Article MT074

"A Proper Limitation"

Stereotypes of Alice Gomme



Lady Alice limited her studies almost entirely to children's games, a proper limitation for a Victorian lady and wife of an eminent scholar (Howard 1964 I, vi)

Discussions of the work of Alice Gomme (1853-1938) usually present a picture that matches the photograph of her published in Richard Dorson's quasi-history, The British Folklorists.  Corseted, conventional and restrained, they suggest her life and work were all of a piece.  With her sweetly pretty children's games and quaint old theories she was a proper Victorian lady in all senses of the word.  Photo of Alice GommeHow appropriate that she was prompted into research by a performance at a social gathering.  How typical that she obtained her descriptions of games from the rose-tinted hindsight of a select band of genteel adults.  Her methodology is set forth mainly to highlight its limitations, shortcomings and inadequacies .  Her main publication survives as a remanant of a larger plan which was never carried through.  Even the fact that she was married to a fellow folklorist seems to count against her.See for examples Iona and Peter Opie (1959: vi); Howard (1964: v-xi); Richard M. Dorson 1968: 280 and comments in Norman Douglas, London Street Games (1916/1931) who apparently had her in mind when he described Aunt Eliza, a Victorian pedant who could discern a meaning not quite nice in every game she collected.  For the influence of Dorson's <I>The British Folklorists</I> on Folklore Studies - particularly in the USA - see Bronner (1990: 49)1  The modern researcher can safely pass on without giving her work further consideration.

But when Gomme's scholarship is assessed without the distorting glass of stereotype, the scope and depth of her achievements are striking.  A founding member of the Folk-Lore Society and the English Folk Cookery Association, she was an innovative researcher in a number of fields of Folkloristics with the ability to produce accessible but uncompromised popular books as well as significant academic writings.  She played a formative role in the English Folk Revival and was involved in practical and theoretical consideration of Revival and traditional performance from 1891.  In 1898, she became a founding member of the Folk-Song Society and served on its committee for the whole of its thirty-four year existence, providing material for the first public concert of folksong and dance by the Espérance Girls Club.  A founding committee member of The English Folk Dance Society, she was a valued source of assistance and advice to the new movement, lecturing widely to its branches and acting as one of its earliest examiners.  It was, Cecil Sharp recalled, seeing the quality of music in the singing games Gomme had collected that first convinced him that folksongs might still be found in England.  She also wrote and lectured on education - proposing that the amusement of children is ... an essential part of their up-bringing and urging the aesthetic and practical value of a project-based curriculum for elementary schools. (Gomme 1908)  Her major work, The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland appeared in two volumes in 1894 and 1898.  Using material from her own and others field collections, a wide range of literary sources and memorate descriptions from locations across Britain, Gomme compiled a data base of around eight hundred separate games together with all their available variants.  In a monumental piece of research, she described, analysed and discussed their texts, history, cultural significance and formal structures; deploying the most advanced contemporary methodology and theory, she developed a comprehensive system for their classification.  She concluded her work with a lucid and concise summary of her findings. (Gomme 1898 reprinted 1964: II, 458-531)  Gomme was the first scholar to define children's games as a separate genre of folklore and - unlike the writing of most of her contemporaries - her books remain a standard reference to the present day.  If the criterion for a seminal work is related to the numbers of other publications that it renders obsolete, then Traditional Games merits classic status.

In common with the many women who shaped the early study of folklore in England, however, Gomme's role and abilities have been diminished, misrepresented or even omitted from the record.  Failing to be selected for Richard Dorson's 'Great Team' of Victorian folklorists - despite his later acknowledgement that Alice Bertha Gomme is probably even better known than her husband for her collection of British children's games (Dorson 1980: 154) - generalisations deriving from her existence as a nineteenth century woman and wife are inextricably linked to perceived shortcomings in her work.  It is not simply her reliance on Cultural Evolution and Survivals Theory that limit the value of her research, commentators propose, simply being who and what she is renders her evidence unreliable; her findings unsound.  Gomme played a significant part in developing scholarly and popular understanding of folklore over many years, her writings still have much to offer us - a separation between gender stereotype and the actuality of her life and work is both just and necessary.

Alice Gomme was twenty-five when she became a founding member of the Folk-Lore Society in January 1878.  The creation of the new organisation had been hotly contested over the two previous years, as researchers argued theories and definitions which separated their unified scientific approach to the study of tradition from the engaging, but piecemeal investigations of Popular Antiquarians.  The spark for these divisions was the publication in 1871 of Primitive Culture, Edward Tylor's two volume cross-cultural survey of the historical development of mythology, philosophy, religion, language, art and custom.  Laurence Gomme and Alice Merck married in 1875 and were almost immediately at the centre of initiatives to carry the new ideas forward.  Laurence Gomme (1853-1916) was largely responsible for the application of Tylor's theories of cultural evolution to Folkloristics - which he saw as one of the budding group of new Social Sciences.  With William Thoms, Edward Solly and W R S Ralston, he made up the quartet who finally took decisive action to form the new Society and was its first Honorary Secretary. (Gomme 1952: 1-18)  That Alice Gomme's involvement was more than a vaguely supportive social duty is indicated in the appearance of short articles by her on folk medicine and Skimmington Riding in the first volume of Folk-Lore Journal.(Gomme 1883: 331; 354)  But her obituarist, Moses Gaster, also recalled other benefits of her participation in the turbulent discussions of the time:

From the very beginning Lady Gomme has taken a lively interest in the work of the society with which she co-operated in a singularly felicitous manner.  Discussions often ran high and theories clashed when her husband, Sir Laurence Gomme expounded one view, Alfred Nutt another, Andrew Lang again took the field, and the present writer ventured to have opinions of his own; and Lady Gomme sitting by, watching, with a kind smile on her face, trying to soothe the tempest and helping to bring about harmony in the apparent chaos. (Gaster 1938: 93-94)
Gaster's comments are doubly revealing.  Beyond the conventionality of this depiction of womanly tact is the evidence it provides of Alice Gomme's undisputed presence and active intervention in Folk-Lore Society debates at the highest level.

Overall, the image of the wife of an eminent scholar working within the shadow of her husband's theories, (Howard 1964: I, v-ix) is a triumph of stereotype over fact.  An enlightened liberal rather than a rigid Victorian paterfamilias, Laurence Gomme was a public advocate of women's economic independence and progress in art, science, education, politics and all the walks of life, writing sociological papers opposing the the tyranny of man's overlordship which demands a one-sided law of marriage . (Gomme 1900: 345-8)  Alice Gomme's research and activities during her marriage and long widowhood were concerned with genres and approaches quite distinct from the questions of generalist theory explored by her husband.  Alice and Laurence Gomme's work in folklore was specific to each partner.  Their relationship seems closer to a twenty-first century marriage than the nineteenth century convention both encompassed individual influence on the committees of a number of learned Societies and independent pursuit of major research projects.

Implied within criticisms of Alice Gomme's work, however, is the suggestion that her research projects were not separate from those of her husband.  Traditional Games of England Scotland and Ireland, the childlore specialist Dorothy Howard explained, "was a part of her husband's larger plan for a dictionary of British folklore; it survives as a remnant of a plan which was never carried through", and consequently Howard thereafter refers to the volumes as the Gomme Dictionary. (Howard 1964: vi) Traditional Games half-title indeed states that it is A Dictionary of British Folk-Lore Part 1 edited by G L Gomme, but it only takes the turn of a page for Alice Gomme's Preface to reveal the eminently practical explanation for this:

Soon after the formation of the Folk-lore Society in 1878 my husband planned, and has ever since been collecting for, the compilation of a dictionary of British Folk-lore.  A great deal of the material has been put in form for publication, but at this stage the extent of the work presented an unexpected obstacle to its completion.

To print the whole in one alphabet would be more than could be accomplished except by the active co-operation of a willing band of workers, and then the time required for such an undertaking, together with the cost, almost seemed to debar the hope of ever completing arrangements for its publication.  Nevertheless, unless we have a scientific arrangement of the enormously scattered material and a close comparison of the details of each item of folk-lore, it is next to impossible to expect that the full truth which lies hidden in these remnants of the past may be revealed.

During my preparation of a book of games for children it occurred to me that to separate the whole of the games from the general body of folk-lore and to make them a section of the proposed dictionary would be an advantageous step, as by arranging the larger groups of folk-lore in independent sections the possibility of publishing the contemplated dictionary again seemed to revive.  Accordingly, the original plan has been so far modified that these volumes will form the first section of the dictionary, which instead of being issued in one alphabet throughout, will now be issued in sections, each section being arranged alphabetically. (Gomme 1964: xiii-xiv)

The value of creating dictionaries dealing with separate genres is amply borne out by publications ranging from Iona and Peter Opie's Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes to international works such as Laurits Bødker's dictionary of Germanic folk literature.  Even more limited compilations like Christina Hole's Dictionary of British Folk Customs and Katharine Briggs Dictionary of Fairies offer researchers a handy, initial source of reference.  The Folklore Society itself carried forward the generic approach to publishing in their series on calendar customs which, although tied to printed sources, still provides the best available overview of variation within many English and Scottish customs.  Manifestly, Gomme's idea was a good one - and probably an improvement on the monumental but rapidly dating shelf-buster that an undifferentiated dictionary of folklore would have represented.

Despite its sound academic rationale and practicality, however, the relationship between Traditional Games and the Dictionary of British Folk-lore is repeatedly misinterpreted.  In his Introduction to William Wells Newell s, Games and Songs of American Children, for example, Carl Withers notes:

Mrs Gomme arranged her collection of games alphabetically.  Newell's attempt to arrange his games in categories of use (e.g. "Love-Games," "Playing at Work," "Guessing-Games," etc.) was a remarkable and imaginative pioneer thrust toward what was later to be called "functionalism." (Withers 1963: vi, fn.)
It is debatable whether Newell's pioneering work of outlining the field of childlore can be construed as including a functional approach to games, but to suggest that Traditional Games lacks discussion of function within this definition is simply not sustainable.  Photo of Alice GommeAcross the two volumes, from All the Boys in Our Town ( clearly a marriage game ) to Would you know how doth the Peasant ( a survival of the custom of dancing, and of imitating the actions necessary for the sowing and reaping of grain ), Gomme's alphabetically arranged entries include comments on specific use and discussion of the hypothesised cultural history of the games.  Moreover, the whole of her Memoir on the Study of Children's Games is devoted to an interlinked examination of original forms and functions.  It almost seems the case that Gomme's work must be criticised - whether the grounds for doing so are remotely tenable or not.

This determination to construe Gomme's research as flawed is particularly apparent in commentary on her application of theories of cultural evolution and survivals in culture .  In common with most of her contemporaries in the Folk-Lore Society, Gomme's analysis was based on ideas deriving initially from the work of the anthropologist, Edward Tylor (1832-1917).  From his examination of reports on custom and belief in the many different peoples imperialism and national expansion were contacting, Tylor had concluded that all cultures evolved in a set progression through stages of savagery and barbarism to civilisation.  The rise to civilisation, however, did not involved completely discrete changes of belief and practice.  Tylor proposed that residual expressive culture from the savage and barbaric stages of the sequence survived into the civilised era in the form of traditional songs, games, narratives and customs.  From watching her own and other children, Gomme had observed that much of their play was based on imitations of adult behaviour and concluded that some of their games might have preserved religious and social practices hundreds and perhaps thousands of years after they had ceased to be current among adults.  Whilst listing thirty-eight games that she felt that children played for pure amusement, therefore, she suggested that the remainder she had collected were of interest to the folk-lorist, as showing connections with early custom and ancient belief .  Comparing games played in line form with those performed in a circle, for example, she noted:

In considering this group of games it is obvious, I think, that we have elements of custom and usage which would not primarily originate in a game, but in a condition of local or tribal life which has long since passed away.  It is a life of contest, a life, therefore, which existed before the days of settled politics, when villages or tribal territories had their own customs differing from each other, and when not only matters of political relationship were settled by the arbitrament of the sword, but matters now considered to be of purely personal relationship, namely, marriage.  While great interest gathers round the particular marriage customs or particular contests indicated in this group of games, the chief point of interest lies in the fact that they are all governed by the common element of contest.

I will now turn to the circle games.  Like the line games, this form contains games which show marriage custom, but it is significant that they all show a distinctly different form of marriage.  Thus they all show courtship and love preceding the marriage, and they show that a distinct ceremony is not necessarily the present Church ceremony.  (Gomme 1964: II, 489-90.  See also Boyes 1990:199-201; Boyes, 1995: 131-147)

Criticisms of cultural evolution had already begun to be raised in academic works by the early nineteen hundreds, but through key studies such as The Golden Bough and an enormous volume of lesser scholarly and literary publications, a popular link between folklore and survivals has continued unshaken to the present day.  More importantly, prominent folklorists and writers on tradition maintained their allegiance to the theory.  From Charlotte Burne's Presidential Address in 1910 through to publications such as Cawte, Helm and Peacock's English Ritual Drama in 1967, the Folklore Society continued to promote analysis of customs based on the survivals premiss.  A L Lloyd's writings on song, including his influential 1967 book Folk Song in England, Cecil Sharp and Douglas Kennedy's books and articles on dance and R J Tiddy, E K Chambers, Alex Helm and Alan Brody's studies on mummers plays all employed cultural evolution and survivals as their main theoretical models.  Even Henry Glassie's 1975 conclusions on his Irish fieldwork, All Silver and No Brass offer a somewhat ambivalent compromise on the idea.  Outside Folkloristics, Keith Thomas's mould-breaking 1971 study, Religion and the Decline of Magic turns to survivals for its explanation of historical custom.  More recently, even the determinedly non-theoretical Iona and Peter Opie include survivals-based discussions of games like London Bridge, Old Roger and Jenny Jones in their own 1985 book on singing games.  Why, when leading scholars and academic institutions continued to publish works relying on cultural evolution and survivals theory into the late twentieth century, should Gomme's selective and thoughtful deployment of its premisses in 1898 be singled out to represent the limitation, shortcomings and inadequacies of outdated scholarship?

And then, of course, there is the issue of the folkloric tea party.  When The Folk-Lore Society drew up the programme of the first International Folk-Lore Congress, held in October 1891, as well lectures by distinguished scholars, it included an evening Conversazione.  These social gatherings were popular additions to the more formal proceedings of turn of the century learned or arts societies - the Folk-Song Society, for example, included entrance to its meetings and conversaziones as one of the privileges of membership in its founding rules in 1898.  In the case of the Folk-Lore Society, however, the Conversazione held on the 5th October at the Mercers Hall in London proved to be of far greater and more lasting significance than any of the specialist papers and learned debates which surrounded it.  Alice Gomme took over as Honorary Secretary of the Entertainment Committee which organised the Conversazione only a few months before the Congress and it is obvious from letters held in the Folklore Society Archive that she restored order to its workings and was almost entirely responsible for the continued existence, shape and content of the event.Obviously the correspondence is that sent to her in response to her comments and enquiries.  I am most grateful to Steve Roud for transcribed copies of this correspondence, copies of documents held in the Gomme Collection in the Folklore Society Archive and for his unfailing generosity with other material relating to Alice Gomme.2  It therefore provides a concrete demonstration of her innovative approach to traditional culture, practicality and considerable organising ability.  Probably the first comprehensive exposition of Folkloristics in England, the Conversazione was not simply a social occasion, it involved a complex of exhibits and performances - bringing together material culture and rare examples of applied folklore.  Unusually for a study which tended to be backward looking, Gomme and her chief collaborator Charlotte Burne (1850-1923) specifically required that only traditions which were still current be included.  For the musical performances, for example, Burne and Gomme insisted on Folk-songs now in use, not antiques unearthed in the British Museum or "old English" airs found in books .  Authenticity of performance was equally important - the popular fashion for folksongs accompanied on the piano being roundly rejected in favour of the more traditional unaccompanied singing or fiddle.  And as for Victorian prudery, Burne confirmed her faith in her friend's unblushingly accurate fieldwork:

I would not take Miss Plunkett's variant of any game in preference to any which any of us have collected ourselves.  We do not know where she got any of hers from or how much she altered them.  I feel sure she has altered Milking Pails for propriety's sake. (Burne 1891: 22 July; 22 Aug; 3 Sept; 7 Sept)
Burne's letters also make plain, that it was at Gomme's instigation that regional foods and foods associated with contemporary custom and celebration were included in the event.For transcripts of letters, recipes and articles relating to Gomme's work on traditional cooking, together with a list of cakes exhibited at The International Folk-Lore Congress, see Steve Roud (1989) Alice Gomme's Cake Display 1891 and after; Folklore Society Library & Archives, London: Folklore Society Library.3  But whilst applauding the brilliant idea and offering a list of possible examples, Burne initially voiced doubts - it would, she wrote, be very hard to carry out.  I fear impossible.  The mass of letters containing recipes and sources of supply for regional specialities from Folk-Lore Society members indicate that Gomme, undaunted by Committee opposition and logistical difficulties, carried her innovative proposal through in only a few weeks.  "How in the world" wondered Burne soon afterwards, "do you manage to do all you get through?" (Burne 1891: 22 July; 22 Aug)

Like many of the new fields opened up by Gomme's work on the Conversazione, however, the number and variety of traditional cakes and biscuits discovered proved to be of greater importance than mere display.  During the later Victorian era, English cookery went into a period of decline.  Exacerbated by rationing in two World Wars and the depression of the 1930s, home cooking and catering was characterised by overboiled vegetables, overcooked meat and flavourless sauces.  'There is a certain amount of astonishment among visitors to this country who find, as they occasionally do, that the English can cook' wrote a commentator of the period, 'We haven't that reputation.'  Listing culinary horrors from the wretched seaweedy slabs of yallery-greeny wetness that was cabbage to rubbery, tasteless fish served with a sauce that might be left over from a day's paper-hanging, she concluded:

We can't supply a rich variety in food because we're still paying for the war and can't buy a rich variety.  But there's nothing in the world to stop us cooking well what we do have ... and nothing to hold up an Official Regulation against boiling cabbage...  (Day 1952: 75-78 passim)
Among the many factors which eventually led to a marked improvement in English food from the 1960s was the work of Elizabeth David, whose writing enthused a generation to cook imaginatively using fresh ingredients.  David herself, however, was quick to acknowledge the sources of her own inspiration:
Florence White's Good Things in England first published by Cape in 1931 and still in print should need no introduction as an authoritative work on traditional English cooking.  The book includes a great number of interesting cake recipes, while the little paperback volume called Farmhouse Fare ...  includes a chapter on cakes, buns and biscuits which provides a good insight into the remarkable variety of our cake recipes, and into our continuing attachment to the art of baking. (David 1970: 207).
So great was David's regard for the material published by Florence White that she included only two of her own cake recipes in her book on the English kitchen, citing instead other works and most extensively Good Things in England.  White, who founded the English Folk Cookery Association in 1931, recorded that in her turn, she owed much to the Association's first President, Alice Gomme, whose listing of cakes was inspiring:
Lady Gomme's pioneering research work in English folk cookery must not be forgotten, especially as her interest is still living and active.

She organised an exhibit of local feasten cakes and specimens of early customary cakes, still made in connection with local festivals for the International Folk Lore Congress of 1891, a practical touch being added by the entertainment committee purchasing a quantity from the different districts for afternoon tea during the congress....

The whole subject of English folk cookery is most interesting, apart from its historical significance; it is intriguing from the practical and economic standpoint.  In addition to its picturesque aspects, there are scattered all over the country enough English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh savoury and sweet dishes, in addition to cakes, preserves, and home-made wines suited to modern needs, to form a complete and very good national school of cookery ...  (White 1928)

Gomme's key role in this resuscitation of good food has rarely been considered by folklorists.  Few of her contemporaries shared her interest in the folklore of the everyday and concern for current performance rather than the re-creation of some imagined ur-type.  As her article marking the founding of The Folk Cookery Association shows, she continued to demonstrate as great an involvement with contemporary practices as with the history of traditions - considering the use of meat substitutes of the Great War and present day canned foods and preserved cream just as worthy of note as the old belief that 'If you left pans and hearth clean the Brownies might help you'.  Writing at the age of seventy-nine, her insistence that folk cookery is by no means a museum piece did not merely include consideration that 'All up and down the country there are women still baking cakes and making mead and wine according to recipes that go back to Saxon times' or that Plough Monday Cakes were still cooked, but was linked with specific political and socio-economic developments.  And all through her discussion, centrality was given to women's experience.  (Gomme 1931)

Gomme's concern for women's traditions would be rare enough in England today - in contemporary terms it was remarkable.  Without her comprehensive recording, we would have information on only a tiny proportion of the hundreds of versions of singing games played by girls in the nineteenth century.  Popular publications of the time, such as Kate Greenaway's Book of Games published in 1889, contains instructions for playing seventy-nine different games, many of them illustrated as being played by girls or mixed groups, but only five rather simple singing games are included, giving no hint of the scope of the tradition as a whole. (Greenaway 1987)  Katharine (Tynan) Hinkson's more directly folkloristic intention of using the magazine she edited to find out how far children's singing-games still survive in England produced mainly well known games such as Green Gravel, Sally Waters, Three Kings and Wallflowers, as well as a range of dipping rhymes and short songs.  The Girls Room was aimed at young female readers and - collecting over much the same period as Gomme - Hinkson's work provides additional evidence of the gender specificity of singing games and an indication of common repertoire.  But lacking Gomme's theoretical basis for collection, Hinkson is frequently vague on the question of whether a song accompanies a game or is simply sung alone, often fails to describe the form of games and after only eleven months of collecting was moved to sigh - 'The trouble with these singing-games is that the variations are so endless.'  Publishing her findings in articles also meant that in a very short space of time, for the sake of variety, she needed to encourage readers to send in obscure or markedly unusual variants of games.  Until she read the first volume of Traditional Games, Hinkson had intended to publish a book of children's games herself, but her articles suggest that it would have been a brief, interesting miscellany rather than a source for continuing analysis. (See Roud 1991)

Overall, however, scant attention was paid to girls' games until Gomme began her collection.  As she pointed out, the most extensive piece of earlier research, Joseph Strutt's historical survey of the Sports and Pastimes of the People of England published in 1801:

... mentions many games played by boys in his day, but his remarks are confined principally to games of skill with marbles, tops, &c., and games like Prisoner's Base, Scots and English, Hot Cockles, &c.
Strutt listed only swinging and ball and shuttlecock playing as girls amusements, but very little else, she noted.  Why he recorded none of those interesting dialogue games which we know now as singing games, Gomme proposed, was a matter of gender bias:
It may be that these games were in his day, as now, the property more of girls than of boys and he may not have looked for or though of recording them, for it can hardly be imagined that he was unaware of their existence.  (Gomme 1964: II, 459)
Although printed as texts without any indication of their use, the appearance of rhymes associated with games such as London Bridge is Broken Down, Three Brethren out of Spain, The Lusty Wooer and The Milk Pails in Gammer Gurton's Garland, the collection of 'pretty songs and verses for the amusement of all little good children' which was first published in 1784, suggests that there is some justice in Gomme's comment. (Anon.  [Ritson] 1784)

Ninety years later, Strutt's successors in the Folk-Lore Society were equally disinclined to include singing games in their prestigious International Conference.  Charlotte Burne's letters to Alice Gomme hum with indignation about attempts by J J Foster, the Honorary Secretary of the Folk-Lore Society, to remove their performance from the programme for the Conversazione:

We must have them - but don't put in too many of them.  So the Hon. Sec. must not squash them! (Burne 1891: 22 July)
In 1910, however, as the struggle for women's suffrage in Britain entered its most desperate and controversial phase, The Folk-Lore Society took a pointedly significant decision - and became the first academic society to elect a woman President.  From the security of her new position, Charlotte Burne looked back on the Society's history:
One very practical outcome of the Congress was to establish, beyond dispute, the importance and interest of children's games, a bit of woman's work on which I may be permitted for a moment to dwell.  A young woman from the specially musical parish of Madeley in Shropshire, went to live as nurse in the family of my sister in Derbyshire.  She had a large repertory of singing-games, some of which she taught to her charges.  My sister, who was continually under the necessity of organising parish festivities, caused the maid to teach her games to some of the village children for performance at one of these entertainments, and the result was a great success.  Mrs Gomme, hearing of this from me, took up the idea with characteristic energy, trained a party of children at Barnes (teaching them games from other places in addition to those they already knew), overcame the anxieties of the Committee of the Congress, who sent a solemn deputation down to Barnes to inspect and report on her doings, and, finally, when the games were performed at the conversazione, she had the success of the Congress. (Burne 1910: 15-16)
In Traditional Games Gomme produced the first major theoretical work by a woman folklorist.  However tenuous its premisses may seem today, the process by which it came about and the research it contains, remain a significant achievement.

This history of struggles for recognition of women's traditions, led by women folklorists scarcely accords with the image of politically conservative, conventional Victorianism used to dismiss their significance.  One of the greatest injustices done to Gomme's work and character is the absence of acknowledgement of her conscious striving for equality throughout her career.  In an interview on her first visit to the United States in 1935, she proudly set on record that she had been active in British suffragist work. (Anon.  1935?)  Gomme was President of the London Shakespeare League and a founder member of The Association for the Revival and Practice of Folk Music.  Many of her close friends and associates in these groups connected with the theatre and the Folk Revival were at the forefront of action to extend the right to vote - a number served terms in prison.  As the wife of a prominent civil servant - Laurence Gomme was the permanent secretary to London County Council and knighted in 1911 - it says much for the strength of her convictions that her public commitment to political change continued through periods of violent protest. (See Boyes 1993: 70, 72, 80; Mackenzie 1975)

But Gomme's response to the issue of equality was not restricted to the overtly political sphere.  She expressed her ideals in her work, seeing academic and applied folklore as dynamics for social and cultural betterment.  Her detailed proposals for greater use of traditional material in elementary schools was intended to provide children with a source of self worth and community equal to that available in physical team games such as football and cricket - encompassing girls and boys who weren't athletic heroes. (Gomme 1908)  In Children's Singing Games, the popular book which she published alongside the first volume of Traditional Games, she set forth her view of the importance of games and her faith in the ability of play to reduce the inequalities always perceptible on the village green, and still more so in the streets:

When one considers the conditions under which child-life exists in the courts of London (with which I am most acquainted), and of other great cities, it is almost impossible to estimate too highly the influence which these games have for good on town-bred populations.  Of course, no mention is made of them in official statistics; but I for one feel certain that no real criminal emanates from that large class of dirty, but withal healthy-looking, London children who play "When I was a Young Girl," and "Poor Mary sits a-Weeping," as if their very lives depended on the vigour and fervour they put into their movements.
And at a time when experts of all persuasions were prophesying the imminent overthrow of civilisation, as a mentally and physically degenerate urban underclass outbred the cultured middle and upper classes, Gomme spoke out for the majority who lived in towns:
To those of my readers who are interested in London life or in the evolution of town life generally, I can promise considerable enjoyment by a visit to some of the slums and courts where these games are going on; and our reformers may learn a lesson from them, and perhaps see a way out of the dismal forebodings of what is to happen when the bulk of our population have deserted the country for the towns. (Gomme 1894: 10; see also Boyes 1993: 22-7, 36)
Over twenty years later, this humanity was still being asserted through encouragement to prospective folklorists to take up fieldwork since they would 'find the work of collection will be a delight and pleasure ... for it will introduce them to men and women of great character and individuality.'  (Gomme [1916]: 3)

Far from being characterised by staid archaism and docility, the woman who emerges from official and informal letters, articles and books is humorous, progressive and an activist.  Photo of Alice GommeComments from Charlotte Burne's and other Society members letters, combined with the year of birth of her seventh son, indicate that Gomme was pregnant during the time she was organising and appearing at the Conversazione.  As always, however, she had a solution to fit all the needs of the occasion - 'y[ou]r black cloth cloak in the mornings will obviate all difficulties I am sure', Burne confirmed 'and a judicious arrangement of black lace on your satin as you propose, will serve the same purpose in the evening.'  (Burne 1891: undated [late Sept])  Her versatile practicality took many forms - as evident in the fieldwork-friendly, pocket sized guide to folklore she wrote with Laurence Gomme; as in the marvel of feminine carpentry she produced to send a delicate and brittle corn dolly which had formed part of the Conversazione exhibition through the post.  And what better way to demonstrate women's equal capability than her choice of her sister, Mrs F Adam, to harmonise the tunes and the lively and detailed drawings of Winifred Smith to illustrate Children's Singing Games? (See Burne 1891: 15 Nov and Gomme 1894)

Gomme's long life and significant works are indeed of a piece - as a folklorist and a woman she was consistently innovative and involved, intellectually and operationally capable, bringing the highest standards of contemporary scholarship to new fields.  The range of her writing is outstanding, aside from children's games and cookery, she published research on traditional speech, beliefs, narrative, pioneering studies of folk medicine - and at the age of seventy-seven - produced her first articles on aspects of traditional plays.  An activist in the arts, she was a long time supporter of William Poel's efforts to create authentic performances of Medieval and Tudor drama and a doughty campaigner for a National Theatre.  A founder member of the London Shakespeare League, her election to its Presidency in 1927 was reportedly the culmination of ten years fighting with indomitable energy to keep the League true to its original purpose of providing training for actors in verse speaking, accurate editions of early texts and more suitable theatre designs for historical performances.  (Littlewood 1928: 9)

Unlike most of her contemporaries, Gomme also used her experiences to inform her analyses of tradition and dedicated Children's Singing Games "To My Boys in memory of the happy days when we played together".  Though - perhaps wisely - turning down a request from Cecil Sharp to encourage her sons to form part of his first male morris team, Gomme passed on her enthusiasm for folklore to several of her children.  Her eldest son, Bernard (1876-1961), stepped in at short notice to act as Auditor to the Folk-Song Society during the period of its greatest difficulties in 1904, whilst Allan (1883-1955), served with her on the Folk-Lore Society Council, held office as Honorary Librarian then, like his father, became an outstanding and far-sighted President of the Folk-Lore Society (1951-53).  But although she obviously felt able to contributed a bibliography of his writings to Folk-Lore when Laurence died in 1916, the successive losses of her husband and then her sons Elfred and Austin - killed on active service in 1917 and 1918 - may well account for the absence of publications by her between 1916 and 1929.  As Moses Gaster, her obituarist attested however, her commitment remained undiminished:

There was scarcely a meeting during the fifty years in which I had the privilege of working with Lady Gomme that she ever missed.  She had the folklore of England practically at her fingertips and she was always able to adduce other parallels or suggest another interpretation, thus enriching our knowledge.  In an apparently frail body there lived a very strong spirit, a poetic understanding, and a sympathetic soul.  (Gaster 1938: 94)
Probably the truest image of her is not the stiff photograph in court dress provided in The British Folklorists, but the word picture which emerges from the interview she gave to an anonymous American reporter when she was eighty-three.  Still serving on the Folk-Lore Society Council, she discussed morris dancing in terms of recently discovered Basque parallels from the area around Bayonne in France rather than prehistoric archetype.  Proudly recalling her role in founding The Folk-Lore Society, she was equally frank about its subsequent decline.  The interview is personally revealing - as so often in her writing, Gomme linked her comments on tradition with reflections on the influence of current events:
Returning to the topic of folkways and dances, she said she thought that the cinema and the radio had decreased interest in such things...  She believes, however, that the [First] war had a great deal to do with the neglect for such old things.  She herself had five sons at the front and lost two of them.  It must never happen again, she said.
Her continuing hopefulness and absence of self-pity are, however, marked.  And far from bemoaning the absence of quaint buildings and olde worlde customs, this octogenarian founding folklorist evinced great enthusiasm for the most industrialised culture in the world.  With bobbed hair and incautious comments on the uncrowned King Edward VIII, Gomme's modernity is striking.  'She is small and lively' the journalist concluded, 'and is tremendously interested in New York'.  (Anon 1935(?))

Georgina Boyes - 13.5.01

Article MT074

Notes:

  1. See for examples Iona and Peter Opie (1959: vi); Howard (1964: v-xi); Richard M.  Dorson 1968: 280 and comments in Norman Douglas, London Street Games (1916/1931) who apparently had her in mind when he described Aunt Eliza, a Victorian pedant who could discern a meaning not quite nice in every game she collected.  For the influence of Dorson's The British Folklorists on Folklore Studies - particularly in the USA - see Bronner (1990: 49)

  2. Obviously the correspondence is that sent to her in response to her comments and enquiries.  I am most grateful to Steve Roud for transcribed copies of this correspondence, copies of documents held in the Gomme Collection in the Folklore Society Archive and for his unfailing generosity with other material relating to Alice Gomme.

  3. For transcripts of letters, recipes and articles relating to Gomme's work on traditional cooking, together with a list of cakes exhibited at The International Folk-Lore Congress, see Steve Roud (1989) Alice Gomme's Cake Display 1891 and after Folklore Society Library & Archives.  London: Folklore Society Library.

References:

Acknowledgements:

I am most grateful to Steve Roud, Marion Bowman, Paul Smith and Julian Putkowski for copies of a number of articles and transcripts used in the research for this paper, to Tony Gomme for invaluable information about the Gomme family, to the Folklore Society for permission to quote from material in the Gomme Collection.


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