Obituary : ALEX HELM : 2nd March, 1920 - 22nd January, 1970
[Folkore, Spring 1970, Vol.81 No.1, pp.63-64]
The Folklore Society has suffered the loss of a dedicated worker in the sudden death of Alex Helm, who had been a member of its Council since 1958, and in 1968 had been awarded the Coote Lake Medal for outstanding services to folk-lore research. He was 49.
Born at Burnley, educated there and at St John's Teacher-training College, York, he served in the Indian AnDy Ordnance Corps during the Second World War, attaining the rank of Major, and later joined the staff of Northumberland Heath Secondary School, Erith. In 1949 he transferted to Danesford School (a Home Office Approved School for Junior Boys) at Congleton, a place singularly isolated from the kind of resources and library services he eventually came to need. Already an active dancer he now began to concern himself with the historical background of the dances and dramatic traditions of his native Lancashire and adopted Cheshire, as engendered not only by beliefs in their luck-bringing powers but by local industries, trades and customs. So far as opportunity allowed he collected in the field, and within the year produced an article 'The Cheshire Soul-caking Play' (JEFDSS 1950), a type of folk-play about which Chambers had little to say, to be followed in 1954 by 'The Rushcart and the North-Western Mortis' with a geographical index and map.
His circle of cortespondents meantime expanding, a chance communication (see Folklore 69, 1958, pp. 234-40) made known to him the existence, in the Folk-lore Society of the papers left by T.F.Ordish, material for a monograph on folk-drama never completed. Permission given to examine and index these papers, described in his subsequent Report (Folklore 66, 1955) not only proved a gain to the Society but I turning-point in his own work. From this accumulated store, enlarged by reference to the books and periodicals Ordish had consulted grew the index in geographical order, covering plays, morris and sword-dances, May-day and wassail customs and costume or disguise, to which Mr Opie referred in his address to the British Association 1957 (Folklore 68;). As Mr Opie said, the work was done, and continued to be done without grant-in-aid and in the peculiarly scanty leisure of a school-master in an Approved School; and it was perhaps a solace to abilities which otherwise found little exercise.
About this time Mr Helm took into collaboration four associates (two later withdrew) to make a working team in formal agreement concerning collecting, sharing and publishing material relative to the traditions already within the purview of the index. The first-fruits of this partnership emerged in 'A Geographical Index of the Ceremonial Dance in Great Britain (JEFDSS 1960) inspired in method, content and scope by the index published in 1936 by Dr Joseph Needham, FRS, of which it was both a revision and an enlargement. In a paper 'In comes I, Saint George' read before the Society in 1965 (Folklore 75) Mr Helm described the contributions made by his principal associates, Dr Christopher Cawte and Dr Norman Peacock, contlibutions which became more apparent in their next publication, English Ritual Drama, 1968. Constructed on the same principles as the Dance Index, this tabulated list of plays known in Britain exceeds Chambers's list by several hundred, and with the invaluable bibliography is supported by substantial essays discussing the problem of the geographical distribution of the types (or fragments) of a phenomenon regarded as a religious (luck-bringing) observance rather than an entertainment. In addition, the school printing-shop which Mr Helm conducted issued a number of illustrated booklets on North-Western traditions; acting editions (by request) of the play and more serious studies of folk-drama were published under the imprint: The Guizer Press.
A North-countryman who followed his own way of pursuing his chosen subject, Alex Helm was possessed of great generosity and warmth of heart; if wary in responding to offerred friendship, his own friendship, once given was never likely to be withdrawn. He leaves, besides the partner of a happy marriage, without whom his work, whether at school or in research could never have been sustained, a son of whom he had high hopes, and a daughter whose talented drawings were to illustrate the book he was completing at the time of his death.