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

Paul Smith, Department of Folklore, Memorial University of Newfoundland


The collection of material on English traditional drama made by Thomas Fairman Ordish is by no means his only legacy to us, though some folklorists would possibly consider it to be his most important. As to his other achievements in the field of traditional drama, his publication of the transcript of the "Morris Dance at Revesby"[142] gave scholars access to the text of the entertainment which was not generally available to researchers until 1936 when Lady Alice Bertha Gomme donated it to the Library of the British Museum.[143] It is probably fair to say that practically all references to the entertainment, even up to and after the publication of a facsimile of the manuscript,[144] were based on Ordish’s original essay.

Ordish also offered scholars of the day suggestions as to how they could conduct their research. While on the one hand we could possibly describe him as being an "armchair folklorist",[145] Ordish documented several performances of plays. Possibly influenced by the approaches of such contemporaries as Sidney O. Addy[146] and Alfred C. Haddon,[147] Ordish regularly urged others to gather information, be it minimal by today’s standards, in order to help contextualise the plays:

"Contributors will oblige by taking note of the great importance of locality, action, and dress in these traditions. Of mere versions of the words of the mumming-play we already possess a considerable number; but no version which includes a note of the place where collected, or anything descriptive of the action of the piece, or of the dress of the players, will be either superfluous or valueless."[148]

In addition to advocating the collection of contextual information, Ordish was a promoter of the use of photography. At least as early as 1892 he had appealed to members of the Folklore Society to assist him in photographing mummers, his reason being:

"... I attach great importance to what is done in these folk-plays, to the action employed, to the characters represented, and to costume. The words of many versions have been recorded, but generally without any hint of action, gesture, and costume; and it will be obvious that photography offers just what we want. It is a pleasing instance of the saving quality of science. Education saps and undermines tradition; but science and scientific means are at hand to preserve a record of that which is doomed to pass away [my emphasis]."[149]

In terms of theoretical approaches to the material he was collecting, the full exposition of his thoughts on the matter would have come, presumably, with the publication of his book. This we were denied, but he did set out some of his ideas in his various published essays. There he outlined the variety and distribution of the plays and emphasised their antiquity, arguing for their relationship with the Indo-Germanic traditions from which the Classical Greek and Roman Drama developed.[150 ]Like many of his British contemporaries, Ordish approached the study of traditional drama utilising the nineteenth-century folkloristic concept that the prime importance of research was the search for origins. He aimed to explain the existence and form of these plays in terms of theory that can only be described as historical determinism.[151] Rightly or wrongly, in Britain at that time such arguments, although unsubstantiated, proved to be persuasive, and the approach employed by Ordish was later to be explored by Sir Edmund Chambers,[152] Reginald Tiddy,[153] and Charles Baskervill.[154] These writers, furthermore, developed the examination of such texts as a series of plot structures and started to draw upon analogous European material, as had Ordish before them.

Ordish’s research has contributed much to traditional drama scholarship over the years, as is evidenced in the writings of Alan Brody,[155] Alex Helm[156] and, of course, in the joint research of Christopher Cawte, Alex Helm and Norman Peacock,[157] to name but a few. Sadly today, however, while we acknowledge the Ordish Collection as one of the more valuable resources for the study of the topic in Britain, Ordish the man is almost ignored. Furthermore, Margaret Dean-Smith’s enthusiasms concerning "... the standing he occupied outside England ..." and how "... it is impossible to pick up any American work on the folk play, published in responsible journals ... without finding his name mentioned ..."[158] have become reversed. The continuing interest in traditional drama in Britain, on the part of both scholars and performers, has meant that the Ordish Collection is possibly the most heavily used material in the Archive of the Folklore Society. Furthermore, the current upsurge of interest amongst British folklorists in the "history of the discipline" has kept figures such as Ordish in our minds.[159] Conversely, in North America it appears that Ordish has been forgotten, as is evidenced by his exclusion from Steve Tillis’s recent book Rethinking Folk Drama.[160]

While this is a regrettable situation, it raises the question of why it is of value to explore these "pasts" when we have so many other avenues to explore. My reflective response is simple. It is all well and good to be on the "cutting edge" of scholarship, but it was through the maze of the past, and the work of individuals such as Ordish, that our discipline was shaped and determinations made which ultimately led us to where we are today. We must not forget that, or deny it. Instead, we need to be aware, and proud, of our own research tradition. To quote David Lowenthal:

"The past remains integral to us all, individually and collectively. We must concede the ancients their place, as I have argued. But their place is not simply back there, in a separate and foreign country; it is assimilated in ourselves, and resurrected into an ever-changing present."[161]

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