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A note on the following text:

"Imperilled Inheritance" was a project which grew out of the closure of the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies at the University of Leeds in 1984, against the backdrop of little protest and no fanfare. It began as a private initiative of the last of the PhD students, Craig Fees, to record and celebrate the Institute, and developed in the context of the exciting coming-together of a number of dispersed folklorists in the British Folk Studies Forum, determined to build together a new and revitalised folk studies field in Britain.

The project was originally earmarked for publication in a special issue of the Forum's Talking Folklore to be edited by Craig Fees and fellow PhD alum Roy Judge; but the text refused to be tamed, and outgrew deadlines and page numbers, and ultimately Talking Folklore itself, the final issue of which appeared in 1990. Steve Roud, a founding member of the British Folk Studies Forum and Librarian for the Folk Lore Society, proposed that the Folk Lore Society publish it; and with that and a heavy dose of pragmatism, Part 1 on Harold Orton and the English Dialect Survey was wrestled from the much longer text and appeared in 1991.

The text presented here has been OCRed from 1991 computer print-outs recently rediscovered while sorting through old boxes. The absence of in-text footnote numbers indicates that it was a draft, perhaps two steps away from a final draft. 

                                                                                                                      -  Craig Fees 1 September 2022






Introduction: Folk Life Studies at Leeds.


In Part 1 of this series of studies we looked in some detail at Harold Orton and the English Dialect Survey, the latter rooted in a tradition of local studies at the University of Leeds which allowed Orton’s own specific drive and vision to blossom. In Part 3 we carry on that story with a look at the Survey of English Dialects, founded by Orton in 1962 to publish the results of the Survey. Having studied the English Dialect Survey in some detail in Part 1, however, the focus of this Introduction will be on the inception and some of the factors which shaped the development of folk life studies at Leeds.


In 1960 the University of Leeds instituted a full course in folk life studies. It was the first University in Britain to do so, and in the course of the studies presented here it is hoped to show why, in John Widdowson's words, it was "The most significant step forward in the re-establishment of folklore as an academic discipline in England."

From its inception the Leeds programme made provision both for undergraduates and postgraduates, who were taught initially by a single lecturer in folklife studies, appointed within the Department of English Language and Medieval English Literature, and the Department of English Literature. As student numbers rose a second lecturer was appointed, and the programme itself was extended - in 1963 a postgraduate diploma course was added, tailored to the needs of the museums world, for example, and as competition increased with the new red-brick universities in the late 1960s a one-year M.A. course was added. Leeds became the centre for external examination and development of folklore and folk life studies for a number of foreign countries, notably in Africa, and by 1984 more than 60 students from Third World countries had taken the M.A. in folk life studies at Leeds. Indeed, until the closing of the Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies in 1984 the Leeds folklife programme was internationally known, the flagship of folk studies in England.

But in 1960 it was not simply the teaching and the prospect for the first time of creating new generations of professionally trained folklorists in England which was so exciting, but the simultaneous creation of the Folk Life Survey, a groundbreaking research project whose ultimate aim was to do for English oral and material culture what the English Dialect Survey had done and was doing for spoken English. Beginning as a survey of the oral and material culture of Yorkshire, the Folk Life Survey was intended to extend its work to the other Northern Counties of England, with the ultimate aim - though not stated in so many words - of covering the entirety of England. It was ambitious, long-awaited and much welcomed in Scandinavia, Ireland and Scotland where comparable research was well advanced, and where the need for comparative material from England was strongly felt. It was funded by a three-year grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation (later raised to five), and had the machinery and considerable expertise of the English Dialect Survey to draw on. The man appointed to be the Folk Life Survey's Director, Stewart Sanderson, had been responsible for founding the archives of the School of Scottish Studies, where for eight years he had been Archivist, Secretary and fieldworker, with training in Scandinavia and Ireland, and with contacts throughout the international folk studies world.

Thus at a stroke and effectively out of nowhere folkloristics achieved an academic position in England which had taken years of university politics to achieve in the United States, and placed it (if in a junior position) in the heady international company of the fabled Irish Folklore Commission and the if anything more fabled Institute of Dialect and Folklore Research at Uppsala University in Sweden. Its students and staff have since been prominent among that handful of scholars who have revolutionised the study of traditional English culture and brought it kicking into the 20th century. The human and humane success of the folk life programme is illustrated in the study at the end of this volume by Roy Judge.

And yet in 1984, at another stroke, its "leading position and international reputation" were thrown away in what Widdowson has called a "particularly shortsighted and ill-conceived" end. It was closed, not with a bang nor with a whimper: It just ceased to be.

It is not the intention of these studies to go into the detail of the closure of what became the Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies. But throughout the career of the folk life studies programme at Leeds two major factors were in play which shaped it, and which acted as a drag, and to understand the history of the folk life studies programme it will be important to bear them in mind. These were the state and status of "folklore" in Britain, and money.


Money, and the state and status of “folklore”

In Britain, the credit of "folklore" in academic circles is not, and since the last war at least has not been high. E.Estyn Evans remarked in 1969 that as chairman of a new department of geography at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, "he was able to introduce archaeology and social anthropology inside my own department and had the satisfaction of watching them become independent departments..."Folklore", however, was not academically respectable, and the best way to advance folklife studies seemed to be by extramural lecturing and by promoting in the community the idea of a Folk Museum on Scandinavian lines...". According to Dorson the School of Scottish Studies "suppressed the term 'folklore' in its title, and in that of its journal Scottish Studies, although its work deals entirely with oral traditions, folklife, place name and dialect studies." In England it was academically a "dirty word" by 1969, and "viewed with a good deal of suspicion by academics" and as not being worthy of serious study at university level" in 1976. One wonders whether 24 years of folklife studies at Leeds helped to enhance folklore's image among British academies, but in 1960 it was a term that the founders of the programme felt they could not use. "Ethnology" was out, as being inappropriate for a course in the Department of English. "Folk life", imported from Scandinavia, was chosen as the best and least controversial term available.

There are many reasons why British academics looked upon "folklore" with suspicion, if not horror. The low standards prevailing in much of what called itself "folklore" in England certainly contributed to the prejudice against it. This prejudice was exacerbated by the belief that in the modern, educated, industrial age genuine traditional English culture had gone the way of the industrial horse. Put simply, academics in the established disciplines (which controlled University Committees and therefore funding and new course development)found it difficult to see the studv of indigenous folk cultures in England as a legitimate discipline through ignorance and prejudice, but more importantly because folklorists lacked the concrete proof a) that a field still existed to study, and b) even if there were, that there would be useful and interesting insights to be gained from the study of it.

The sort of proof recognisable to other discip1ines could only come at a considerable expense. The field had been neglected by academics so long that what folklorists had to work with as "source material" consisted mainly of an Augean mass of snippings and sweepings, held together by a morass of outdated theories and assumptions. The subject, Stewart Sanderson wrote in 1960, "is in much the same state, in this country at any rate, as, for instance, archaeology was in the eighteenth century." To provide a base of reliable source material from which an academic discipline could be built required two things: the time and money to clear the mess by making a study of existing "literature" in depth and in extenso; and the time and money to create an all new body of source material through systematic and scientific fieldwork, in depth through individual studies and in depth and in extenso through a Folk Life Survey. To bring English folk studies into the 20th century required time - it would take years before sufficient groundwork could be laid to give rise to continuously productive scholarship; and money, because time is money and research is dear.

For representatives of the established disciplines to give that money and grant that time to one which was effectively new - especially when it was not clear to all that a folk culture existed nor that its study would repay the effort - would have required a considerable leap of faith and vision which would have been noble at the best of times.

The comparable leap of faith which enabled Harold Orton to initiate the English Dialect Survey had been nowhere near so great, and far more easily achieved, for a variety of reasons. He had the vast systematising work of A.J. Ellis and Joseph Wright, and a small but respectively solid body of international monographs on specific English dialects behind him. Before coming to Leeds he had carried out pilot studies which showed that there was indeed a substantial body of material to collect. He came to Leeds invested with the University's faith by virtue of his appointment as Professor and Head of Department, at a time of post-war concern for re-Englanding England. He had investment from abroad, in terms of Zurich's support for Eugen Dieth, and he had the substantial voluntary support of Wilfrid Ha11iday, both of which would have made the gap to be covered by a leap of faith considerably smaller. Leeds was still the University for Yorkshire, and local patriotism and the prestige of the University still counted for private funding. When Orton came to call on administrators and colleagues in other fields for financial support, it was initially at little apparent risk to the University's financial position and with the firm prospect of a good return in terms of the University's academic standing and prestige.

Sanderson had none of these faith-enhancing factors on his side. When he first came to ask for money for folk life studies it was as an imported lecturer, and in order 1) To establish that there was sufficient material left to base an academic discipline on; 2) to do what ought to have been done a century earlier, to gather together, systematise and organise folklife references in academic, popular, and manuscript literature; and then 3) to carry out long-term field work to build up an academic archive to base scholarly research on. There were no (successful) English precedents to draw on; no Yorkshire Folklore Society; no Wilfrid Halliday making an expert and voluntary contribution from within the University community; no self-financed help from abroad; no security of tenure; no position of power within the academic administration of a University whose horizons were beginning to expand towards the cosmopolitan institution it has since become.

The extraordinary thing, therefore, is that the University was not only prepared to set up a Folk Life Studies programme, but to do it so completely: with a lectureship specifically in folk life studies (there was never a lectureship specifically in dialect studies), and with degree-awarding courses at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. This astonishing commitment in the context of the times is a strong testament both to the University and to Harold Orton and A. Norman Jeffares who put the proposal for Folk Life Studies to the University.

It required considerably less commitment, and a much smaller leap of faith for the University of Leeds to take on the Folk Life Survey: It was financed by an internationally recognised charitable Trust, and Leeds needed only to house it and to accept and administer the money. When that funding came to an end five years later it became clear that the University's commitment did not or could not extend farther. Despite the importance of the Survey in the re-creation of the discipline, the University declined to take on the funding of the Folk Life Survey.

The University's world had, of course, changed considerably from the days when the English Dialect Survey was given substantial funding. A major factor was a chronic worsening of the financial situation of the University over the life-time of the folk life programme. Leaps require considerably less faith when there is the security of stable finance and sufficient money about; but from the late 1960s less and less leeway was available for experimentation and long-term, high risk academic investment. The University's experience of the Survey of English Dialects as something of a financially bottomless pit may have enhanced its reticence, but however that may be, when the actual cutbacks to University funding came in the 1980s, it was on the back of chronic underfunding, certainly of dialect and folk life studies.


The Leeds “School” of Folklife Studies

Another of the major variables which came into play in making the Leeds folklife programme what it was was the vision and concept of "folklore" which Stewart Sanderson, in particular, brought with him.

The Leeds "school" of dialect and of folk life studies was characterised by a tremendous sense of humanity and vision. Roy Judge's study at the end of this volume shows that, as does the work that was done by staff and students: people and not items of culture emerge as the core of research. The items and their rigorous study are of value, but it is the humanity underlying the items which gives them that value.

This view is rooted in the English Dialect Survey itself - one needs only read fieldworkers' accounts and recall Orton's injunction to them to approach informants as teachers, as the people who have the expertise to share. But it was anchored also in Stewart Sanderson's vision of folklore and folklife studies.

Throughout his career Sanderson defined "folklore" and "folklife studies" in various ways: "The study of folklore is, in fact," he wrote in 1957, in the most evocative of his definitions, "the study of a certain kind of history; the intimate domestic history of a people..." It is "the study of the inherited popular traditions of a community, both oral and material" (1960). "...which focuses on the experiences of ordinary people as they go about their work, or run their households, or spend their leisure time..."(197X).

Directly behind the phrase "Intimate domestic history", with its resonants of Self, family, past, and continuity is Sanderson's concept of folk culture as a sort of spiritual gene bank for future generations. In 1960: "I believe that subsequent generations may need to know, and to draw fresh inspiration from, the values of an older world than ours perhaps even more than our own generation needs to". In 1987: "I believe that no civilisation can feel confident about its growth and health in the future unless that growth is nourished by being strongly rooted in an understanding and appreciation of the past."

This sense of time and humanity-in-culture makes the recollection of folk culture "an act of pietas" owed to ancestors and children. The folklorist's task is one of "preserving and bequeathing our national heritage" - rigorously, but with the fundamental knowledge that "our greater duty is not to academic techniques but to our fellow men and women."

The missionary drive to which Sanderson often refers in himself, adverting to the missionary past on both sides of his family, comes out: for him the study of folk culture is a kind of religious act in the root sense of tying together/binding together the generations in the domestic household of our civilisation.