Thomas Fairman Ordish (1855-1924): A Lasting Legacy

Paul Smith, Department of Folklore, Memorial University of Newfoundland


Ironically, Ordish’s inability to complete his book was to have a surprise benefit for future scholars, in that his reluctance to return materials to the contributors or release them to the Folklore Society in a strange way "protected" them in the long term, and so created a legacy for future generations. As Christopher Cawte observed when discussing the possible current whereabouts of E. H. Binney’s papers, "I suspect they were lost.  The only C. S. Burne MSS which survive are those she lent to Ordish and which he did not return."[118]

Ordish died on December 5th, 1924, an event recorded in the Annual Report of the Folklore Society along with the observation that:

"It is regretted that the book Mr. Ordish had in contemplation on English Folk Drama was not completed before his death; but it is hoped that the valuable material he had collected will be carefully preserved."[119]

Alice Bertha Gomme had kept in touch with Ordish after he had moved from London, even going down to give a lecture in 1922 to the Herne Bay Literary and Social Society on "The Story of Children’s Singing Games".[120] Not surprisingly, then, members of the Gomme family attended Ordish’s funeral, including Allan Gomme.[121] And it is possibly through the Gomme family that some time prior to April 1925 the Folklore Society finally took possession of the materials which Ordish had been collecting all those years. At that point the papers were moved to the library of the Folklore Society which had been established at University College London in 1911.

"Lady Gomme brought up a report on Mr. T. Fairman Ordish’s M.S.S. of Mummers Plays, and it was resolved that the Mss. be deposited in boxes at University College: and that the Hon: Librarian be authorised to expend a sum not exceeding 25/- in providing boxes in which to place them."[122]

What happened next is uncertain, other than that for some reason the collection dropped out of sight for the next twenty three years. This in itself raises a question. For while we have seen Chambers downplaying Ordish’s research, we need to consider if he, or for that matter anyone outside the Council of the Folklore Society, was aware of the extent of the material Ordish had collected, and that the papers were now in the hands of the Society. Or was it a case that the papers were simply shelved and forgotten?

In 1948 the archives were moved from their temporary wartime location in the Royal Anthropological Institute in Bedford Square, London, to the home of Mrs. Lake Barnett–primarily because of the lack of space at University College at the time. In a "List of Folk-Lore Society’s Records and Papers at Mrs Lake Barnett’s," prepared by Allan Gomme in September 1948, the final item is described as "... a large bundle of material on the mummers’ play, mostly that collected by T. F. Ordish (c. 1903), with me" [my emphasis].[123] This could be taken to imply that, while compiling his report, Allan Gomme had removed the Ordish Papers from Mrs Lake Barnett’s, possibly for his own use–a not altogether unknown action by members of the Council at that time.

Around 1954, Keith Holland, who had read of Ordish’s work in old copies of the Home Counties Magazine,[124] approached Allan Gomme with regard to obtaining access to the papers:

"My discovery of the Ordish collection was brought about by my curiosity of the whereabouts of the Mill Hill mummers play. Something made me look in the telephone directory and I found the name Fairman J. Ordish a dentist living in Ealing. I wrote to him and he said Thomas Fairman Ordish was his uncle and he left his collection to Mr. Gomme ... I wrote to Mr. Gomme and he sent me a notebook with the text of the Mill Hill play. I gave the notebook to the Librarian in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library and she made a copy of it."[125]

These events eventually came to the attention of Alex Helm and Margaret Dean-Smith, who both approached the Folklore Society for permission to inspect the papers.[126]

"Mr. Helm wishes to become a member of the Society and in examining the material would be prepared to arrange it in order and return it intact. After discussion it was agreed that the material should be sent to Mr. Helm on the understanding that it should be returned direct to the Library of the Society. The thanks of the Council were expressed to Mr. Gomme for taking care of the papers."[127]
"Mr. [Allan] Gomme reported that he had had a letter from Miss Dean-Smith asking (a) to be allowed to copy the material on Mummers Plays which had already been lent to Mr. Alex Helm for use in connection with her own book on the subject and (b) to be allowed to present the copy so made to the English Folk Dance & Song Society when she had finished with the copy. After discussion it was agreed that permission should be given for Miss Dean-Smith to have and use such a copy, but that the copy when no longer required by Miss Dean-Smith should be deposited in the Library of the Society at least until the material with Mr. Helm had been returned, when its further disposal could be arranged.
In the meantime the copy would be available for reference by any interested members of the E.F.D.S.S. Mr. Gomme was asked to communicate with Miss Dean-Smith to this effect."[128]

Access to the papers came too late for Helm to integrate fully all the materials he found into his The English Folk Play.[129] Without naming Ordish, however, he acknowledged that the Folklore Society had given him "... permission for the examination of Mss in their possession", and he signalled in his geographical listing those items which had come to light as a result.[130] In April, 1955, Helm submitted his observations on the papers to the Council,[131] and they were subsequently published in Folklore.[132]

Helm described the collection when he first saw it as being "... originally contained in unsorted bundles tied together with string". To bring order from the chaos, Helm accordingly created "... separate files, on the basis of one file per county."[133] While a reorganisation of the collection was obviously necessary, we need to consider why it was organised on a geographical basis. The answer is that Helm, and others at the time, were significantly influenced by Joseph Needham’s 1936 essay, "The Geographical Distribution of English Ceremonial Dance Traditions".[134] Here Needham set out his findings region by region, much in the way E. K. Chambers had earlier done in a limited way in The Mediaeval Stage[135] and The English Folk-Play.[136] Needham then went on to examine the zonation of traditions in relation to the Danelaw, and the persistence of those traditions into the present century, and finally explored the origin of the morris dance. During the 1950s a number of United Kingdom folklorists adopted this geographical approach. For example, Maurice Barley’s "Plough Plays in the East Midlands"[137] was one of the first, and probably the most influential, of this new wave of publications. The discussion of origin theory is minimal, the concentration being on the spatial distribution of recorded texts and their relationship to early drama and to Plough Monday customs in the East Midlands. Helm himself had used this approach,[138] and so it is perhaps not surprising that, when he came to sort the Ordish papers, he adopted a method with which he was familiar.

In his "Report on The Ordish Papers"[139] Helm offered the following assessment and highlighted the importance of the collection:

 "1. The papers bring to light many printed instances of the play recorded in books and periodicals now forgotten or only obtainable with great difficulty.

  2. It contains other instances recorded in private communications, some of great value, not hitherto published or recorded elsewhere.

  3. Areas which have been until now considered sterile from a traditional point of view, have now recorded examples of play texts (e.g. Surrey, Herts).

  4. Besides the play proper, there is much interesting incidental information concerning the sword dance, plough-bullocking and other seasonal customs, (e.g. Miss Mabel Peacock’s Lincolnshire Notes–not previously published).

  5. There is also much valuable information concerning the background of the play–costume and disguise worn, etc.

  6. There are a number of photographs, some of which–if not all–may be in the album in the Society’s Library, but which will be new to many people ..."[140]

A second piece on the Ordish Papers, this time by Margaret Dean-Smith, was also published in Folk-Lore.

"... I would venture to draw the attention of the present generation of readers of Folk-Lore to the work of T. F. Ordish, and the standing he occupied outside England.
Today, one has to explain to any English audience who T. F. Ordish was ... But it is impossible to pick up any American work on the folk play, published in responsible journals, for years after these dates, without finding his name mentioned ...
It is abundantly clear, from the material now at the reader’s disposal, both published and unpublished, that Ordish, (who in the 1880’s, or earlier, became interested first in the sword-dance and its play, nearly thirty years before Cecil Sharp began collecting the same, and who, like his contemporary ‘young Mr. Frazer’ was soaked in the scholarly traditions of Grimm and Mannhardt, and had, therefore, his feet on the track which is now regarded as more nearly the ‘right’ one than the approach of ‘literature’ or ‘the popular stage’) [had] become overwhelmed with the mass of evidence which he and his correspondents collected up to approximately 1912. Moreover, the book ... would not only have been a worthy alternative to the chapters devoted to the subject in Chambers’s Mediaeval Stage, published in 1903, but would have made unnecessary the infinitely poorer English Folk Play, published nearly ten years after Ordish’s death, ..."[141]

Praise indeed for our ordinary civil servant.

© 1997, Paul Smith. Contact: Last updated: 21/03/2008