THE COLLECTION OF ENGLISH FOLK-LORE.
SO much has of late been said, and done, and projected, in the matter of the systematic study and scientific arrangement of the folk-lore already recorded, that there seems to be some little danger lest an impression should gain ground that the day of collecting folk-lore is over, and the day of counting the gains has come. I speak more particularly of England. Savage folk-lore still comes pouring in from all quarters, but new collections of English folk-lore are comparatively rare. That this is not from lack of material, recent “finds” give sufficient evidence. Within the last three years we have had the discovery of a hitherto unnoticed instrument of sorcery—the Witches’ Ladder—in Somersetshire, of several variants of a curious and obscure rhyming formula collected and published in Longman’s Magazine by our President, and of at least four folk-tales viz.: “Cap o’ Rushes” and “Tom-Tit-Tot”, from Suffolk; “Coat o’ Clay”, a noodle story from Lincolnshire; and “The Golden Ball” (a romantic story, for which Mr. Nutt inquired in the Folk-Lore Journal in 1888, p. 144, and of which I have obtained fragmentary versions from Lancashire, Staffordshire, and Shropshire), appears in a complete form (so I am told) in the Gentleman’s Magazine for January last—as related to the Rev. S. Baring-Gould by some Yorkshire “mill-lasses”. These examples are surely enough to prove that the day of collecting English folk-lore is not yet over.
But the need for more collection would still be urgent even if no absolutely novel items should remain to be discovered. Hitherto, the likenesses of the folk-lore of the different localities have been the chief object of study—its differences have yet to be examined. The theory of “survivals” has been established; it has been proved that sundry stories, customs, and ideas prevalent among savage peoples are to be found also among civilised nations. But folk-lore has a great deal more to teach us than simply the phenomenon of “survival in culture”, and I will venture to say that the study of its variations in England (what they are, where they are found, and, so far as possible, how they came to pass) will throw such a light, not only on English history, but on early history in general, and on the nature and history of folk-lore itself, as was hardly guessed at even so lately as the period when our Society was founded.
But to accomplish this we must have a great deal more collecting. A good deal of matter has been recorded, it is true, but it is unsystematic, patchy, incomplete. Much of it is scattered up and down the volumes of Notes and Queries, of the Transactions of Archæological Societies, of local glossaries and handbooks, and is practically inaccessible to anyone who wants to know whether a given item occurs in a given locality. Few even of our best local collections cover the whole range of folk-lore subjects, and many counties, including some of the most interesting—Somerset, Kent, Norfolk, Derbyshire, Cumberland—are scarcely represented at all.
I.—To begin with, then, we need a careful geographical examination of the habitats and boundaries of the various items of English folk-lore, such as the English Dialect Society has made and is making of dialectal boundaries. The results which may be expected from the comparison of such a record of English folk-lore with the evidence obtained from other lines of study, seem to open a vista of possible discovery which I can but glance at, and on which I will not speculate.
There is nothing like speaking from experience, so, at the risk of appearing egotistical, I will illustrate my meaning from my personal knowledge.
It is generally customary in England to hire farmservants by the year, but the hiring-time varies in different places. In North-east Shropshire the hiring-time is Christmas; in South-west Shropshire it is May. I took great pains to pick out the boundary-line, between these two customs, market-town by market-town, and almost village by village, and I found it coincide almost exactly with the boundary-line of the change of dialect between North-east and South-west, which is very marked; and very fairly also with the boundary between the diocese of Lichfield (the ancient Bishopric of the Mercians) on the North-east, and the Welsh diocese of St. Asaph and the diocese of Hereford (the old kingdom of the Hecanas or Magesætas) on the South-west. Moreover, the South-western custom of hiring prevails, I have ascertained, over a considerable part of North Wales, while hiring at Christmas prevails in Cheshire and North Staffordshire. But the exact conclusions to be drawn from these facts are to me still a mystery, especially as Christmas hiring does not extend beyond Staffordshire eastwards, so that it can hardly be an old Anglian agricultural custom. In Derbyshire, hirings are made at Martinmas, as I believe they are also in Yorkshire. In Northamptonshire, Michaelmas is the hiring time.
Again, “souling”, or begging for apples on the Eve of All Souls’ Day (Nov. 1st), is a common custom in that part of Shropshire where Christmas hirings occur, and in North Staffordshire; but in South Staffordshire I believe the same custom is, or was, observed, not on All Souls’, but on St. Clement’s Eve (Nov. 21st). Once more; in South Staffordshire and in South Shropshire, as far north as Shrewsbury, Mothering Sunday is known, if not much observed; but I have never met with anyone in the north of either county who had heard of it.
Isolated instances of customs which are general in other counties are still more stimulating to curiosity. For instance, amongst the hills in the far west of Shropshire I found three instances, and three only, of well-dressing, a custom claimed as “peculiar to” Derbyshire and North Staffordshire.
I do not attempt to form any theory about these boundaries. I only say that if they, and such as they, were mapped out over the whole of England, and compared with other evidence, they would almost certainly yield valuable historical and ethnological results. Especially, would this be the case where it is known from other evidence that there has been a definite settlement of one tribe or nation within the country occupied by another tribe or nation: as, for instance, the settlement of the Jutes in the Meon Valley in Hampshire, of the Normans and Flemings in “Little England beyond Wales”, and of the Dutchmen in the Fenland, in almost modern times.
It is comparatively easy to pick out the boundaries of a custom, but very difficult to discover those of a superstitious opinion. Some ideas, of course, are really general and visibly acted on, in a given district; but curious bits of superstition and “luck” may be carried about the country in so many ways, to so many unexpected places, in a manner that would be impossible to a popular custom. You, perhaps, come across some old woman who strongly objects to your bringing, it may be, snowdrops or catkins, or perhaps hawthorn, into her house, while her neighbours are not in the least offended by it. Now she may be the sole surviving depositary of a genuine piece of local folklore, or she may be following the instructions of a grandmother who came from the other end of England, and she may be quite unable to tell you how she acquired her views on the subject. The bits of superstitious observance in the matter of cuckoos, magpies, the new moon, and so on, in which my own family have grown up, have come to us, some from our Lancashire mother, some from our Staffordshire father and his family, some from our Shropshire neighbours; but we cannot trace every item to its source. In many cases, I think, the collector can do no more than set down the name of the place where, or the informant from whom, he obtained the several items, without committing himself to any statement as to how far they are universal or not.
Negative evidence, again, is most difficult to obtain, but valuable in proportion to the difficulty of proving the negative. In fact, it only can be proved (as it has been remarked to me) “if a collector gets hold of a thorough believer in the superstitions of his locality, and can find out if there are any other superstitions of other localities which he decidedly does not believe in, any that he laughs at, any that he looks upon as stupid or ‘superstitious’, while his own belief, of course, is not superstitious!”
For myself, I have not found the English poor laugh at superstitions they are not acquainted with, unless they are, as many are, superior to superstition in general. They do not get farther than a slow, grave remark: “No, I niver heered that. I shouldna think as there can be annything in that. Now, as to (so and so), that’s true, that is. For my gronfayther knowed a mon . . .” et cetera! But it is beyond question that to ascertain what a superstitious man does not know, is quite as valuable for our purpose as to learn what he does know. Even then the collector should not be too hasty in drawing conclusions. The information he fails again and again to obtain, may some day crop up quite unexpectedly at his very doors.
The ideal of geographical collection would be reached if a number of collectors would undertake definite areas adjoining each other—say, for instance, the several hundreds of a county—would set down what is known, and what, after every possible inquiry, is not known there, and would then compare results.
II.—Then there is the question of the relations between Folk-lore and History. The early history of every nation is dependent on oral tradition, not on written records, and so is open to doubt. But the questions, how much dependence may be placed upon tradition, and how long the remembrance of an event may be preserved among unlettered people, are by no means unimportant, and much light, it seems to me, may be thrown on them by observing how ascertained historical events are represented in the folk-lore of civilised countries, and how long they are remembered. Let me give a few examples from my own knowledge.
We have in this neighbourhood a traditional account of some incidents connected with the flight of the Royalists from the battle of Worcester in 1652. It is a fact, recorded in Blount’s Boscobel, that the Duke of Buckingham and three companions were in hiding for some days in the woods and cottages near Blore Pipe in Staffordshire, about five miles from where I am now writing. The poor folk, mostly “squatters” on what was, and is still to some extent, a tract of woodland, are unanimous in pointing out Buckingham’s Cave in the garden of a cottage, where they say the Duke was concealed for two or three days. (I am bound to say, though, that the old owner of the cottage himself can give no more account of it than: “There was a many kings and head-men and such like, about in all countries then; and it was one of these ’ere kings as they were arter, to cut his yed off or summat, and he come and hid i’ the hole yonder for a good bit. But it’s a many years back. I reckon some ’un mun ha’ takken him his meat up, for it’s a desper’t awk’ard plaze to get at.”)
At a little distance is a wild sort of field, always known as Buckingham’s Field, where they sat the Duke fell and broke his arm, and (here the inevitable bit of folk-etymology comes in!) the valley is therefore called Armsdale to this day. One elderly man (the village innkeeper) points out the very spot where the accident happened, as his great-grandfather showed him, from the information he had received from a very old man, a sort of bailiff or wood-ranger, who (so he believed) was living at the time; which is, of course, not absolutely impossible.
Not far from Blore Pipe is the site of the battle of Blore Heath in 1459, where the traditional spot where the Lancastrian leader, Lord Audley, fell, is marked by a small obelisk set up in 1764 by the then lord of the manor. This, and one or two pieces of armour dug up in the neighbouring fields, have doubtless helped to keep alive the memory of the battle: but be this as it may, the people tell how the brook ran red with blood for three days and three nights after the fight, and that when the Lancastrians were worsted, Queen Margaret hurried down from Muckleston church-tower, where she was watching the fray, made the village blacksmith reverse the shoes of her horse to mislead her pursuers, and so fled in all haste to the Bishop of Lichfield’s castle at Eccleshall.
The same story of a queen watching a lost battle, and fleeing away with reversed horseshoes, is told, with less foundation, on the site of the battle of Shrewsbury.
One more example of a different kind. An unlettered old cottager, at High Offley in Staffordshire, startled me one day by observing that the village wake would be held on the Monday after the 15th of August, “the ’Sumption o’ Mary.” Now the festival of the Assumption of the Virgin has, we know, been removed from the calendar of the English Church since 1549. I knew the old body well, and I do not think she can have come in contact with anyone likely to inform her of the festival as a matter of scholarly learning. I cannot but think that it was the importance of fixing the right date for the village wake that has caused the disused Saint’s day to be remembered for over 300 years.
So far as such examples as these go, they would tend to show that the folk, even in England, do preserve some memory of historical events for three or even four centuries, and that it would be rash to assert that such an event never happened, or such a character never lived, because the popular tradition concerning it or him is mixed with fiction. But collectors have hitherto given very little attention to this subject, and till they have done so, one dare not speak too positively. Still, it may be allowable to observe that the battle of Waterloo really was fought, although the Duke of Wellington did not cry, “Up, Guards, and at them!”
III.—The consideration of the influence of Folk-lore on History naturally leads to the subject of the influence of History on Folk-lore.
Surely, in spite of the proverbial “toughness” of “popular tradition”, it cannot fail to have been affected by the changes, the revolutions—political, social, religious—of an indefinite number of centuries. How a struggle, which was at once political, social, and religious, could and did affect old customs, we may learn from Aubrey, who notes over and over again, that things, laid aside when he wrote, had been in use “before the warres”. If we take some complicated piece of folk-lore and examine it closely, we shall find that it bears the marks of many different epochs and influences. Take, for instance, the common Mummers’ Play. There is first the kernel—the world-old story of a dead warrior restored to life by a magic elixir. Then comes the influence of the mediæval Church, adopting the original incident into the legend of the warrior, Saint George. Next, the disuse of popular amusements under Puritan rule, and the revival of them under the Restoration, doubtless account for the fact that the style of the piece, as we now have it, savours of the 17th century. The consecutive reigns of the four Georges have turned Saint George into King George. His antagonist has in some places become Bonaparte, and the conqueror himself is, in a Gloucestershire version, “Duke Wellington”. So our play comes to us like a traveller from a journey, laden with curiosities collected by the way.
I would venture, then, to urge on all collectors the importance of recording not only the custom (or what not), as they see it practised now, but also all that they can discover about the history of the custom in the past. In Wales, I would compare present-day folk-lore with Pennant’s Tour; in Wiltshire, with Aubrey’s Remains; and would note the variations in each case. The Scouring of the White Horse, though in the dress of fiction, is almost a model example of the historical method of collecting folk-lore.
Anything that can be ascertained about the reasons of the differences between past and present is specially precious; for the same sort of things which are affecting folk-lore now are probably the sort of things which have been affecting it from all time. Since I came to my present home in 1877, I have seen one custom die out in the parish, and another take a new lease of life. “Souling”, or begging for apples on All Saints’ Day, was suddenly checked by a new Vicar forbidding it to the National School children; while begging by women on St. Thomas’s Day, a disagreeable custom which was on the wane ten years ago, has risen to extraordinary proportions since the arrival in the neighbourhood of a very rich and very benevolent family, who give to all comers without distinction. But these two events have little or no influence on neighbouring parishes; and so variations are set up.
Physical features and surroundings also cause variations of folk-lore. The variant of the story of the Elfin-maid who marries a mortal, which is current in the Faroe Islands, makes the heroine a transformed seal. Giant-legends, again, cling to hilly countries. We do not (so I understand) find them in Norfolk; we do find them in Cornwall, in Shropshire, and in Yorkshire. So incomplete is the record of English folk-lore, that I hesitate to say they are not found in other hilly counties where they have not yet been noted.
Again, there is the question whether the folk-lore of any given nation—composite as modern nations mostly are—represents the lore of the governing race, the lore of the bulk of the population, or the lore of some inferior or enslaved race; whether, in fact, a nation can adopt a new folk-lore as it can a new language, and how far, therefore, its folk-lore can be taken as evidence of the stock from which it has sprung. This question can only, so it seems to me, be solved by watching what goes on nowadays when two races come in contact. The negroes in the United States have adopted many of the little superstitions of their masters, and have discarded their own; but one cannot rest an argument upon a solitary example; and the folk-lore of the Irish and Welsh inhabitants of English towns, compared with the folk-lore of Ireland or Wales on the one hand, and with the local English folk-lore on the other, might furnish further evidence.
IV.—But there is yet another ground on which I would wish to press the importance of the personal collection of English folk-lore, and that is, the benefit of the students themselves. For if you wish to understand folk-lore, you must learn to understand the folk. You must study the pearls in the oyster-beds, and not only after they have been gathered, and polished, and set—though it be in gold—for the public eye. You must know what the folk think, and how they act, on subjects such as folk-lore touches, and observe how their minds form the natural background to the superstitions they act on, the customs they practise, the tales they tell.
I remember being greatly struck with this idea when a country cottager’s wife one day detailed to me her contrivances for replenishing her slender wardrobe before going to visit her daughter and son-in-law at Liverpool. “For you see, ma’am”, she wound up, “his mother” [the son-in-law’s] “is very respectable, and I shouldn’t like him to cast it up to Mary when I was gone that her mother wasn’t the same. For men will do such things, you know, ma’am.” One half-expected her to point her remarks by the story of some elfin bride who left her husband because (like Diarmaid of the Feen) he reminded her how she “came to him ragged and dirty, and her hair was down to her heels”.
Moreover, you will observe that my friend spoke of her son-in-law without mentioning him by name. I do not pretend to say whether or not there ever was a time when Englishmen dared not let their wives know or use their names, for fear that, if they did, the “missis would be master”, as our folk say. But, as a matter of fact, an old-fashioned cottager’s wife rarely speaks of her husband, or of any other married man with reference to his position as a husband, by name. The pronoun he, supplemented sometimes by “my man”, or “my master”, is found sufficient distinction, and (unconsciously to themselves, as I think) their taboo on names is nearly as strong as that of the House of Commons. I never did hear any old labourer tell the story of the careless woman who betrayed her husband’s name to his enemy as she sang her baby to sleep, but it would fit in well with the habits of our village wives, in this county, at least.
Another folk-tale which agrees exactly with the ideas of our people is that of King Lear. I have seen a local deed of the fifteenth century, by which a father and mother surrendered all their property to their son and daughter, on condition of receiving maintenance for life; but now our people are strongly convinced of the imprudence of such an arrangement; and I have known an old woman, to whom such a proposal was made, reply by the proverbial saying, coined to express the popular disapprobation of it, “No, no, I winna doff off my shoon afore I go to bed!”
On many other matters our folk have their own ways of thinking and acting, their own code of morals. They cannot be trusted to keep a promise; their word is not “as good as their bond”. “Promises are like pie-crust, made to be broken,” says their proverb—an opinion which, I believe, lies at the root of all pledges, tokens, and ceremonial compacts whatsoever. But if a bargain be “struck”, or “wetted”, or if a shilling “earnest” be given to bind it, then “the case is altered”, and your man will be true to his engagement. A lie, again, is reckoned a very venial error, if an error it be; but a false oath, that will bring a curse upon the swearer. “I hear Charlie B. has sailed for Australia”, said a respectable woman to me; “but he’ll never prosper, let him go where he will, if he’s taken a false oath, as they say he did.” “Folks say the Devil’s black”, said an old man; “but Jack R. says he’s red; and he knows, for he’s seen him a many times, him and his imps, since he took that false oath.”
When I hear of propositions to abolish the Queen’s Shilling or oaths in our courts of justice, I cannot help thinking that a little practical knowledge of folk-lore—or, rather, of folk—would help the authorities to judge of the probable effect of their measures.
Our people, further, believe implicitly in curses. In the Forty-five, so they say, the wife of a clergyman in North Staffordshire refused to give shelter to Prince Charles Edward, and roughly thrust him out of her house. Since then every clergyman’s wife who has lived in that vicarage house has been visited, they say, with insanity. A Wiltshire farmer wanted his men to work in the hay-harvest on Sunday, not to waste a fine day. So he hid his watch under the last cock of hay in the field, and promised a reward to the finder. The men, of course, turned over every haycock in the field before they came to the watch, and so his end was gained. But the hay from that field has never been made in fine weather since. Constantly, in our country villages, you will find some house of which it is darkly said, “There’ll never go no luck wi’ that house; it didna go to the right heir.”
For this is another point of the folk-morality—the absolute duty of leaving property in the direct line of succession. They recognise no individual rights in the matter, think no man free to do what he will with his own, and any man who presumes to leave his property to any but the next-of-kin, be the latter never so distantly related to him, is held to have offended against the eternal principles of right. I have even heard of a lawyer, who drew up a will by which some property was so disposed of, having been burnt in effigy on the next 5th of November!
These ideas, it will be observed, form the groundwork of most ghost stories. A pledge unredeemed, a covenant unfulfilled, a secret treasure unrevealed, an unjust will, or a just one disregarded, condemn the unhappy spirit to walk the earth until the wrong is righted. But what practical knowledge of the folk shows us is, that these are not mere arbitrary incidents of the folk-tales, but living principles of action.
Another strong characteristic of the country folk is the suspicion with which they regard strangers and people not of their own sort. This shows itself in a hundred ways: from the difficulty of persuading them to believe in the advantages of any plan proposed by a lady or gentleman, compared to the ease with which they accept the propositions of the merest acquaintance belonging to their own class, to the “Heave half a brick at him”, which was the proverbial reception accorded to strangers in the mining villages of Lancashire. Tribal enmity itself, indeed, may be said to survive in the contempt with which the uneducated English regard the Irish or Welsh (I have heard a woman indignantly deny any knowledge of the Welsh language, as if it would have been something to be ashamed of), the East Anglians and Kentishmen regard the dwellers in “the sheeres”, and, generally, the natives of every county regard the natives of every other county. Hundreds of little sayings testify to this feeling. The Shropshire folk say that the Cheshire men “live at the best end of the pig-trough”, in derision of the quantity of milk and whey they used to drink. The Staffordshire people call giving away something one has no further use for, “making a Shropshire present,” and so forth. The lower you go in the scale the narrower is the favoured circle. Contemptuous rhymes on the neighbouring villages are common, I fancy, in all counties; but I have even met with a case where the various townships of one parish had each their rhyme, exalting themselves and depreciating their neighbours, and where, within the memory of man, any native of any of these rival townships who ventured to show himself within the limits of another township, was liable to have the local rhyme bawled in his ears.
Short of this, however, there is generally some one place in a neighbourhood which is the butt and the scorn of the whole district. Such a one is Gornall, a village of “nailers”, in South Staffordshire, the inhabitants of which are known as “Gornall donkeys” throughout the Black Country. It is a well-understood piece of rude wit (not unattended with danger!) to bray when a Gornall man is passing. I have seen a dialogue acted at a “penny reading” in which the comic character was an uncouth servantgirl, who, with intense self-satisfaction, replied to every remark: “They do so-and-so in Gornall; that’s wheer I coom from.” Even in Shropshire I have heard the place called “Gornall, where they sell things five a penny, and teach monkeys to squint!”
V.—Something let me say in conclusion about the actual work of collecting. The best collecting is that which is done by accident, by living among the people and garnering up the sayings and stories they let fall from time to time. But one can hardly make a complete collection, even within a limited area, in this way; and deliberate search is therefore necessary, which is often a very uphill task, though to the student of human nature, who “loves his fellow-men”, it must always be an entertaining and pleasant one, calculated to add to his enjoyment of a country holiday.
One needs first to know where to look. And the educated people of the neighbourhood cannot always help one. Nowadays, thanks to the labours of this Society, most people do, to a certain extent, know what folk-lore is; and there is surely not much chance now of a request for help being answered, “In your forthcoming work you should certainly include a description of our very curious old font” as happened to me some ten years ago. But too often the collector may be met with the dignified repulse, “Our people are not superstitious, I am glad to say”; and it is not given to everyone to be able to confute the assertion, as the Rev. Elias Owen, in a paper on “Montgomeryshire Superstitions”, relates that he once did. His errand in the parish where it was made was to inspect the schools; and at the close of his examination he asked the first class, “Now, children, can you tell me of any place where there is a buggan” (a ghost, or bogey) “to be seen, or of anyone who has ever seen one?” Instantly every hand in the class was stretched out, and every child had a story to tell. He then asked, “Which of you can tell me of a cure for warts?” with like results, greatly to the discomfiture of his friend the clergyman, who had fondly imagined that there was no superstition in his parish! The clergy are very liable to this illusion, because the people are apt to keep superstition out of their way, which in itself is a not uninstructive folk-loric item. I have even known an old woman tell a most excellent ghost-story, and then utterly deny all knowledge of it when the clergyman’s wife (who, however, was a member of the squire’s family, whom the tale concerned) called to ask for further particulars.
Lawyers, doctors, and especially land-agents and gentlemen-farmers—people who, educated themselves, are yet brought by their professions into much contact with the uneducated—are often much better able to help than are the clergy, especially, of course, if they are natives of the district. The difficulty is to get at them; but a query on some definite point, inserted in a local newspaper, will seldom fail to produce a reply from some one who can help to get at other informants; and the newspaper staff themselves are generally local men, and often capital collectors.
When visiting a strange place with the set purpose of personal collecting, the best way of beginning is, perhaps, to get the parish clerk or sexton (if such a person is to be found) to show the church, and then to draw him out on bell-ringing and burying customs, and to obtain from him the names of the “oldest inhabitants” for further inquiry. Failing the sexton, the village innkeeper might be a good starting-point. Then a visit may be paid to the school in the mid-day “recess”, and the children may be bribed to play all the games they know for the instruction of the visitor. Possibly some bits of local legend may be gleaned from them as a foundation for further inquiries. These inquiries will often be quite as successful on some points if pursued among the oldest families in the place, as among the oldest inhabitants of the place. Old household or family customs are best preserved in solitary farmhouses, especially if tenanted by the same family for several generations. But it is a mistake to think that a very remote and thinly populated parish will necessarily yield more folklore of all kinds than another. A scanty stay-at-home population does not preserve legends well, and has not esprit de corps sufficient for the celebration of public customs. A large village, or a market-town quite in the country, is generally the best place to find these; and the “lowest of the people”—the chimney-sweepers, brick-makers, besom-makers, hawkers, tinkers, and other trades in which work is irregular—are those who keep up old games, songs, dances, and dramatic performances.
Most villages have their doctress, generally an intelligent old woman, who, nevertheless, mixes something of superstition with her remedies. But in the counties with which I am best acquainted, fortune-telling, divination, and sorcery generally, flourish chiefly in the low parts of large towns, where their professors acquire a wide reputation and are resorted to from considerable distances.
Superstitious opinions, though they flourish most, of course, among the lower classes cannot well be collected direct from them, because they really do not understand what superstition is, and cannot, as they say, “make out what the gentleman is driving at.” They must be inquired for among the class of small employers, who have a little more cultivation than their workpeople, but yet live on terms of sufficient familiarity with them to know their ideas thoroughly and to share a good many of them! A little patient effort will in all probability enable the collector to make the acquaintance of some old grandfather or grandmother of this class, who, sitting in the chimneycorner of some old-fashioned kitchen, loves nothing better than to pour out tales of “old times”. Here is the collector’s opportunity! and from talk of sickles, spinning-wheels, and tinder-boxes, he may lead the conversation to matters more purely folk-loric. A list of annual festivals, and the chief customs connected with them, will be found a useful basis for questions. If his witness proves intelligent and comprehending, a list of common superstitions may then be produced and gone through, when a few additions will probably be made to it. A list of proverbs will almost certainly prove a success; the “old sayings” will be thought extremely interesting, both wise and witty, and the memory ransacked for similar ones. Local legends must, of course, be asked for as local features—hill or well, ruined castle or Roman camp—suggest, and will probably vary greatly, ranging from ghost stories to folk-etymology. Märchen, in my experience, are scarcely to be found; but ballads, which are folk-tales in verse, are not nearly so rare as is sometimes supposed, but it is seldom that any but old people know them.
They are excellent company, these old people! if one can but get them to talk of their past lives, and not of their present ailments; and they are dying around us every day, and their traditions are dying with them, for they have left off transmitting them to their children. If the folk-lore of England is not recorded soon it will never be recorded at all, for these “foot-prints in the sands of time” are fast being trampled out by the hurrying feet of the busy multitudes of the Present.
- Originally given at end of the first edition of Henderson.
- In Montgomeryshire Collections, vol, xv, part i, p, 135.