher during the Second World War, as part of a scheme to help remedy the shortage of teachers at that time. Through this work, he developed a keen interest in the lore and language of children, and by 1964, as a class teacher at the Ben Jonson Primary School in Stepney, London, he was collecting examples of singing games and rhymes from his pupils. This involved both writing down and tape-recording what he heard. He later commented:

   As a class teacher I began collecting, in a very erratic and half-hearted
   way, the rhymes mainly used by girls for playing purposes ... On and off, I
   would bring my collection up to date but I never delved too deep into all
   the ramifications of entertainment rhymes.[2]

His collecting activity and interest in the area of children's folklore was furthered through a decision to study for the University of London's Diploma in the Education of Children in the Junior School at Maria Grey College in Twickenham. This involved fieldwork in a number of London schools beyond his own, and was undertaken between 1966 and 1968 while still a class teacher. In the thesis which resulted from this research, entitled "Speech and Creative Writing of Fourth Year Junior School Children," Nigel Kelsey studied examples of pupils' poetry and prose writing, taken from a small sample in each of the five participating schools. In analysing the children's speech, he noted their use of language in answers given to set questions and during free conversation on a variety of topics (including family life, hobbies, gender roles, memorable events, fears and superstitions). By way of putting them at ease in a recording situation, Nigel Kelsey preceded this by asking the children to talk about, and give examples of, games, rhymes, jokes, riddles and tongue-twisters known to them. He was awarded the diploma in 1969.

It was at this time that Nigel Kelsey also started to make a study of all the available printed collections of children's folklore from the English-speaking world. This forms a sizeable part of his collection and involved noting down examples of rhymes and games from many different children's folklore publications (mainly English and North American), including William Newell's Games and Songs of American Children (1883), Henry Bolton's The Counting-Out Rhymes of Children (1888), Norman Douglas's London Street Games (1931), Iona and Peter Opie's I Saw Esau (1947) and The Singing Game (1985), James Ritchie's Singing Street (1964), Rowland Kellett's Heritage of the Streets (1966), Edith Fowke's Sally Go Round the Sun (1969) and Ian Turner's Cinderella Dressed in Yella (1969). The examples he noted from these and other publications were compared and contrasted with his own fieldwork recordings.

In 1969, Nigel Kelsey was employed as deputy head at Elmwood School in West Norwood, London; and in 1974, he was appointed headteacher at another London school, Michael Faraday Junior, in Walworth. …

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