Brush up your dance steps in the archives

In mid Summer Festival season, Special Collections and Archives can offer an unusual take on research in the Gypsy Lore Society archive,  which has been used to recreate traditional English folk dances and songs, as explained below by Simon Harmer.

An interest in step dance from the southern counties of England brought Jigfoot, musicians from Southampton with an interest in local traditional tunes, together with dancers Val Shipley, Janet Keet-Black , Peter Ingram and Jo and Simon Harmer. Alice Gillington’s Songs of the Open Road was discovered to be a source of song, music and dance descriptions from Hampshire. Michael Yates and Steve Roud’s excellent article ‘Alice Gillington: Dweller on the Roughs’ (Folk Music Journal 2006, Vol 9, No. 1) led us to the Gypsy Lore Society archive at Liverpool University.

 

Alice Gillington’s correspondence with GLS spans the years from 1907 until 1932. Her extensive correspondence with Scott Macfie is very descriptive of the two Romany settlements she became involved with, Botany Bay at Sholing near Southampton and Thorney Hill in the New Forest. The letters give background to the communities from which she collected the songs, music and dance. They have also been invaluable in helping to identify the characters in her book Gypsies of the Heath published under her pen name The Romany Rawny. In this book she describes painting a portrait of Ellenda Barney. Through a letter to Scott Macfie we know that her brother, John, photographed the painting and a copy was sent to the GLS. That photograph is pasted into one of Macfie’s scrap books.

Portrait by Alice Gillington in top left corner, in a scrapbook by Scott Macfie. SMGC 2/2/1 (52)

Portrait by Alice Gillington in top left corner, in a scrapbook by Scott Macfie. SMGC 2/2/1 (52)

 

The archive also contains correspondence with Amelia Goddard, a painter of Gypsy life who tutored Alice in art. Amelia lived in Thorney Hill and was the reason Alice moved there when she and her brother decided to live full time in a Gypsy caravan. We use some of her evocative paintings as projected images during our performance Hither Side of the Hedge. The Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society also contains a number of articles written by Alice. One of these ‘The House of the Open Door’ promotes Amelia Goddard’s art works and contains examples of her paintings.

 

The amount of material we have found in the archive of the GLS is enormous. In our performances we can only share a little of the background material to give context to the music, song and dance. Our joy has been to meet the families of the people she lived among and be welcomed to Thorney Hill to perform the songs, music and dance that she collected there. We finish our performance with this extract from a letter to Macfie:

‘I didn’t come back to the caravan till ten o’clock, as I was with the Sherreds and other children, in the green lanes and the green bushes watching them dance and sing, tho’ it grew as dark as a summer night can be. They then linked arms together and danced “The Keel Row”, singing, all along the road with me.’

A cover of the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society with Alice Gillington as contributor. SPEC Scott Macfie J.1.11

A cover of the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society with Alice Gillington as contributor. SPEC Scott Macfie J.1.11