William Thoms and The Origins of “Folk-Lore”#

Before we continue on our journey in search of the sin-eater, it is worth setting the scene. Today, we would probably identify the field of study associated with such an ambition as that of folklore, or folklore studies, the study of traditional culture by way of cultural artifacts, behaviours and language. But in the mid-19th century, folk lore (or variously, folk-lore, folklore, Folk-Lore etc.) had, as a word, or phrase, only recently been coined. So what is the folk history of the term, and how might we explain whatever degree of popularity it had as an area of study, in 19th century Britain?

The tale, and two other related ones, centers around a singular individual, William John Thoms. For it was he who coined not only the phrase, but also went on to found Notes & Queries, a publication we shall have course to refer to many times throughout our journey, as well as playing a foundational role in the formation of the Folklore Society. So before we consider the way in which in which Thomse introduced the term “folk-lore” to our vocabulary, let us briefy turn to the man himself.

“Ambrose Merton”, Folk-Lore, and the Lore of the People#

The term folk-lore was introduced by William Thoms, writing under the nom de plume of Ambrose Merton, in a letter published in the Athenaeum issue 982, of August 22nd, 1846, pp62-3.

Folk-Lore, the Lore of the People

Your pages have so often given evidence of the interest which you take in what we in England designate as Popular Antiquities, or Popular Literature (though by-the-bye it is more a Lore than a Literature, and would be most aptly described by a good Saxon compound, Folk-Lore, the Lore of the People)— that I am not without hopes of enlisting your aid in garnering the few ears which are remaining, scattered over that field from which our forefathers might have gathered a goodly crop.

No one who has made the manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, &c., of the olden time his study, but must have arrived at two conclusions :- the first, how much that is curious and interesting in these matters is now entirely lost —the second, how much may yet be rescued by timely exertion. What Hone endeavoured to do in his “Every-Day Book,” &c., the Athenaeum, by its wider circulation, may accomplish ten times more effectually- gather together the infinite number of minute facts, illustrative of the subject I have mentioned, which are scattered over the memories of its thousands of readers, and preserve them in its pages, until some James Grimm shall arise who shall do for the Mythology of the British Islands the good service which that profound antiquary and philologist has accomplished for the Mythology of Germany. The present century has scarcely produced a more remarkable book, imperfect as its learned author confesses it to be, than the second edition of the “Deutsche Mythologie” and, what is it?- a mass of minute facts, many of which, when separately considered, appear trifling and insignificant,—but, when taken in connexion with the system into which his master-mind has woven them, assume a value that of he who first recorded them never dreamed of attributing to them.

How many such facts would one word from you evoke, from the north and from the south_from John o’Groat’s to the Land’s End! How many readers would be glad to show their gratitude for the novelties which you, from week to week, communicate to them, by forwarding to you some record of old Time —some recollection of a now neglected custom, some fading legend, local tradition, or fragmentary ballad !

Nor would such communications be of service to the English antiquary alone. The connexion between the Folk-Lore of England (remember I claim the honour of introducing the epithet Folk-Lore, as Disraeli does of introducing Father-Land, into the literature of this country) and that of Germany is so intimate that such communications will probably serve to enrich some future edition of Grimm’s Mythology.

Let me give you an instance of this connexion.- In one of the chapters of Grimm, he treats very fully of the parts which the Cuckoo plays in Popular Mythology of the prophetic character with which it has been invested by the voice of the people; and gives many instances of the practice of deriving predictions from the number of times which its song is heard. He also records a popular notion, “that the Cuckoo never sings till he has thrice eaten his fill of cherries.” Now, I have lately been informed of a custom which formerly obtained among children in Yorkshire, that illustrates the fact of a connexion between the Cuckoo and the Cherry,—and that, too, in their prophetic attributes. A friend has communicated to me that children in Yorkshire were formerly (and may be still) accustomed to sing round a cherry-tree the following invocation :-

Cuckoo, Cherry-tree,
Come down and tell me
How many years I have to live.

Each child then shook the tree, and the number of cherries which fell betokened the years of its future life.

The Nursery Rhyme which I have quoted, is, I am aware, well known. But the manner in which it was applied is not recorded by Hone, Brande, or Ellis:—and is one of those facts, which, trifling in themselves, become of importance when they form links in a great chain-one of those facts which a word from the Athenæum would gather in abundance for the use of future inquirers into that interesting branch of literary antiquities, our Folk-Lore.

Ambrose Merton

P.S. It is only honest that I should tell you I have long been contemplating a work upon our Folk-Lore (under that title, mind Messrs. A, B, and C- so do not try to forestall me);—and I am personally interested in the success of the experiment which I have, in this letter, albeit imperfectly, urged you to undertake.

The editor’s response then followed, favourably, along with guidance for contributors, suggesting that they should provide their name and address, in confidence, at least, with their contribution.

We have taken some time to weigh the suggestion of our correspondent —desirous to satisfy ourselves that any good of the kind which he proposes could be effected in such space as we are able to spare from the many other demands upon our columns and having before our eyes the fear of that shower of trivial communication which a notice in conformity with his suggestion is too likely to bring. We have finally decided that, if our antiquarian correspondents be earnest and well-informed, and subject their communications to the condition of having something worthy to communicate, we may — now that the several antiquarian societies have brought their meet-ings, for the season, to a close—at once add to the amusement of a large body of our readers and be the means of effecting some valuable salvage for the future historian of old customs and feelings, within a compass that shall make no unreasonable encroachment upon our columns. With these views, however, we must announce to our future contributors under the above head, that their communications will be subjected to a careful sifting—both as regards value, authenticity, and novelty; and that they will save both themselves and us much unnecessary trouble if they will refrain from offering any facts or speculations which do not at once need recording and deserve it. Brevity will be always a recommendation, where there are others; and great length in any article will, necessity, exclude it, even where its merits would recommend. The cases will be very rare in which an article should exceed a couple of our columns,—and the exception can be only when the article itself will bear dividing without injury. But notices much shorter will always be more welcome ;—and, in fact, extent will be, on all occasions, an important element in our estimate of the admissibility of a communication. We will hint, also, to our correspondents, that we should, in each case, prefer receiving (though we do not make it absolute as a rule,) the confidential communication of the writer’s real name and address.

Thoms/Merton was also to be the editor of the column, which first appeared the following week, in the Athenaeum dated August 29th, 1846, p886. Thoms opened the column by stating his expectations for it:


Bartholomew Tide [which is to say, the festival of St Bartholomew, August 24th]

I do not know that I can better show my gratitude for the insertion in last Saturday’s Athenaeum of my letter inviting you to receive, and your country readers to furnish, communications on the subject of our ‘Folk-Lore,’ than by indicating to “intending” correspondents some points connected with our Popular Mythology and Observances, respecting which new facts and existing traditions might prove of considerable value.

I would observe, in the first place, that, as the Fairy Mythology of England, as preserved to us in the writings of Shakspeare (its best and most beautiful expositor), exhibits a striking intermixture of Celtic and Teutonic elements, all local traditions respecting that mystic race,—whether

Of elves, of hills, brooks, standing lakes, or groves, —

will be useful in developing the influence which such elements respectively exercised upon this poetical branch of our Popular Mythology. And as I agree with Mr. Keightley no mean authority on such a subject-in opinion “that the belief in Fairies is by no means extinct in England,—and that in districts, if there be any such, where steam-engines, cotton mills, mail coaches [This was written, by Mr. Keightley, in 1828 ; but now, now, what Chaucer said of the "elves" may almost be applied to the mails. "But now can no man see non mails mo."], and similar exorcists have not yet penetrated, numerous legends might be collected,” — I am not without hope of seeing many “a roundel and a fairy song” rescued from destruction through the agency of the Athenaeum.

Merton then provides several questions, the answers to which might provide examples of some of the sort of content he expects to receive:

Can no Devonshire correspondent furnish new and untold stories of his native Pixies? Are there no records of a fairy pipe-manufactory to be gathered at Swinborne, in Worcestershire ?-In the mining and mountainous districts of Derbyshire are all “such antique fables and such fairy toys” entirely extinct ? - If so, is not the neighbourhood of Haddon, or of both, still visited by the coach drawn by headless steeds, driven by a coachman as headless as themselves ?-Does not such an equipage still haunt the mansion of Parsloes, in Essex?—and could not some correspondent from that county furnish you with stories of the inhabitants of Coggeshall, to prove them very rivals of the Wise Men of Gotham ?—Is the Barguest no longer seen in Yorkshire ?-Is “howdening” altogether obsolete in Kent- and, if so, when was this last trace of a heathen rite performed ?-Are the legends of Tregeagle no longer current in Cornwall ?-_These are all subjects not undeserving attention : and it should be remembered that legends and traditions which are considered trifling, in the localities to which they more immediately relate, assume an interest in the eyes of strangers to whom they are not familiar—and an importance when placed in apposition with cognate materials, by the light which they both receive and furnish from such juxtaposition.

We might note here that there is always the risk in providing such concrete examples of the sorts of contributions that you might expect to see, that folk will interpret the prompts rather too literally!

Merton then goes on to suggest that local feasts and customs are also on scope (in passing, we might note that the date at the top of the letter is given as a feast day, rather than date and month):

There is another matter, too, on which local information is much to be desired while it is still attainable. I mean the “Feasts” which are still annually celebrated in the more remote parts of the country; many of which are, doubtless, of very considerable antiquity-even as old as the days of Heathenism. This is a branch of our Popular Antiquities which—to use a happy phrase of Horace Walpole’s -has not yet been “tapped” in England ; one which can now be thoroughly and properly investigated only by ascertaining, in each case, the following particulars, among others: the day on which the Feast is held; the peculiar observances by which it is accompanied, and— which will serve, in some measure, to illustrate the history of the climate in this country, and (strange combination !) the progress of social improvement—the peculiar dishes which are usually introduced on such festivals.

Finally, Merton provides a rationale for his diversion:

I ought to apologize for thus occupying so much of your space: but, as you have kindly consented, at my request, to open your pages to contributions on the subject of our · ‘Folk-Lore,’ I thought it might be of advantage to point out to correspondents some matters respecting which communications would be both valuable and acceptable.


It seems that the initial readership did indeed interpret Thoms’ invitiation rather literally, because a flurry of notes then appeared on the topic of Devonshire pixies &c.

“Folk-Lore” Quickly Becomes A Commonplace Term#

Over the coming weeks and months, the term “folk-lore” became something more of a commonplace. Indeed, only year on, in the Athenaeum no. 1036, dated September 4th, 1847, p937, Thoms was revealed as the real person behind “Ambrose Merton”, along with taking credit for inventing the term, “folk-lore”:


[Those readers of the Atheneum who take an interest in our English ” Folk-Lore” [We may be permitted to express some satisfaction at the universal adoption of this name— invented by our correspondent Ambrose Merton. In less than twelve months it has almost attained to the dignity of a "household word."] will, doubtless, remember that the articles so entitled which have from time to time appeared in these columns were evoked by an intimation that “communications on such subjects from earnest and well-informed correspondents” would be welcome. They may remember, too, that such intimation was given at the suggestion of a correspondent signing himself “Ambrose Merton;” who, in solicitng the aid of the Athenaeum for preserving the infinite number of minute facts illustrative of this branch of antiquarian learning scattered over the memories of its many readers, confessed to a personal interest to the success of his appeal— on the ground of his having long contemplated a work in connexion with English Folk-Lore.

That correspondent was the present writer; and the work to which he referred was one in which he proposed to make the writings of Shakspeare and that Folk-Lore which the poet loved mutually illustrative of each other. The papers under the above special heading which may from time to time appear in our columns, are fragments of that attempt to throw a light over the writings of the Poet of the People from the side of our popular literature, customs and superstitions.]

Recalling the Introduction of “Folk-Lore”#

As well as reviewing the original context in which the term was introduced, we can also review its origins with the hindsight of the man responsible.

For example, in Notes and Queries dated 14th September, 1872, Vol 10 Iss 246 / 4th S. X, p206 we see a note querying the origins of the term:

Folk Lore.— When and by whom was this word introduced into the English language? In Latham’s Dictionary the earliest example given is dated 1852—the form is “folks-lore.” Folk-lore was certainly used some years before that date in The Athenaeum, and if gossip is not wrong we owe this useful and popular word to a scholar well known to the readers of “N.& Q.” The word promises to have many relatives— ” folk-song, ” ” folk-speech ” are taking the place of the older phrases. A list of these folk-words and examples of their earliest use would be interesting. W. E. A. A. Rusholme.

A reply a month later, in Notes and Queries of October 19th, 1872, Vol 10 Iss 251 / 4th S. X, p319 gives the origin as follows:

Origin or the Word “Folk-Lore” (4 S. x. 206.)—The following quotation from the part of Photographic Portraits of Men of Eminence (A. W. Bennett, 1865) containing a biographical sketch of Mr. W. J. Thoms, F.S.A., will answer the query of W.E. A. A.:

“We may be pardoned for here mentioning the fact that it was when inviting assistance in the preservation of our old superstition and mythology, that Mr. Thoms first made public the word ‘folk-lore,’ to designate the subjects of popular belief and knowledge. The word was at once caught up and adopted in England and on the Continent, and few would now believe that the term never existed until Mr. Thoms made use of it in the Athenaeum of 22nd August, 1846.” John Piggott, Jun.

Thoms himself replied concerning the origins of the phrase in the issue of 26th October, 1872, Vol 10 Iss 252 / 4th S. X., p339-340

Origin of the Word “Folk-Lore”

I am greatly indebted to W. E. A. A. for giving me an opportunity of putting on record in “N. & Q.” how I was led to the coinage of this now universally recognized word. For I may say, as Coriolanus said of the fluttering of the Volscians, “Alone I did it.”

Popular antiquities and superstition, and the relation of national legends and traditions to one another, had long been a subject of great interest to me— an interest greatly fostered by the perusal of Grimm’s Deutsche Mytholigie. Some time after the appearance of the second edition of that masterly work, ] began to put in order the notes which I had been collecting for years, with a view to their publication ; and feeling sure that the Iron Horse then beginning to ride roughshod over every part of the country would soon trample under foot and exterminate all traces of our old beliefs, legends, &d., I besought The Athenaeum to lend its powerful influence towards their collection and preservation.

My kind friend, Mr. Dilke, most readily fell into my views. The subject was “tapped” (as Horace Walpole would say) in that journal on the 22nd August, 1846, in a paper written by myself under the pseudonym of Ambrose Merton, and headed Foik-Lore.

In the opening of that appeal, I described the subject as “what we in England designate as popular antiquities, or popular literature (though, by-the-bye, it is more a Lore than a Literature, and would be most aptly described by a good Saxon compound, Folk-Lore—the Lore of the People).”

When seeking to prove that the object I had in view would not be of service to English antiquaries only, I added :—

“The connexion between the Folk-Lore of England (mind, I claim the honour of introducing the epithet Folk-Lore, as Disraeli did of introducing Father-Land, into the literature of this country) and that of Germany is so intimate that such communications will probably serve to enrich some future edition of Grimm’s Mythology.”

And my communication closed with the following postscript, in which, with a precaution which was subsequently justified, I reiterated my claim :—

“It is only honest that I should tell you that I have long been contemplating a work upon our Folk-Lore (under that title, mind, Messrs. A, B, and C, so do not try to forestall me), and I am personally interested in the success of the experiment, which I have in this letter, albeit imperfectly, urged you to undertake.”

The word took its place, for it supplied a want ; and when Dean Trench’s English Past and Present appeared (1855), I was pleased to find one so qualified to judge of the value of the word speaking of it as follows :—

“The most successful of these compounded words (borrowed recently from the German) is ‘Folk-lore,’ and the substitution of this for the long and latinized ‘Popular Superstitions’ must be deemed, I think, an unquestionable gain.”

The impression that the word was borrowed from the German is a very natural one. But should the Archbishop of Dublin ever see this note, I am sure that accomplished scholar will in future editions of his book do justice to the English origin of the word Folk-lore.

William J. Thoms.