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

Paul Smith, Department of Folklore, Memorial University of Newfoundland


Ordish was an ordinary man who, over the years, developed passionate interests in such topics as London antiquities and social life, Shakespeare, early London theatres, and subsequently traditional drama. While all this is evident from his writings, as with many ordinary people his life was not a matter of public record, and writers on the history of British folklore studies gave him little more than a passing mention.[6] Regardless, it has been possible to piece together an outline of his life.

Born on December 20th, 1855 in Brompton, Middlesex,[7] Ordish was the second of six children of Thomas Ordish of Wissett, Suffolk, and his wife Sarah, the eldest daughter of Fairman and Bethalina Mann of Rockland St. Andrews, near Attleborough, Norfolk. His father was a wholesale stationer and probably comfortably well off, in that he could afford to have Ordish educated privately.[8]

By the age of fifteen Ordish was employed as a "Clerk [in the] Book Trade".[9] How long he continued at that employment is not known, but by 1880 he was working as a Lower Division Clerk in the Printing and Drawing Branch of the Patent Office in London.[10] Apart from a short period in 1908 when he was attached to the London Traffic Branch of the Board of Trade, he was to work as a civil servant in the Patent Office for the rest of his life.

On March 3rd, 1880, at the age of twenty four, he married Ada Lamacraft, who was six years his senior. Ada was the daughter of Eliza Lydia and John Lamacraft, a stationer from Paddington, London.[11] They were to have one daughter, Eliza Lydia Ordish. For almost all his life Ordish lived in London. His first home with Ada was in Devonport Road, Shepherd’s Bush, a new house which they moved into when they married. Here they lived with a servant in what was essentially a white collar area, their neighbours having such occupations as dressmaker, schoolmistress, commercial traveller, and member of the Stock Exchange. Two neighbours were even described as deriving their income from private investment.[12] The Ordish family appear to have moved house fairly frequently, sometimes finding themselves living in rather more blue/white collar areas of the city. For instance, in 1891 they were renting a house in Essex Villas, Barnes, where their neighbours included a tailor’s cutter, a locomotive engine fitter, a tea dealer’s assistant, a number of clerks of one sort or another, a dressmaker, and a jeweller. Also living nearby were a number of unemployed individuals.[13]

In 1918, at the age of sixty three, Ordish was forced to retire early from the Patent Office through illness. One possibility is that he was a victim of the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic, although he is not included amongst the survivors listed by Richard Collier.[14] At that point Ordish moved from London to live in Cecil Park, Herne Bay, Kent. Somewhat disgruntled, in a letter of October 5th, 1918 to the Shakespearean/ Elizabethan revivalist, William Poel,[15] Ordish observed:

"I am now pensioned off and can only afford 2/- for the Monthly Letter, which I find stimulating: your comments on All’s Well. Chagrined that illness forced me to retire before the end of the war [November, 1918]; <I acted to save my life which may not have been worth saving>" [passage cut away: the words in < > are a tentative reconstruction of the beginning of the passage based on remaining ascenders].[16]

Ordish died on December 5th, 1924 in a nursing home in Leytonstone, Essex. Contributory factors included an enlarged prostate, which had troubled him for over two years; surgery earlier in 1924 to remove his prostate; and heart failure due to uraemia (Death Certificate).He was buried in Eddington, near Herne Bay.[17]

Ordish was not a "professional" academic as such. Instead, like many of his associates, he filled his leisure time by researching and writing on a variety of topics which interested him.[18] He had begun to publish at the age of twenty one, his first two pieces, "Fact and Faith: Some considerations on their relation" and "Skeptomania", appearing in the New Monthly Magazine.[19] The editor at that time was William Francis Ainsworth[20] who was later thought to have been a significant influence on Ordish.[21] These essays were followed by a short piece on "Russian History" in Notes and Queries (1878).[22] This was simply to be the tip of the iceberg, and Ordish went on to publish in excess of seventy articles and monographs. He also wrote two books, Early London Theatres (In the Fields) (1894)[23] and Shakespeare’s London: A Study of London in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth (1897),[24] both of which were reprinted at various times: Early London Theatres in 1899 and 1971, and Shakespeare’s London in 1975. He also revised Shakespeare’s London in 1904. In addition, he edited such publications as The Antiquary: A Magazine Devoted to the Study of the Past (1888-1889), The Bookworm: An Illustrated Treasury of Old Time Literature (1888), and London Topographical Record (1901-1906). Ordish and George Lawrence Gomme also acted as editors for the series The Camden Library (1891-1896) produced by the publisher Elliott Stock.[25]

Retrospectively, folklorists tend to view Ordish as an individual whose main focus was researching traditional drama. In reality, however, traditional drama was a minor interest for him.

"The mummers’ play and sword dance were primarily responsible for his attraction towards folklore, and it was in the drama and in London and its literary associations that Mr. Ordish’s interests mainly centred."[26]

Outside of the Folklore Society Ordish involved himself, in varying degrees, in a number of bodies including The London Topographical Society, The London Shakespeare Commemoration League, The Elizabethan Stage Society, The Blake Society, The New Shakespeare Society, The Society of Antiquaries of London, The Index Society, and latterly The Herne Bay Literary and Social Society. In some instances he appears to have been simply a member of the society concerned. For example, although he was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London for over thirty years (1890-1921), he never really participated in an active way in the Society’s affairs. This contrasts sharply with his involvement in the London Topographical Society, where he was elected Honorary Secretary at the inaugural meeting in 1880.

"[Henry B.] Wheatley and Ordish were between them the active members of the committee but were so busy with their own affairs that there were, if the record in the minute book is correct, meetings only in 1881 (once) and 1885 (twice) after the promising start of 1880. The Society languished with rapidly diminishing subscription income and must have been thought defunct, but in 1896 Ordish called a meeting ‘to explain the cessation of the work of the Society’ and ‘to consider the advisability of re-starting the Society’."[27]

He subsequently became Chairman of the Executive Committee (1898-1903) and was the first editor of its journal, London Topographical Record (1901-1906). From 1906 to 1920 he was Vice-President of the Society and in 1921 was made its first Honorary Vice-President.

It was through his involvement in these societies that this ordinary civil servant came to count amongst his friends and correspondents such individuals as Henry B. Wheatley, mentioned above,[28] James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps,[29] who encouraged him with his writings on Shakespeare and London theatres,[30] and Frederick James Furnivall, founder of The New Shakespeare Society.[31] In spite of Halliwell-Phillipps and Furnivall being in dispute, Ordish appears to have remained on good terms with both. Amongst his friends he also counted William Poel, with whom he collaborated on the "Elizabethan Stage Society ad hoc committee to co-operate in the building of an ‘Elizabethan’ playhouse, and in the observance of Shakespeare’s birthday in London".[32] Together they were also founder members of The London Shakespeare League.[33]

Ordish’s participation in these various theatrical, topographical and folklore societies was also shared by the members of the Gomme family, with whom he was to develop a special relationship. George Laurence Gomme, as well as holding a variety of positions in the Folklore Society, was a Vice-President of the London Topographical Society (1903-1916) and Chairman of The London Shakespeare League.[34] Along with his wife, Alice Bertha Gomme, and their son Allan, George Laurence Gomme shared Ordish’s interest in folklore, Shakespeare, and the Elizabethan theatre.[35] Alice Bertha was eventually to write two short pieces on traditional drama.[36] Allan Gomme was also a colleague, being an Examiner and then the Librarian at the Patent Office where he had gone to work in 1904 at the age of twenty one.[37]

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