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.
William Thoms, Dictionary of National Biography
THOMS, WILLIAM JOHN (1803–1885), antiquary, born in Westminster on 16 Nov. 1803, was the son of Nathaniel Thoms, who was for many years a clerk in the treasury, and who, among many similar appointments, acted as secretary of the first commission of revenue inquiry. William began active life as a clerk in the secretary’s office at Chelsea Hospital, a position which he held till 1845. From an early age he took a keen interest in literature, and especially in bibliography. He received much encouragement from Thomas Amyot [q. v.], the antiquary, through whom he became acquainted with Francis Douce [q. v.] Douce encouraged his studies, lent him books and manuscripts from his great library in Gower Street, and gave him every assistance in editing ‘Early Prose Romances.’ This, Thoms’s first publication, comprised, among other English tales, ‘Robert the Devyl,’ ‘Thomas a Reading,’ ‘Friar Bacon,’ ‘Friar Rush,’ ‘Virgilius,’ ‘Robin Hood,’ ‘George a Green,’ ‘Tom a Lincolne,’ ‘Helyas,’ and ‘Dr. Faustus.’ It appeared in 1827 and 1828 in three octavo volumes. In 1858 a revised edition appeared, with which, however, Thoms had nothing to do. He followed this collection in 1834 by ‘Lays and Legends of France, Spain, Tartary, and Ireland’ (London, 12mo), and ‘Lays and Legends of Germany’ (London, 12mo). In 1832 he made his first essay in periodical literature as editor of ‘a miscellany of humour, literature, and the fine arts,’ entitled ‘The Original.’ It had, however, a short life of little over four months.
In 1838 he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and in the same year was appointed secretary of the Camden Society, a post which he held until 1873. In 1838 also he published ‘The Book of the Court’ (London, 8vo), in which he gave an account of the nature, origin, duties, and privileges of the several ranks of the nobility, of the great officers of state, and of the members of the royal household. A second edition appeared in 1844. Thoms illustrated his treatise with anecdotes and quotations drawn from sources often inaccessible to the ordinary student. Other works of antiquarian interest succeeded. In 1839 he compiled for the Camden Society ‘Anecdotes and Traditions illustrative of Early English History and Literature from Manuscript Sources’ [see Lestrange, Sir Nicholas]. In 1842 he published an edition of Stow’s ‘Survey of London’ (London, 8vo), which was reissued in 1875 without his sanction. In 1844 he prepared for the Early English Poetry series of the Percy Society an edition of ‘The History of Reynard the Fox,’ prepared from that printed by Caxton in 1481.
In 1845 Thoms was appointed a clerk of the House of Lords. Before long his reputation as an antiquary, combined with the charm of his conversation, drew to his room in the printed paper office many of the most learned members of the house, including Brougham, Lyndhurst, Campbell, Macaulay, Stanhope, Ellenborough, Lyttelton, and Houghton. The duties of Thoms’s new position permitted him to continue his literary labours, and in 1846, under the pseudonym of Ambrose Merton, he published two volumes of tales and ballads, entitled ‘Gammer Gurton’s Famous Histories of Sir Guy of Warwick, Sir Bevis of Hampton, Tom Hickathrift, Friar Bacon, Robin Hood, and the King and the Cobbler’ (Westminster, 16mo), and ‘Gammer Gurton’s Pleasant Stories of Patient Grissel, the Princess Rosetta, and Robin Goodfellow, and ballads of the Beggar’s Daughter, the Babes in the Wood, and Fair Rosamond’ (Westminster, 16mo). In 1849 he translated Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae’s ‘Primeval Antiquities of Denmark’ (London, 8vo).
Shortly afterwards he turned his attention to another form of literary enterprise. As early as 1841 he strongly felt the need of some periodical which might give antiquaries and bibliographers the means of making known to each other points on which they required information. In 1841, with the co-operation of his friend John Bruce (1802–1869) [q. v.], he projected a magazine to supply the deficiency. The journal was entitled ‘The Medium,’ and some specimen pages were actually set up in type. Bruce was, however, compelled for domestic reasons to remove to the country, and the project was for the time abandoned.
In 1846, however, Thoms persuaded Charles Wentworth Dilke [q. v.], the proprietor of the ‘Athenæum,’ to open its columns ‘to notices of old-world manners, customs, and popular superstitions.’ Thoms introduced the subject on 26 Aug. in an article headed ‘Folk Lore,’ a term which was then first introduced into the English language. In 1849 he resumed his project of providing a paper ‘in which literary men could answer one another’s questions.’ Dilke encouraged him, with the result that the first number of ‘Notes and Queries’ appeared on 3 Nov. 1849. The name was chosen by Thoms, and he selected for a motto Captain Cuttle’s phrase, ‘When found, make a note of.’ In form the journal was modelled on the ‘Somerset House Gazette.’ It was published by George Bell. The price was fixed at 3d., which was raised to 4d. in January 1852. Among the earliest contributors were John Bruce, John Payne Collier, Bolton Corney, Peter Cunningham, Alfred Gatty, Edward Hawkins, Samuel Weller Singer, Mackenzie Walcott, and Sir George Cornewall Lewis. At the end of a few weeks the circulation had reached six hundred copies, and it continued to increase steadily. Thoms acted as editor until September 1872, when he was succeeded by John Doran [q. v.]
Meanwhile, in 1863, Thoms was appointed deputy librarian of the House of Lords, a post which he resigned in 1882 in consequence of old age. During this period of his life he published several antiquarian works. In 1865 appeared ‘Three Notelets on Shakespeare:
Shakespeare in Germany;
Folk-lore of Shakespeare;
Was Shakspeare ever a Soldier? London, 8vo.
The second was reprinted from the ‘Athenaeum,’ and the third, which was based on an error of identification, had appeared separately as a pamphlet in 1849, London, 12mo. In 1867 four articles from ‘Notes and Queries’ on ‘Hannah Lightfoot,’ ‘Queen Charlotte and the Chevalier d’Eon,’ Dr. Wilmot’s ‘Polish Princess,’ and ‘Lord Chatham and the Princess Olive’ were collectively reprinted in book form, with some additions. In 1872 he reprinted from ‘Notes and Queries’ ‘The Death Warrant of Charles I, another Historic Doubt,’ London, 8vo, in which, by a careful examination of the actual document, he convincingly demonstrated the difficulty experienced in obtaining the requisite signatures for Charles I’s death warrant, and the irregularity of the expedients to which the army leaders were reduced. Another edition was published in 1880. In 1873 appeared his iconoclastic treatise on ‘Human Longevity, its Facts and its Fictions,’ London, 8vo, which raised a storm of dismayed protest by its forcible contention that the authentic cases in which human life had been prolonged to a hundred years and upwards were extremely rare. Although Thoms proved less sceptical than Sir George Cornewall Lewis [q. v.], not even the histories of Jenkins, Parr, or the Countess of Desmond satisfied his tests of legal evidence. This was followed in 1879 by the ‘Curll Papers,’ London, 8vo. Thoms died in London at his house in St. George’s Square, Belgrave Road, on 15 Aug. 1885, and was buried at Brompton cemetery. In 1828 he was married to Laura, youngest daughter of John Bernard Sale [see under Sale, John], a well-known figure in the musical world. By her he left three sons and six daughters.
In 1876–7 he published in ‘Notes and Queries’ an account of the history of the paper, and in 1881 he contributed some very interesting autobiographical memoirs to the ‘Nineteenth Century,’ under the title ‘Gossip of an Old Bookworm.’
Thoms went little into society, but at congenial resorts, such as the ‘Cocked Hat Club,’ he was remarkable for a ready play of wit and an almost inexhaustible fund of humorous anecdote and reminiscence.
[Notes and Queries, IV. x. 241, 383, xii. 1, v. vi. 1, 41, 101, 221, vii. 1, 222, 303, VI. xii., 141, 268, 303; Athenaeum, 1885, ii. 239, 272, 304.]
William Thoms, Obituary in Notes & Queries, 1885
Notes and Queries 1885-08-22: Vol 12 Iss 295, p141
W. J. THOMS, On Saturday last, at a few minutes before midnight, Mr. William John Thoms expired at his house, St. George’s Square, Belgrave Road. Mr. Thoms, who was born on November 16, 1803, and as consequently in his eighty-second year, had outlived most of his contemporaries. Of the brilliant gathering which assembled at Willis’s Rooms on November 1, 1872, to do him honour on his signing the editorship of ” N. & Q.” few are left. ord Stanhope, the chairman, Lord Lyttelton, the vice-chairman, Lord Houghton, Sir Thomas Duffus ardy, Sir M. Digby Wyatt, and a host of others, including Mr. Thoms’s two successors in the editorial chair, have passed away. A few only of hose who thirty-six years ago assisted Mr. Thoms by establishing “N. & Q.” survive to hear of his parture, with that modified sense of loss which tends the exit of one whose race has long been run and whose honours and rewards came to him days now remote. Since his resignation in 1882 active service, Mr. Thoms’s interest in life has languished. He has during the last few years gone little into the world, and the hope occasionally expressed by his friends that he would live personally to confute his well-known theories with regard to longevity has been playful rather than sanguine.
The connexion of Mr. Thoms with ” N. & Q.” is ow historic. He has himself, in vols. vi. and vii. the Fifth Series, left on record the circumstances inder which this periodical was conceived, named, and started.
Mr. Thoms was a son of the late N. Thoms, Secretary of the first Commission of Revenue Inquiry, was born in Westminster, and began active life as a clerk in the secretary’s office, Chelsea Hospital. He was elected in 1838 a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. In the same year he became Secretary of the Camden Society, a post he held until 1873. He was also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Edinburgh and Copenhagen, and Secretary of the Ailfric Society. An incomplete list of his various contributions to literature is given in Men of the Time. At 4th x. 241 appears his farewell note on resigning his connexion with ” N. & Q.” During many years Mr. Thoms held an appointment in the House of Lords. In 1863 he was appointed to the deputy-librarianship of the House of Lords, a post he resigned in consequence of old age in 1882.
A sound and an accurate scholar, the close ally during more than half a century of the best English and foreign scholars, Mr. Thoms had in an eminent degree the serviceable gift of knowing where information was to be found. This quality, invaluable in a librarian as well as in an editor, rendered him especially serviceable to the members of the House of Lords, with many of whom he was on terms of close and honourable intimacy. His genial fancy and humour and his social gifts rendered him a favourite in all companies, while such were his good nature, his kind-heartedness and tact, that he was mixed up in no archaeological feud or quarrel, and preserved through his life a record of intimacies and friendships unbroken and undiversified by a single quarrel. Mr. Thoms was before all things a student. The stores of his admirably furnished mind were at the service of any one engaged in earnest work; but he was retiring in nature, little given to promiscuous hospitality, and little addicted to the life of clubs. Few figures were less familiar than his at the Atheneum Club, of which during many years he was a member. In religion a moderate High Churchman, and in politics a strong Conservative, he held aloof from polemics, and he frequently, under a sense of official responsibility, abstained from voting when a Government opposed to his sympathies was in power. Mr. Thoms slept in the midst of his books, with which, indeed, his house was crammed. His library, which is miscellaneous in character, is eminently rich in books relating to the Junius controversy, in which, as is known, he took a keen interest. Among the proofs of his happiness in hitting on names may be cited his choice of Notes and Queries, his invention of the word folk-lore, and his application to the churchyard of the term, taken from the German and immediately seized upon by the public, God’s acre. Contributors to ” N. & Q.” might add greatly to reminiscences which, unfortunately, have little that is personal. This periodical may, perhaps, take rank as the best outcome of Mr. Thoms’s mind. It is, at least, likely to keep his memory in survival.
A Curious Note Surrounding Thoms’ Birth Certificate
It seems quite fitting that the following curiosity surrounding William Thoms’ birth certificate appeared in Notes and Queries, Octobr 17th, 1872, Vol 12 Iss 303, p303-304](https://archive.org/details/sim_notes-and-queries_1885-10-17_12_303/page/302/mode/2up), shortly following his demise.
W. J. THOMS. Ever ready to set at rest by an exhaustive and patient inquiry an historical doubt or a genealogical puzzle, our good friend who has so recently passed from our midst—William John Thoms— must be considered a remarkable man, for in “N. & Q.” he has left behind him a monument duplicated and admired far beyond the circle in which he, as its originator and conductor for so many years, formed so many friends, so many help- mates to assist him in perpetuating a love for historical and genealogical facts.
To Mr. Thoms we literary men who survive him owe a great deal more than may be generally supposed, for he was ever ready to assist us in unravelling a mystery. To him—to “N. & Q.,” in fact—I am indebted for many past favours which literary men and genealogists should always highly value, and as I know he was the first to desire at all times that the truth of an assertion made should be proved, especially when there may be raised a doubt of historical or genealogical importance, so in his own case it falls to my lot to prove a very interesting fact, which I know the readers of ” N. & Q.” will value.
It is stated in “N. & Q.,” ante, p. 141, that Mr. Thoms was born in Westminster, November 16, 1803; but it is a fact not generally known that the register of his baptism in St. Margaret’s Church, December 15, 1803, originally recorded his name as simply “John Thoms, son of Nathaniel by Ruth Ann, [born] November 16.”
This curious error was corrected in 1857, by a sworn affidavit before Mr. Arnold, the magistrate, and at the foot of the page of the register was then written : “This should be William John Thoms, according to the declaration of Mary Ann Thoms annexed hereto. Mercer Davies, curate, June 5.
The declaration, made June 2, states :— “I, Mary Ann Thoms, spinster, sister of the late Nathaniel Thome, of the City of Westminster, Gentleman, do solemnly and sincerely declare that my late brother the said Nathaniel Thoms and his wife Ruth Ann Thoms had issue of their marriage only one child, my nephew William John Thoms, now of No. 25, Holywell Street, Millbank, Westminster, who was born on the 16th day of November, 1803, that I was present at his baptism at St. Margaret’s Church, on the 15th day of December following, that I stood godmother to my said nephew, who was baptized by the names of William John, and that he has ever since been called and known as William John Thoms, and I make this declaration for the purpose of correcting the erroneous entry in the register of baptisms at St. Margaret’s, Westminster, wherein his baptism is entered as that of John Thoms, by which names of William John he was duly baptized.”
Now I think this curious and interesting fact is worthy of a place in the columns of the paper which Mr. Thoms originated and conducted for so many years; and as a contributor to ” N. & Q.” when he was at its helm, I ask the favour of its present courteous chief to permit me to record the note, which, genealogically and personally, is of more than the usual interest.
I must not forget to add that I am indebted to the present rector of the parish, the Ven. Archdeacon Farrar, D.D., for most courteously giving me permission to inspect the register, and at all times favouring my genealogical inquiries.
T. C. Note. 110, Greenwood Road, Dalston, London.
William Thoms, Biography in the 50th Anniversary Issue of Notes and Queries, 1899
In Notes and Queries, 1899-11-04: Vol 4 Iss 97 / 9th S. IV pp370-373.
Saturday the 15th of August, 1885, was a day of deep mourning for *Notes and Queries&. The kind-hearted, genial scholar, its founder and first editor, was dead. The obituary notice, written by Mr. Knight, which appeared the following week, renders full tribute to his sound learning, his genial fancy and humour, as well as to his social gifts, which caused him to be a favourite in all companies, while his good nature and tact saved him from being mixed up in archeological feuds, and preserved to him throughout his life a record of intimacies and friendships unbroken by a single quarrel.
Although the daily papers at the time, as well as The Atheneum, gave obituary notices and the ‘Dictionary of National Biography ‘ contains particulars of his life written by Mr. E. Irving Carlyle (how proud he would have been at the constant reference made to ‘N. & Q.’ in its pages!), I have felt that we should have some record to refer to in his own journal.
Mr. William John Thoms was born on the 16th of November, 1803, so that he was the junior of his friend Mr. Dilke by fourteen years. He was the son of Nathaniel Thoms, who had been for many years a clerk in the Treasury. Mr. T. C. Noble, in ‘N. & Q’ of the 17th of October, 1885, records that a curious error was made in the register of his baptism in St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, December 15th, 1803, in which his name is given as simply “John Thoms, son of Nathaniel by Ruth Ann, [born] November 16.” This was corrected in 1857 by a sworn atftidavit before Mr. Arnold, the magistrate, and at the foot of the page was then written, “This should be William John Thoms, accord ing to the declaration of Mary Ann Thoms annexed hereto Mercer Davies, curate, June 5, 1857.” Mr. Thoms was for twenty years in the Secretary’s Office at Chelsea Hospital, and in 1845, on account of the great railway pressure, additional clerks being required for the service of the House of Lords, Mr. Thoms was appointed to a clerkship, and was for many years head of the Printed Paper Office, where, The Athenaeum says, his literary knowledge and research soon became known, and it was not long before he
“had drawn to his room for unofficial purposes the great lawyers and politicians of the recent past, Lord Brougham, Lord Lyndhurst, and Lord Campbell; the eminent historians Lord Macaulay and Earl Stanhope; and to these may be added the names of the Earl of Ellenborough, Lord Broughton but a complete list would include most of the distinguished names among the members of the Upper House.”
As early as 1838 he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, in the work of which he took an active part, and did his best to prevent the election for membership of those who, with only a superficial knowledge, sought to add the distinction of F.S.A. to their names.
In the same year he was appointed secretary of the Camden Society, which position he held for thirty-five years. In 1863 Mr. Thoms was appointed Deputy Librarian of the House of Lords; this post, in consequence of old age, he resigned in 1882.
Mr. Thoms’s first work, ‘Early Prose Romances,’ was published in 1827-28, followed in 1834 by ‘Lays and Legends of Various Nations’, issued in monthly parts at half-a-crown, Mr. Thoms choosing for his motto the words of Sir John Malcolm, “He who desires to be well acquainted with a people will not reject their popular stories or local superstitions.” In 1838 he wrote ‘The Book of the Court, giving the Origin, Duties, and Privileges of the Nobility and of the Officers of State.’ And in 1845, to show that he was not always engaged on historic doubts, under the title of ‘Gammer Gurton’s Pleasant Stories’ he published a delightful little Christmas book for children, beautifully illustrated, and printed by the Chiswick Press. The book is inscribed by Ambrose Merton, Gent., F.S.A., who, “in all hearty good will and affection, dedicates these world-renowned Stories to the Parents and Children of Merrie England.” He also completed an edition of Stow’s ‘Survey of London’ and various other works, among these two volumes of ‘Choice Notes from Notes and Queries: History and Folk-Lore,’ 1858 and 1859, long since out of print. Thoms also published three notelets on Shakespeare, articles from Notes and Queries, and a book on ‘ The Longevity of Man, its Facts and its Fictions’. In my much valued copy the author has written ” With the writer’s best regards.” The publisher of this was his friend and an old contributor, Mr. F. Norgate. In Notes and Queries, February 20th, 1875, appears a note by my father of ‘ A Centenarian’ known to him, Mrs. Coxeter, of Newbury, born at Witney February 1st, 1775, had just celebrated her hundredth Her death recorded in ‘N. & Q.’ of December 2nd in the following year, and Mr. Thoms acknowledges the claim to be ” well authenticated.” The two friends would now and then have some fun over this when Mr. Thoms would put on his inimitable smile and say, “Ah! Mr. Francis, your friend must have been born in a Witney blanket.”
[Mrs. Coxeter’s husband was the proprietor of the Greenham Mills, and it was at these mills that the celebrated Throckmorton coat was made in one day, the sheep being shorn at five in the morning, the wool made into cloth, and the coat completed so as to be worn by Sir John Throckmorton the same evening. The coat, with a print illustrating the event, was shown in the Exhibition of 1851, Mr. Coxeter's son, whose friendship I still enjoy. presented a copy of this print to Mr. Gladstone, who was greatly interested in it.]
Mr. Thoms in a letter addressed to Prof. Owen, entitled ‘Exceptional Longevity,’ published in 1879, tells the origin of his investigations. For the first twelve months after he had started Notes and Queries he used to insert, without the slightest doubt as to their accuracy, all the various cases of exceptional longevity which were sent to him. Mr. Dilke would good naturedly quiz him on his fondness ” for the big gooseberry style of communications,” so that when Sir George C. Lewis sent to him a paper on ‘Centenarians’ (3rd S. i. 281) his mind was prepared to go into the question. Mr. Thoms was a great rambler among the —— bookstalls, and in this ” bookstalling” he and his friend Mr. Dilke were friendly rivals. Mr. Dilke on one occasion wrote to him, “Chancery Lane is my own manor, regularly haunted every Friday, and it is not to be endured that a mere poacher shall shake my own property in my own face.” The letter is signed ” Yours as you behave yourself.”
Mr. Thoms in his ‘ Gossip of an Old Book Worm’, which appeared in the Nineteenth Century in 1881, gives some interesting particulars as to his search for pamphlets and books among the bookstalls, when he would often meet Lord Macaulay on the same errand.
Mr. Thoms tells us that he had a love for books from his earliest years, the taste for them being encouraged by his father, who was a diligent reader of the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews, his library containing a complete set of each. Being very short sighted, he was not able to join in sports like other boys. “There was only one branch of them in which I was an adept, and in these refined days I almost blush to refer to it. I was said to handle the gloves very nicely.”
The year 1872 was full of activity for Mr. Thoms. We find him busy investigating ‘Another Historic Doubt’—the death-warrant of Charles I. The numbers for July contain his notes on the subject ; these were afterwards reprinted, and rapidly passed through two editions. They were dedicated to one dear to him as a brother—” To the memory of that model of a Christian gentleman and accomplished scholar, my forty years’ friend, John Bruce.” Then came his farewell to ‘N. & Q.’, and only four weeks after his ‘Parting Note’ a banquet was given in his honour. On the 1st of November such an assemblage as is rarely witnessed met at Willis’s Rooms.The chairman was Karl Stanhope, Lord Lyttelton occupied the vice chair, and the company included, among other equally well-known names, the Earl of Verulam, Sir Frederick Pollock, Sir Charles W. Dilke, Sir Edward Smirke, Prof. Owen, Mr. Joseph Durham, R.A., Mr. Shirley Brooks, and Mr John Murray.
A report of the proceedings is printed on the 9th of November. Earl Stanhope in the course of his speech said that
“it was as Editor of Notes and Queries from its foundation that they were now met to do him [Mr. Thoms] honour. The distinguishing merit of that periodical was that it did not pursue its inquiries into any one branch of knowledge, but invited co-operation from labourers in different fields of knowledge in the elucidation of difficulties.”
Among other speakers were Mr. Benjamin Moran, United States Chargé d’Affaires, who bore testimony to the appreciation in America of Mr. Thoms’s labours; Prof. Owen, who thanked Mr. Thoms in the name of men of science whose researches he has assisted in the pages of ‘N. & Q.’; and Sir Frederick Pollock. Mr. Thoms in the course of his reply said all “during all the time he had conducted Notes and Queries he never had so difficult a query proposed as that which occurred to him tonight, ‘What have I done to deserve this great honour ?’” Among the many friends who wrote to congratulate him upon the success of the evening there was no letter more valued than the one he received from his successor in ‘N, & Q”.’ Dr. Doran wrote:
“Very sincerely do I congratulate you on the way in which you got through your trying position on Friday night. All around me felt for you while you were speaking, and admired how manfully your courage carried you over your emotion. A better speech could not have been made on such an occasion, and more hearty sympathy for the speaker could not have been shown, not merely by the loud applause, but by the quiet friendly and affectionate comments and phrases interchanged among neighbour-guests while you were doing battle with your feelings, and yet preserving your self-possession and your characteristic humour. It was a night to be remembered.”
With this celebration Mr. Thom’s public life may be said to have closed. The next thirteen years were passed for the most part quietly in the sanctuary of home, surrounded by those he loved, until the end came, in the old home endeared to him by so many memories. His life had been so long that few of his earlier friends had been spared to follow him to the cemetery at Brompton. My companion on that oceasion was one of his oldest friends and contributors, Mr. Hyde Clarke, since passed to his rest. The Atheneum of the 14th of last month announced the death of another of his old friends, Col. Francis Grant. Mr. Thoms’s library of some fifteen thousand volumes, which included a large collection of works on Pope and Junius, was sold by Messrs. Sotheby in February, 1887.
In this little record of Mr. Thoms’s life I have been aided by his eldest son, Mr. Merton Thoms. I have also to thank him for allowing me to make a copy of a photograph taken by Dr. Diamond, so that the readers of ‘N. & Q.’ may be in possession of this interesting souvenir of our founder. The words are facsimiled from those written by Mr. Thoms on the back of a portrait which he gave to my father. I have been trying to persuade Mr. Merton Thoms to give us a volume about his father, to include some of the rich stores of correspondence now in his possession.
“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 :-
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.
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”:
THE FOLK-LORE OF SHAKSPEARE. By William Thoms.
[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.