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

Hereditary, like a wooden leg

The annual Appleby Horse Fair, in Cumbria, which takes place in June, provides a rare occasion when images of Romany Gypsies are prominent in the national press.

The Victoria Gallery & Museum’s current exhibition from the Gypsy Lore Society Archive – Fred Shaw (1867-1950): Gypsy Portraits – continues until Saturday 26 September, showcasing the work of this skilled amateur photographer. The exhibition’s curator, Moira Lindsay, has selected her favourite photo from the display, of Charlotte Cooper:


Photograph of Charlotte Cooper, wife of Jack, with infant, by Fred Shaw. Taken on Bookham Common, Surrey, 22 April 1923. GLS Archive SMGC 1/2 Shaw P193

Moira explains her choice:

I think the way Shaw has captured her expression combined with the composition is superb. I also noticed the other day – while looking for something else as you do – that Charlotte and the child are also in P.192, which is such a different photo, and P.192 is the print that Shaw had inscribed on the back ‘showing the type which the general public call Gypsies’.

I think looking at P.192 in relation to P.193 reinforces his skills in capturing that moment in time in P.193 when clearly there are a lot of other things happening around them yet Charlotte is sitting calmly gazing off: Shaw has made a moment in time monumental.

The best way I can put it, is that sometimes an image makes you catch your breath, and this one does that for me.

Frederick James Shaw’s fascination with gypsy life and culture began as a small child when he accompanied his nursemaid on visits.  In his childhood he learnt much of their language and quickly became fluent in several Romani dialects.

Shaw worked as a printer, but his spare time was taken up with photography. Some of his photographs were reproduced in the journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, of which he was a member. He clearly had a fascination and respect for the people he met. His photographs show a real trust and connection between Shaw and his subjects which combined with his skill is what makes them so captivating.

His photographs do not romanticise their life, nor does Shaw approach them as an ethnographer, but as a portraitist. He said that ‘the best and truest Romano Rai is the man who likes to be with Gypsies for their own sake and is not everlastingly questioning them about their ancestry and their customs’. His friend and obituarist, Andrew Macfarlane, recalled that he was scathing about writers who claimed ‘some remote Gypsy ancestor as responsible for their interest, and by inference, subtle insight into Gypsy life: “hereditary, like a wooden leg”.’

SMGC 1/2 Shaw P192

Photograph by Fred Shaw of unknown group, including Charlotte Cooper, taken at Bookham Common, Surrey 22 April 1923: GLS Archive SMGC 1/2 Shaw P192

Shaw’s collection was presented by his wife Helen to the Gypsy Lore Society Archive which is deposited with University of Liverpool’s Special Collections & Archives. The titles in the exhibition are the captions recorded by Fred Shaw on his photographic negatives or prints.



Movember Mondays: 4

Our fourth and final Movember Monday introduces a style there might still be time to grow – the pencil moustache. Modelled here by a stylish couple from the Cunard archive, alongside the most popular moustaches from this month’s previous weekly posts.

Read more on Movember moustaches and support the University’s Wolfson Centre and Library staff teams.

Photograph of Cunard couple

Couple enjoying Cunard hospitality, photograph from the Cunard Archive


Photograph of Liverpool University Dental School students

Liverpool University Dental School students, Moustache of the Week: 3

Heinrich von Wlislocki, Gypsy Lore Society, Moustache of the Week: 2



Principal Rendall of University College Liverpool, Moustache of the Week: 1


Romani history seminar

The recent European Academic Network on Romani Studies workshop at the University of Liverpool aimed to give early career researchers guidance in planning archival research work through an introduction to the Gypsy Lore Society collections in Special Collections and Archives.


Professor Eve Rosenhaft talking about the Wetzel-Althaus collection at the Romani History seminar

It was organised by Dr. Celia Donert (History) and speakers included Professor Eve Rosenhaft (German) above, on the Weltzel-Althaus collection, Dr. Margaret Procter (History) on Archive Management and Human Rights, Professor Henriette Asseo on Romani societies in the 16th to 18th centuries, and Dr. Ihlsen About on The Policing of ‘Gypsies’ in Western Europe 1900-1930.


Researchers from the European Academic Network on Romani Studies at the University of Liverpool workshop

Researchers also had an introduction to the Gypsy Lore Society collections from Katy Hooper, the Special Collections Librarian, and opportunities for individual study on archival and printed material in the collections.

The Gypsy Lore Society collections finding aids for archival materials have recently been made available online, and more detailed descriptions of printed materials in the SPEC Scott Macfie collection are being incorporated in the University Library catalogue.