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

Paul Smith, Department of Folklore, Memorial University of Newfoundland


The history of traditional drama scholarship is comparatively short. Although from 1800 onwards there was a steady increase in the number of plays recorded,[51] the majority of the early documentations were random, with such plays being viewed as little more than interesting, isolated curiosities. Around the turn of the century this was to change when Ordish undertook what was to be the first major investigation of British traditional drama.

Ordish’s interest in traditional drama possibly grew out of his love for Shakespeare and Elizabethan theatre and his research for a series of fourteen articles on "London Theatres ..." which he produced for The Antiquary (1885-1887). These essays eventually became his first book, Early London Theatres (In the Fields) (1894).[52]

"The revival [of interest in Shakespeare] had been a long while germinating. Before it emerged, its field had been prepared and fertilised by the husbandry of a notable succession of scholars and enthusiasts. Prominent among these, towards the end of the last century, were the members of F. J. Furnivall’s short-lived but influential New Shakespeare Society, a group which included the then very renowned James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps and his friend T. Fairman Ordish ... His Early London Theatres was in fact the first systematic critical study of the evidence relating to the old playhouses, and it was to be the progenitor of many other works by other writers, many of whom, profiting from Ordish’s first venture, went further and deeper into the field at their later opportunity, and produced the longer works which have become standard (such as Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage and Greg’s Dramatic Documents from the Elizabethan Playhouses).
None, however, have produced works more enthusiastically engaging for the general reader, without any relaxation of the scholarly principles which guided the author, than this book by Fairman Ordish. It is remarkable and it must be due to the rightness of his judgement that for all the seventy-eight years that have passed since his book was first published he would find, were he alive today, little cause to alter it in any very radical way. The general reader may still accept it as a good guide, and the scholar will be glad to use it as a reliable companion for his own findings."[53]

Ordish’s first foray into the field of traditional drama came with the publication of "Morris Dance at Revesby" (1889).[54] Here he discussed and presented a transcript of the entertainment purportedly performed on  October 20th, 1779 at the Revesby Estate in Lincolnshire, of Sir Joseph Banks, landowner, President of the Royal Society, plant collector, explorer and antiquarian.[55] Although unacknowledged, the manuscript upon which this essay was based was probably loaned to him by George Laurence and Alice Bertha Gomme, into whose hands it had passed.

Demonstrating his continuing interest in traditional drama, in 1891 Ordish gave the first of a series of occasional presentations on the topic, some of which were eventually published, at the monthly meetings of the Folklore Society. These included two lengthy pieces, "Folk-Drama" and "English Folk-Drama II",[56] and a third, "English Folk Drama", which he presented on March 20th, 1895, but which was never published.[57] He also contributed two shorter pieces to Folk-Lore,[58] and occasionally exhibited costumes, photographs and chapbooks which he had received.[59] The costumes were subsequently presented to the Society, which added them to its collection at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography.[60]

It was in 1892 that Ordish first began to urge members of the Folklore Society, albeit obliquely, to consider documenting "... mumming plays which are a feature of the rural celebration of the season in various parts of the country".[61] But it was in his essay, "English Folk-Drama II", the published version of his paper "Folk-Drama" presented to the Society in February 1893, that he moved towards advocating the "systematic collecting" of material.

"But, knowing as I do–as no doubt you all do–that these traditions, within the last few years, have been exhibiting signs of rapid decay, I am glad to be the humble means of introducing the subject to the consideration of the Society this evening, knowing well that my deficiencies will be made good from the knowledge of those whom I am addressing. I may say at once that this will be the burden of my remarks–the value of folk-drama as a vehicle of tradition; the bearing and influence–undoubted in my mind–of folk-drama upon the evolution of the drama of our nation; the very incomplete collection which has been made of the various forms or phases of folk-drama; their present alarmingly rapid decay. I am convinced that if a systematic collection had been made after Mr. Udal gave us his very interesting paper on the Mumming-Plays of Dorsetshire in 1880 [Folklore Record, Vol. 3 (1880), 86-116], much that is now irretrievably lost would have been on record. It is not only that the traditions have utterly died out in so many districts, but in other places where they have survived they have become attenuated, and show an altogether feeble existence compared with what they were only a few years ago ... What I shall have to urge is that the Society spread its net–which it can now effectively do by means of its local organisation–all over the country, and collect together all the fragments of folk-drama and dramatic custom which remain to us."[62]

Over the next few years Ordish was to champion the cause of traditional drama to other audiences as well. For example, in his "Folklore in the Home Counties: How the camera can help" in the Home Counties Magazine,[63] he described the performance of a folk-play that he serendipitously observed in the High Street in Barnes on the evening of  November 30th, 1891,[64] and then went on to advocate the use of photography to document traditional plays. The piece concluded with an appeal for readers to send material, but regrettably no responses were forthcoming.[65]

The idea of Ordish producing a book on traditional drama to be published by the Folklore Society was apparently suggested by him around December 1901, if not earlier. The venture was decided upon by the Council on  March 26th, 1902, perhaps being spurred on in its decision as a result of correspondence which Ordish had received earlier that month from Edward Hibbert Binney.[66] Apparently, Binney had only just heard of Ordish’s work.[67]

"The Chairman read a letter he had received from Mr. Ordish dated March 26th enclosing several letters he had received from Mr. Binney of Exeter Coll: Oxford, who it appeared was engaged in the preparation of a book on Folk Drama, and asking the Council to state definitely whether they accepted his [Ordish’s] offer 2 write a book on the subject and to bring it out as an additional publication of the Society. It was unanimously resolved that in the absence of any report from the Publications Committee on the reference of December 18th the Council take it up at Mr. Ordish’s request as a matter of urgency and that Mr. Ordish’s work be accepted as the additional publication for 1902."[68]

At this point Binney wrote to Ordish and appears to have graciously backed away from creating any competition, instead offering to place his materials at the disposal of Ordish for his book.[69]

The survey of "The Mumming-Play and Other Vestiges of Folk-Drama in the British Isles" which Ordish was to conduct in conjunction with the Folklore Society, and his projected book on the subject, were not announced by him in Folk-Lore until September 1902, which secured his position as the soon-to-be-published authority on the subject:

"The Council of the Folk-Lore Society have decided that it is desirable to bring together the scattered material bearing on this subject without further delay, and I have undertaken to edit the collection, which will form one of the issues of the Society. Members who have collected notes and versions are invited to send them either to the Secretary or to me direct, and they may rest assured that their contributions will receive careful attention, and in every case will be suitably acknowledged in the work which is now in active preparation."[70]

It appears, however, that Ordish for some time had had in mind a book on English Folk-Drama and Folk-Plays. This volume had first been advertised as "In preparation" as early as 1896 by the publisher George Redway, and a draft of the notice in Ordish's handwriting still exists.[71] Catalogues containing the announcement are to be found bound in the back of some copies of P. H. Ditchfield, Old English Customs Extant at the Present Time ... (1896).[72] To include "... Illustrations of Players, Dresses, and Weapons...," the volume was described to contain:

"... a collection of versions of folk-plays, many of which are very curious, and characteristic of the English folk. The discussion of the origin of the plays, their ‘locality’, and their inter-relation will be of interest to folklorists."[73]

A plan by Ordish for a book on traditional drama still exists, but it is not known whether it is the one for George Redway or the Folklore Society. The volume, which appears to have been quite ambitious and to embrace traditional drama in its widest sense, was projected to include the following:

"English Folk-Drama
I. Introduction
  On dramatic tradition. A folk play as a phenomenon in folk-lore.
II. A picturesque tradition
The humours of collecting a folk play. A descriptive account of the Hampshire Mummers. Their aspect as they came across the snow towards the house. A farm house kitchen as a theatre. My exceeding curiosity treated with good-natured contempt–I succeed in gaining the confidence of one of the troupe. The result–dresses, hats and swords. Illustrations.
III. A comparison of versions
Other Hampshire versions of the mumming play (illustrated from photographs of the Bitterne mummers). Versions in other parts of England. Some versions never before printed [see Appendix].
IV. The Soulers’ Play
An account of the Souling custom, and the occasion of  the play. Remarks on the play; special features. Text of the play [see Appendix].
V. The Plough Monday Play
An account of the Plough Monday festival. What the Plough Monday play represents in the history of the English race. The Plough Monday Procession (two illustrations). The Plough Monday play in the Vale of Belvoir (illustration, actors’ dress). Remarks on the play. Text [see Appendix].
VI. The St. George Pageant
Crusades and miracle-plays. Echoes, not origin, survivals.
VII. The Sword-dance Play
Descriptive account. What the tradition tells us of our history. Illustrations (1) dancers hat, (2) dancers coat. "A Morrice-dancers play." A composite drama, mainly a sword dance play. Striking instance of survival, witnessing to our descent from the dancers described by Tacitus. Text of both plays [see Appendix].
VIII. The Easter or Pace Egg Play
An account of the Pace Egg custom. Pagan and Christian symbolism. Dramatic celebration (as survival) of Pagan rites in nineteenth century. Chap-book versions. Quaint pictures. Illustrations from these. An analysis: Pagan features; medieval features. Text of the play [see Appendix].
IX. Other Folk Plays
Rumpelstiltskin. The Horn dance. Shakespeare and folk-plays. Children's games and folk-drama. Punch and Judy. Harlequin and Columbine.
X. Evolution and devolution of drama
The folk play in relation to our national drama. Origin of the playhouse (two illustrations). Literature and oral tradition. Summary and conclusion: national characteristics in English folk-drama.
Appendix I: Versions of folk plays hitherto unprinted.
Appendix II: Bibliography of printed versions."[74]

Regardless of Ordish’s enthusiasm at the time, and the apparent support of the Council of the Folklore Society, the book was never to appear. In the long term, the fact that the volume did not appear caused some discontent with Ordish from within the ranks of the Society. A second notice of the proposed publication of Ordish’s book by the Folklore Society appeared in the Twenty-Fifth Annual Report,[75] as did a third in 1904:

"As foreshadowed in the last Report, the additional volume for 1903 will be a collection of materials for a history of English Folk-Drama, edited by Mr. T. Fairman Ordish, and based to a large extent upon contributions by members of the Society. Mr. Ordish has made good progress with the work, and it is hoped that it may be published in the course of the year."[76]

By 1905, however, there were signs that work on the volume was falling behind:

"The promised collection by Mr. T. Fairman Ordish of materials for the History of English Folk-drama is not yet ready for press; but it is hoped that it may be finished in time to be issued as the additional volume for 1904."[77]

This was a problem acknowledged even by the author because, on February 10th, 1906, Ordish wrote to Percy Manning that:

"My work on the versions has been interrupted somewhat by a heavy strain of official work, but in due time I hope it will be completed to the satisfaction of yourself and other fellow-labourers in the same field.
Thanks very cordially for your kind expression of forbearance and patience. I am doing my best and I promise you I will miss no crotchets of my own in my commentary, but arrange the matter as completely and as simply as possible."[78]

Unfortunately, little progress was made and matters appear to have come to a head shortly after Ordish left the Council of the Folklore Society in January 1909.[79] On March 11th, 1909, Mabel Peacock wrote to the Society:

"Some years ago it was proposed to issue a volume of Folk-Lore on the subject of the rural dramas such as the Plough-Monday Plays. I remember sending some copies of Lincolnshire Plough-jag ‘ditties’ to be used. Can you tell me whether the book is in progress?
I ask for this reason. If it is, there will be no occasion for me to include the things I then sent in the collection of folk-lore gleanings which I am gradually copying out and arranging; but if nothing is being done, it would be better to put them with my later notes on the subject."[80]

Accordingly, on March 18th, 1909, F. A. Milne, the then Secretary of the Folklore Society, passed Mabel Peacock’s letter to Ordish and requested "an answer at your earliest convenience".[81] In addition, Charlotte Burne wrote to Ordish noting Mabel Peacock’s concern, and offering her own services to work on the volume:

"I had a letter from Miss Peacock the other day, asking whether your Mummers’ Plays were likely to appear soon. She sent you some Plough Monday notes, at one time, I believe, and she thinks she could utilize them herself if you do not want them. Now I hope very much that you do want them and that the work is getting on steadily. Of course I know that it is monotonous work, to get all the Mss collated, and so on. I am not so busy as I was, now that I have given up the Editorship–can I do anything to help you? I should be so very pleased if the work were to come out under my Presidency! Time flies–we none of us get younger–and ‘the night cometh, when no man can work’."[82]

It appears, however, that the Council was beginning to lose patience with Ordish, for at a committee meeting in October 1910 "it was resolved that Mr. Ordish be asked to prepare a report on the materials he had collected for a history of English Folk Drama to be presented at the Annual meeting in January."[83] No reply was forthcoming, and the following month the Secretary was directed to write again to Ordish and to request him to prepare a report.[84]

In response to the request, Ordish accordingly compiled a "Report on Mumming Plays and Other Vestiges of Folk Drama". Although not present at the meeting when the report was to be delivered, Ordish certainly made his presence felt, in that he also sent a number of items to be exhibited, some of which he had displayed before.[85]

"By Mr. T. Fairman Ordish–Photographs of sword-dancer’s coat and sword-dancer’s hat from Durham; photograph of dress of Plough-Monday player, from Vale of Beaver (Northamptonshire); photographs of three scenes from mummers’ play at Netley Abbey; photograph of Horn Dance at Abbot’s Bromley (Staffordshire); drawing of a mummers’ play from Mill Hill (Middlesex); drawings of ‘Old Bighead’, ‘Father Christmas’, and ‘Dolly’ from the same mummers’ play; photographs of mummers’ swords and hats, and drawing of a fight in a mummers’ play, from Sherfield English (Hants)."[86]

In Ordish’s absence, the report was read to the Annual Meeting on January 18th, 1911 by the Secretary, F. A. Milne.[87] It simply began with Ordish listing the contributions received from such individuals as Mabel Peacock, Percy Manning, E. H. Binney, Charlotte S. Burne, and Horatia K. F. Eden, the sister of the writer Juliana Horatia Ewing. Ordish then went on to observe that:

"The above contributions, which have been summarised in a very compendious form, contain a considerable addition to the material already in hand. It will be necessary to compare the collected versions with those already in print in accessible sources. Many of the transcripts from printed sources are repeated in the above collections and in that which was already in hand; but they will be very useful. The lists of printed versions, when collated will furnish a list which will in all probability cover the whole ground of printed record.
The Council of the Society has been deterred from carrying out the proposal to devote one of the Society's occasional volumes to this subject, on account of the large number of versions, the variations in which are of varying significance. On the other hand, the large number of versions which have been printed is evidence of the interest generally taken in the subject; and the Council now has at its disposal a corpus of new material in MS. which it specially concerns the Society to render accessible."[88]

The Council’s response was muted, to say the least:

"It was resolved that the thanks of the Society be given to Mr. Ordish for the preparation of the Report, and that it be referred to the Council to consider what steps can be taken for giving effect to the suggestions contained in it."[89]

Although a copy survives in the Ordish Collection, the report was never published, and one possible reason for this was later referred to by Charlotte S. Burne in a letter to Ordish:

"I am much obliged to you for the copy of your Report. I do not know why it was not published in Folk-Lore. I was not Editor when it was presented, and my tenure of the Presidency expired that night [January 18th, 1911], so I had no locus standi. The general disappointment much at finding you had made no progress with the collation of the material may have had something to do with it."[90]

The Council considered Ordish’s report in March, 1911, and decided to ask him to allow Charlotte Burne to see the materials.[91] Whether or not she ever saw them is not known. In May, 1911, the Council received a letter from Arthur Beatty of Wisconsin offering to work on "the St. George Mummers’ Play", a topic on which he had already written.[92] The Council replied "that the Society is already committed ...," the implication being that they were still backing Ordish to complete his book.[93]

Two years later there was still no sign of the volume. It appears, however, that Ordish still had hope that the project would be completed, for, in a letter he received from Reginald Tiddy, the latter responded, "I am very glad to hear that you have not given up the idea of producing a volume on the Mummers’ Play ..."[94]

Furthermore, Ordish was still collecting material. For example, in November, 1913, Tiddy wrote to him:

"I also enclose four of my own collection–Sunningwell, Chadlington & Weston Sub Edge and Overton. I wonder if you would mind having them copied & letting me some time have the originals. I value the latter for the sake of the donors ..."[95]

While Ordish did comply and copy the texts, typically he never returned the originals to Tiddy, and so they and the copies still remain in the Ordish Collection (Berkshire 12-14; Oxfordshire 3-5; Gloucestershire 20-22; Hampshire 12-13), with only the Weston Sub Edge play being included in Tiddy’s The Mummers’ Play.[96]

In December, 1913, things were to change yet again when E. H. Binney wrote to Dr. Robert R. Marett, the President of the Folklore Society, to ask "... what chance there was of his doing anything with his materials on mummers [which he had earlier sent to Ordish], as Mr. Ordish seems to have dropped the subject." The letter was dealt with by the Finance and Publications Committee who "... resolved to recommend to the Council to ask Mr. Binney whether he would be prepared to undertake to edit the material collected."[97] The Council, however, "... resolved that the matter stand over until the next meeting, the President ... undertaking to communicate with Mr. Ordish and to endeavour to obtain from him the materials in his possession."[98] At the Council meeting on January 21st, 1914, the Chairman read a letter he had received from Mr. Ordish from which he inferred that:

"... he was unwilling to give up the work, at any rate at present, but that he might be inclined to do so under certain circumstances [unspecified]. The Chairman also reported that Mr. Binney would be quite prepared to take up the work and would undertake to complete it in 3 years’ time. It was agreed that the Chairman be left to further negotiate with Mr. Ordish."[99]

In spite of the lack of any activity on the project, Ordish appears to have been discussing a book on traditional drama with the publisher T. Fisher Unwin, for on February 3rd, 1914, Unwin wrote to Ordish:

"With regards to the little book that you suggest, I should be quite inclined to print and publish such a work if I could see my way. How could I know more about it and see the pictures? In any case I should be happy to see you at this office and to discuss the subject."[100]

Perhaps it was these discussions which made Ordish reluctant to hand over the materials to the Folklore Society.

Quite what happened next is not known. Perhaps because of the sensitivity of the issue, the matter appears to have disappeared as an item for discussion in Council meetings. And the next thing we hear is that E. H. Binney has resigned from the Society.[101] Whether or not Ordish’s negative response to the request for him to release the material for someone else to work on and Binney’s resignation are related is a matter of conjecture.

Conversely, E. K. Chambers’s changing attitude towards Ordish is somewhat more obvious. Margaret Dean-Smith observed that Chambers wrote his The English Folk-Play (1933) "... apparently in complete ignorance of what he [Ordish] had done."[102] In fact, just the opposite was true. E. K. Chambers knew exactly what Ordish was doing. Chambers and Ordish were both members of the Council of the Folklore Society (1900-1907) and both were on the Society’s Publications Committee (1901-1905) at the exact time when Ordish’s projected book was being discussed. Consequently there was no way that Chambers could not have known about the survey or the book. Furthermore, in The Mediaeval Stage (1903) Chambers is almost laudatory about Ordish, in that he includes him in the "List of Authorities", and begins the chapter on "The Mummers’ Play" by citing Ordish’s articles and noting his forthcoming book.[103] Likewise, Chambers was aware of Ordish’s research on Early London Theatres ... (1894) and Shakespeare’s London ... (1897), and accordingly cited him amongst the authorities in his The Elizabethan Stage (1923). Things changed considerably, however, by the time Chambers wrote The English Folk-Play (1933). Here he now favours Reginald Tiddy as the authority,[104] and cites Ordish only once in a footnote, choosing not to name him in the text but only to refer to him as "One folk-lorist ..."[105] Similarly, while the full text of the Revesby Play presented by Chambers is based upon the edition by Ordish[106] and an edition by Manly[107] which in turn is based on Ordish,[108] this is done without any acknowledgement. Also, in the "List of Texts" which are arranged by county, while Chambers lists Ordish’s essay on the Revesby play, he somehow manages to omit the name of the author.[109] I would suggest that these omissions are rather more than coincidental, and do more than simply reflect Chambers electing to cite Tiddy’s work as opposed to that of Ordish. Rather, this demonstrates a changing attitude on Chambers’s part towards Ordish, and appears to be an attempt to downplay, if not expunge, the latter’s role as a key figure in traditional drama scholarship at the turn of the century.

We have few clues concerning why Ordish never completed his book, and we will probably never know the full story. He certainly had the skill and experience to write such a volume, as well as plenty of relevant material. Nor was it because he had lost interest in the topic. Even after his retirement we find him lecturing on "Survival in Folklore: Father Christmas and the Mumming Play" to the Herne Bay Literary and Social Society.[110] Also, he had the support of the Council of the Folklore Society, which obviously had every intention of publishing the work. It is possible, however, that neither Ordish nor the Council of the Society initially realised the scale of the task he was facing.

Perhaps it was not just one issue which led to the demise of the project, but a combination of factors. On the one hand, we know that Ordish was involved in many other societies and ventures, and it may be that he was simply overstretched. For example, in 1902, the same year the Mumming Play survey was launched, Ordish and others founded the London Shakespeare League, a society in which he was to be heavily involved for a number of years.[111] Also in 1902, as Chairman of the Executive of the London Topographical Society, he was to relaunch an appeal to build in central London a reproduction of an Elizabethan theatre, as a memorial to Shakespeare.[112] On the other hand, Ordish’s plan for the volume might well have been too ambitious and covered too much ground. Perhaps another reason was that there was no model for writing such a book, and this in itself inevitably makes the task harder.

It certainly appears that up to 1914 Ordish intended to complete a book on the subject.[113] Later that year, Europe was plunged into the Great War of 1914-1918. While the conflict appears hardly to have interfered with the activities of the Folklore Society,[114] it altered the lives of individuals such as Ordish, if only to increase his workload at the Patent Office.[115]

The book could also possibly have been abandoned for personal reasons. For instance, we know that some time prior to November, 1918, Ordish was in sufficient ill health to have to retire early.[116] However, an earlier unspecified family crisis, referred to in a letter he wrote to Edward Clodd on May 30th, 1904, may have also been a contributory factor:

"Your letter reached me at a moment of great despondency, due to a domestic sorrow which I fear is irremediable, and I mention this that you may know just how and why your kind thought has touched me and made me feel uplifted with pride and gratitude ..."[117]

Whatever our speculations, the outcome was the same. The book never appeared.

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