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Alice Bertha Gomme

(1853—1938) folklorist


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(1852–1938). Born Alice Bertha Merck, she married George Laurence Gomme in 1875 and became Lady Gomme when he was knighted for his work with the London County Council in 1911. Alice Gomme was a founder-member of the Folklore Society in 1878 and a leading figure in its activities for 60 years, serving on its Council from 1912 to 1938. In retrospect, her contribution was often overshadowed by that of her husband who held much higher-profile positions, produced numerous books and articles, and contributed to the major theoretical debates which shaped the early days of Folklore Studies. Accounts of Alice Bertha stress her supportive nature and her tact (e.g. Folk-Lore 49 (1938), 93–4) and it is true that she successfully ran a busy household and brought up their seven sons, but, in addition to the decades of service given to the Folklore Society, Alice made a number of significant contributions to scholarship, and her interests were wide ranging and her knowledge formidable.

One of her first forays into the public limelight came in October 1891, when she was Secretary for the Entertainment Committee for the prestigious International Folk-Lore Congress, held in London, and surviving correspondence shows clearly that she was the main organizer of the Conversazione, which included a major exhibition of folklore items, an exhibition of local cakes and other food, performances of children's singing games, a mumming play, songs, dances, and tales. The event was a tremendous success, particularly the games performed by children from her local Barnes Village School, and has been hailed as the first act of the folk revival (see Boyes). Two of the featured items grew into major research interests for Alice, children's games and traditional food. Her two-volume work on the Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1894–8), compiled mainly from correspondence with contributors from all over the country, but also from her own collecting, presents a wealth of detailed information on games of the mid- to late 19th century, which is still used as a source-book today. As befits a member of her generation, Lady Gomme followed the basic survivals theory, although not slavishly, and the commentary in Traditional Games is somewhat dated, but the material itself is still as interesting as the day it was collected. The books were planned as the first volumes in an ambitious ‘Dictionary of Folk-Lore’ project, but no other titles in the series ever saw the light of day. She also published several popular-market books of singing games, some in co-operation with Cecil Sharp. Most of Alice's output was in the form of notes and short pieces for the journal Folk-Lore, on a range of subjects including medicine, harvest customs, mumming plays, and folktales, but she also contributed widely to newspapers and magazines, and this material still needs to be identified and gathered together. She was also active in a number of other organizations, including the London Shakespeare League, Folk Cookery Association, Folk-Song Society, and the English Folk Dance Society, and she lectured widely.

Alice Gomme's work includes The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland (2 vols, 1894, 1898); Games for Parlour and Playground (1898); Children's Singing Games (2 vols., 1894); (with Laurence Gomme) Old English Singing Games (1900); British Folk-Lore, Folk-songs, and Singing Games (1916); (with Cecil Sharp) Children's Singing Games (5 vols., 1909–12); ‘Boer Folk-Medicine and Some Parallels’, Folk-Lore 13 (1902), 69–75, 181–2; ‘The Green Lady: A Folk-tale from Hertfordshire’, Folk-Lore 7 (1896), 411–14; ‘The History of England in a Cooking Pot: Folk Recipes and Kitchen Magic’, Morning Post (4 Mar. 1931).

From A Dictionary of English Folklore in Oxford Reference.


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