History of folklore at Sheffield

The Study of Folklore at the University of Sheffield 

Academic interest in folklore and its study at the University of Sheffield can be traced back to one of its founder institutions, Firth College. The historian Charles Harding Firth, who lectured at the College at the beginning of the 1880s, was in the early stages of assembling a major collection of English ballads and other popular literature, a substantial number of which he later donated to the University. His numerous publications reflect his interest in history and English studies, and include a number of articles on ballads.

Some sixty years later, in the 1940s, Douglas Hamer of the University’s Department of English Literature, gathered together an extensive collection of children’s nursery rhymes, which he edited for publication. Unfortunately, publication was pre-empted by that of Iona and Peter Opie’s Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes in 1951. Nevertheless, Douglas Hamer donated the collection, together with his notes on the manuscript, to the University Library, where it is deposited in Special Collections.

The Survey of Language and Folklore, launched informally in the Department of English Language in 1964, was the starting point of a concerted campaign to establish the study of folklore at the University. The Survey and the subsequent development of the campaign were inspired by the work of Herbert Halpert, the founder and Head of the Department of Folklore at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. Officially formalised by the then Vice-Chancellor in 1967, the Survey focused initially on Yorkshire and the surrounding counties. Led by a core group of colleagues and supporters, it eventually spread widely throughout the country via a network of voluntary regional and local teams, representatives, correspondents, and in due course students. The Survey was widely publicised, and members of the core team also travelled to numerous venues across the neighbouring counties to introduce and promote it, collect data, and recruit contributors and supporters. These efforts were so successful that the volume of data received led to the establishment of archives in 1968, which were officially designated the Archives of Cultural Tradition in 1972.

The Survey aimed to collect information on all aspects of English language and folklore, using audio and video recording, specially designed collecting slips, forms, and questionnaires, along with photographs, drawings, ephemera, and artefacts. Displays of collected material were used in introductory talks to illustrate the Survey’s aims and progress, and to encourage further contributions.

The Survey was designed as an ongoing project which continued to contribute data to the Archives for a further thirty two years. In 1976 the Survey and the Archives were designated as a research unit by the University, entitled the Centre for English Cultural Tradition and Language (CECTAL) which became the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition (NATCECT) in 1997 in recognition of its status as the only institution in higher education in England offering a comprehensive programme of teaching and research in the study of folklore, after the closure of the Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies at the University of Leeds in 1983.

The Survey and the Archives were planned as the first two stages underpinning the campaign to establish the study of folklore at the University. The third stage was the creation and development of a library dedicated to language, folklore, and related subjects, to support the programme. In parallel with the Archives, the library grew exponentially over forty years to become the largest of its kind in the north of England. Following an externally funded cataloguing process, this unique collection of some 40,000 books and journals was transferred to the University Library.

The study of folklore, as exemplified by the underlying aims of the Survey, and by the approach to teaching and research in CECTAL/NATCECT, seeks to identify, document, and analyse the myriad forms and manifestations of tradition, and to discover and monitor their operations and functions over time at all levels and in every sphere of society and culture. At CECTAL/NATCECT the approach to the subject is holistic, and favours an anthropological mode of investigation which sheds light on continuity and change. It also foregrounds the interrelationships between language and folklore and the crucial role of language in the transmission of tradition.

As folklore is a wide-ranging discipline and notoriously difficult to define precisely, the Survey and the Centre adapted a working system of classification devised by Herbert Halpert. Used from the outset in the Department of Folklore at Memorial University, it sets out six principal genres of folklore, illustrating the scope of the subject and acting as a baseline for teaching and research. This system, slightly modified for use in the programme at Sheffield, groups together specific typical related elements which distinguish a given genre from the others. The six genres are: 1. Language; 2. Childlore; 3. Custom and Belief; 4. Folk Narrative; 5. Folk Music, Dance, and Drama; 6. Material Culture, Work Techniques, Arts and Crafts.

As the word folklore applies both to the constituent elements of the subject and to its study, the classification has a dual role as a means of identification and as a series of starting points for investigation. It also underpins the Survey and the CECTAL/NATCECT programme from the beginning. Each category is accompanied by a brief indicative list of constituent elements. By the very nature of the subject it is inevitable that the categories overlap and interweave, but the system covers most aspects of folklore, and acts as a template for its comprehensive study, each genre being extensible to incorporate additional elements such as (inter)netlore. Used as a guide in fieldwork and collecting, it also provides a database for the exploration of context and function.

The working classification was widely used when courses in Folklore for the general public were initiated in the University’s Department of Extramural Studies in the 1960s, and eventually developed into Certificate and MA programmes. These were followed by the introduction of undergraduate courses in the Department of English Language, which widened into a full undergraduate and postgraduate programme, unique in English universities, at the Certificate, Diploma, MA, MPhil, and PhD levels. All these courses greatly increased the quantity and quality of material contributed to the Survey and the Centre’s Archives. In addition to the material contributed to the Survey, and more than 800 student research projects and theses, the Archives hold over 3000 audiotapes and videotapes, 8000 slides, 3000 photographs, and a number of individual collections covering a wide range of topics, as well as extensive holdings of documents relating to local and family history, trades and industries in the Sheffield area, collections of printed and manuscript material, magazines, pamphlets, ephemera, and newspaper cuttings, among many others. Also on file are copies of questionnaire response books from the Survey of English Dialects, copies of the questionnaire response books from the English and Welsh section of the Atlas Linguarum Europae, fieldwork for which was organised by the Centre, as well as data from the Survey of Sheffield Usage, the Names Project, and other research programmes. All these materials are now deposited in Special Collections in the University Library.

The Centre’s material culture collection expanded from the 1970s onwards and was moved to separate accommodation, where it developed into the Traditional Heritage Museum. The Museum, which showcased local handcrafted trades and domestic life, was originally intended as a teaching and research resource for students, but was also opened to the public in 1986. It was run mainly by volunteers and work experience placements, and later by the Centre’s Friends association, Traditional Heritage.

A publication programme began with the launch of the journal Lore and Language in 1969. Initially serving mainly to publicise the Survey and as a point of contact between the Survey teams and other contributors, over the following thirty years it developed into one of the comparatively few journals specialising in English Language and Folklore, and achieved recognition both nationally and internationally. The Centre also published the journal Traditional Drama Studies and over twenty books and booklets on aspects of English Language and Folklore.

The Centre hosted a number of national and international conferences. Prominent among these was a series on contemporary legend, which led to the creation of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, and a series on traditional drama, resulting in the formation of the Traditional Drama Research Group which was based at the Centre.

The longstanding co-operation between the Centre and the Department of Folklore at Memorial University was formalised at a meeting between the two Vice-Chancellors by the creation of the Institute for Folklore Studies in Britain and Canada in 1986. While strengthening the links in teaching, research, and publication, the Institute also acted as a forum for the promotion and exchange of information on the study of folklore in both countries.

In summary, this brief overview of the study of Folklore at the University of Sheffield may be seen to reach back to scholarly work on ballads at Firth College at the beginning of the 1880s. It surfaces again in research on childlore in the 1940s. In 1964 the launch of the (Sheffield) Survey of (English) Language and Folklore marks the beginning of a comprehensive programme in Folklore studies, which developed over some forty years into the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition. The legacy of this programme of teaching, research, archives, library resources, and publication offers a firm foundation on which other programmes can build in the future to ensure that Folklore maintains its rightful place as an academic discipline in English higher education.

J. D. A. Widdowson

February 2023