Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Arthur Robinson Wright

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Plate VI of Lovett and Wright's paper Specimens of modern mascots ...' 1908

Plate VI of Lovett and Wright's paper Specimens of modern mascots ...' 1908

Arthur Robinson Wright (1862-1932) worked in the Patent Office from 1885. According to his obituary in Folklore:

[he was] a very busy civil servant, holding a post of no publicity value but nevertheless of very great importance to the economic development of the country. ... it was due very largely to his exceptional foresight and capacity for hard work that the official examination of applications for patents for invention in this country is as efficient as it is generally recognized to be. When he entered the office there was no official search as to the novelty of inventions, and only a very general subject-classification scheme by which those interested could make themselves a search through past patent literature which was so essential to them. By 1905 he had secured the complete and detailed revision of the whole of the classification scheme, devoting his personal attention with characteristic thoroughness to the class-allotment and indexing of all the patent specifications, to the number of nearly 500,000, filed during the previous fifty years. [Gaster and Gomme: 1933: 119]

According to the same source, Wright was later appointed Assistant-Comptroller of Patents in 1922 and retired from the service in 1927. [Gaster and Gomme: 1933: 119] The obituary concludes with a stark statement: 'Altogether an extraordinary man.'

As well as being an active member of the Folklore Society, Wright was also a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and of the Royal Anthropological Institte and, according to his obituary in Nature:

had many outside interests ranging from the collection of Utopias to the Shakespearian productions of the Old Vic Theatre which he attended with unfailing regularity until his last illness. [Nature, 1933: 50]

Wright and the Folklore Society

Wright joined the Folklore Society in 1890, when he died he was one of the Society's oldest members. He was member of the Council for the Society from 1898, editor of Folk-Lore from 1912 until 1931 and President of the Society 1927-8. His obituary notes:

He was reticent by nature, the secret of which he had learned through his position at the Patent Office; he was, however, friend of many, enemy of none, and greatly esteemed by those who learned to know his qualities of heart and mind. He was keenly interested especially in the ocular craft,[1] and was able to collect a large number of specimens of popular belief now either extinct or difficult to obtain. He was very methodical and orderly, yet he took his time, helpful and sympatheti, always full of interest for everything that affected the work of our Society. He accumulated also a large and valuable library of folklore, and above all he collected a vast number of cuttings from papers and reviews, which otherwise would have been scattered and lost. ... He had accumulated a vast material, which was to form the English section of the great work undertaken by the Society in enlarging as it were and amplifying Brand's 'Antiquities', of which only the name really remains, but it was to have been a vastly improved work covering all the calendar ceremonies and practices of the British Isles. His hope was that he would be spared long enough to sift and work up the material concerning England proper. [Gaster and Gomme: 1933: 117]

This work was incomplete at his death but was edited by T.E. Lones and published by the Folklore Society as 'British Calendar Customes: England in three volumes between 1936-1940. His library is described in more detail in the obituary:

Nothing could give a better idea of Wright's industry than a glance at his library of over 10,000 volumes. Anything out of the way attracted him, and his invariable practice was, for every subject that interested him, to make a separate collection of press-cuttings, articles, pamphlets, booksellers' catalogues etc., some neatly pasted into albums and others arranged in large envelopes of his own make. His folklore library of some 5000 volumes was enriched in this way by many bound volumes of articles taken from the monthly and quarterly journals, and by several volumes and folders of newspaper and other clippings. ... [Gaster and Gomme: 1933: 119]

He bequeathed this library to the Folklore Society.

In his presidential address in 1927 he argued that folk-lore should include folk song, music, dance, drawma and other folk-arts 'so far as they express the mental and spiritual life of the folk'. [Wright, 1928: 16] He also argued against a belief that folklore's main interest should be in survivals (that is traditions, artefacts, or tales which were deemed to have survived from a past age into the present):

The point I most wish to urge upon you, however, for special reconsideration is the limitation of our home flklore to "survivals" alone. Are we to shut out, by our prospectus and official definition of our science, the modern products of the same old folk mind working upon new conditions of environment, -- for example, the folklore generated by the war, such as the exchange between soldiers of identity discs to baffle the Death Angel in his visits to the trenches, the ill-luck of lighting three cigarettes form one match, and other newcomers. Must we consider such beliefs and actions only when consecrated by long usage -- of how many centuries? -- or when we can with great and perhaps misplaced ingenuity link them to some ancient practice vaguely recorded by some contemptuous monk or unscientific traveller? Folklore is not a dead thing. It is alive all round us. [Wright, 1927: 24]

He felt that by concentrating on survivals the folklorists were not undertaking their full task:

Collector after collector laments the swift vanishing of old customs and old beliefs, in company with old speech and old arts and crafts, and clamours that the most active and immediate measures are necessary if any record is to be preserved. If our business as folklorists is to be conducted only with this vanishing currency of survivals, we shall soon have to close our home stores and confine our transactions to the savage currency also steadily dwindling in variety and value.
The explanation of the rapid disappearance of survivals is not far to seek. Their most deadly enemy and exterminator is not education, but scientific invention. ... All these [movies, improved transport etc] have broken up, or are breaking up, the separatism and the quiet in which village beliefs were nourished and flourished. [Wright, 1927: 25]

He concluded this address:

Folklore is at the base of all other sciences, and appears in all of them at their early and unsophisticated stages, and for its elucidation it must draw upon the history of all of them. Our Society must not only seek to construct in this way a living picture of the folk life of the past, but it should bequeath to posterity as perfect a picture as it can achieve of the folk life and mental attitude of the present. [Wright, 1927: 38-9]

In his next year's address his topic was 'The unfinished tasks of the Folk-Lore Society' and he tried to argue:

Last year I also sought to maintain that folklore is very much a thing of life and growth today, and not a mere "survival" from the smelly and fear-haunted days of "primitive" man, no more capable of development and growth than a fossil bone or stone axe. ... Perhaps I may have an opportunity, here or elsewhere, to present more fully the case for "modern folklore" as a perfectly legitimate and important part of folklore in general.' [Wright, 1928: 18]

Wright practiced what he preached, for example drawing the Folklore Society's attention to vehicle mascots [Wright, 1913a, Wright and Lovett 1908], twentieth century marriage customs [Wright 1913 b] and modern amulets [Lovett and Wright, 1908]

Wright and the Pitt Rivers Museum

Figure 18 of Lovett and Wright, 1908: Shell necklace from Southport, possibly 1940.12.035

Figure 18 of Lovett and Wright, 1908: Shell necklace from Southport, possibly 1940.12.035

Wright had no direct links to the Pitt Rivers Museum but he did collect one item that ended up in his collections, donated by Estella Canziani:

1940.12.035 Accession Book Entry [Loans] - Miss E. Canziani, 3 Palace Green, W.8 - String of shells sold at Southport, Lancs, as an amulet against ill-luck 1903 Coll Dr A.R. Wright Donated 1964

This is obviously showing his interest in current folkloric beliefs. This sounds like a similar neck ornament to the one discussed by Wright and Lovett in 1908:

Fig. 18 shows a shell necklace from Southport. When at the last British Association Meeting there, Mr. Lovett noticed in several fancy dealers' shops bundles of shell necklaces of identical pattern. When he came presently to another shop of the same kind in which there was an old woman, he went in and asked, "What are these necklaces ? " "Three pence." "I mean, what are they for?" "For visitors." "I will buy some. But why are they all made exactly the same way?" "Because they are made by the fishermen." "Why do they make them in that particular way?" "Because they have always been made in that way. I made them that way when I was a girl, and my mother used to make them that way." "But you can't have made them for visitors when you were a girl. There were no visitors. What did you make them for then?" "Oh, just for fun." "No, you didn't make them for fun,-you made them for luck." "Who told you that? They said so, but that was silly." Another old woman then came into the shop, and was presently asked by the shopkeeper to show the 'spider shell' in her pocket. This proved to be a pelican's foot shell, which she would not part with. It had been carried by her husband for thirty years, and was now carried by herself 'for luck.' Mr. Lovett would be glad to know of any other shell necklaces of special design made by fisher folk. [Wright and Lovett, 1908: 300-1]

However, please note that Lovett is the one who was supposed to have undertaken the field collection, and not Wright. It is unclear whether, by the time she donated the artefact, Canziani had forgotten this, or whether Wright had also collected a shell necklace in Southport but not mentioned it in the article.


[1] It is unclear, to the author at least, what the obituary meant by 'ocular craft'. The OED online confirms that ocular refers to a bone of the skull, something that is visible or manifest or a lens or combination of lens, or as an adjective, perceived or made evident by sight, visible.

Further Reading


Anon. 1933 'Mr A.R. Wright' Nature, January 14 1933 pp. 49-50

M. Gaster and Allan Gomme 1933 'A. R. Wright' Folklore, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Mar., 1933), pp. 116-120

Wright, A.R. 1913a 'Vehicle Mascots' Folklore Vol. 24, No. 4 (Dec., 1913), p. 524

Wright, A.R. 1913b 'Twentieth-century marriage customs' Folklore Vol. 24, No. 2 (Jul., 1913), pp. 250-251

Wright, A.R. 1927 'Presidential Address: The Folklore of the Past and Present' Folklore Vol. 38, No. 1 (Mar. 31, 1927), pp. 13-39

Wright, A.R. 1928 'Presidential Address: The unfinished tasks of the Folk-Lore Society' Folklore Vol. 39, No. 1 (Mar. 31, 1928), pp. 15-38