Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Laurence Gomme

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

(George) Laurence Gomme was born in Stepney in London in December 1853 and died in Long Crendon in Buckinghamshire in February 1916. He was knighted in 1911. He worked as a local government officer, for several years he was Statistical Officer for London County Council and in 1900 he was appointed Clerk to that Council. He lectured at the London School of Economics and was a University Extension Lecturer. He was a frequent contributor to Notes and Queries. The Dictionary of National Biography describes him as:

He was of medium height and slender build and in disposition said to be amiable, cheerful, and receptive to ideas; a strong personality, he could sometimes become very attached to a particular point of view.

According to the Observer:

"the death of Sir Laurence Gomme robs London of one of its most notable citizens, and one of its most loyal servants." [quoted by http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/server/show/ConWebDoc.6498]

He was one of the founding members of the Folk-Lore Society in 1878, he served as President three times as well as Honorary Secretary and also edited and contributed articles to Folklore. He belonged to several other societies: he was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries from 1879 and of the Royal Statistical Society, a member of the Anthropological Institute, the British Association etc. In 1890 he published the Handbook of Folk-Lore through the Society which was supposed to guide members in the collection of folklore. Of the handbook, Dorson says:

The Handbook stands up well today in the ordering of its categories and the clarity of its leading questions, designed to aid the novice and stimulate the country parson or schoolteacher to inquire among the locals for items of tradition. As the first collector's manual in English it marks a milestone, codifying the folk materials ... The questionnaire form rendered visible the main lines of tradition already established and encouraged further additions. [Dorson, 1968: 222]

R.R. Marett, the then President of the Folk-Lore Society and also Reader in Anthropology at the University of Oxford, seems to have had a high opinion of Gomme:

SIR EDWARD TYLOR and SIR LAURENCE GOMME, two original members of this Society, have lately passed away. Both were master minds; and it would ill become me to venture to institute any comparison between them in respect of their intellectual calibre or the value of their work. [Marett, 1917: 13]
In the first place, then, Tylor stood for anthropology and Gomme for folklore. With smaller men this might have been a cause of dissociation and cross purposes. Instead, both realized clearly from the outset that they were exploring the same field from opposite ends. [Marett, 1917: 14]

Dorson concludes that:

Of all the great team, Gomme was the most persistent and determined champion of the scientific credentials of folklore. [Dorson, 1968: 222-3]

Gomme thought that folklore was the 'scientific study of the survivals of archaic belief, customs, and traditions in modern times;. [Dorson, 1968: 225] He divided folklore into the following categories:

four radical groups each with minor sub-groups:
I. Traditional narratives:
(a) folk-tales
(b) hero tales
(c) ballads and songs
(d) place legends
2. Traditional customs:
(a) local customs
(b) festival customs
(c) ceremonial
(d) games.
3. Superstitions and beliefs:
(a) witchcraft
(b) astrology
(c) superstitious practices and fancies.
4. Folk-speech:
(a) popular sayings
(b) popular nomenclature
(c) proverbs
(d) jingle rhymes, riddles, etc. [Burstein, 1957: 326-7]

He laid down principles for the way that folklore must be carried out

1. Folklore must be studied item by item in its own home ... 2. The survival is capable of measurement. 3. Folklore
cannot by any possibility develop 4. The causes of the continuation of folklore [Burstein, 1957: 327-8]

His wife, Alice Bertha, was as active in the Folk-Lore Society as him, she died 22 years later having spent many years continuing her folklore work:

From 1883 to 1936, she contributed articles and notes on topics ranging from material culture to aetiological legends, custom to folk medicine, in the pages of The Folk-lore Journal and Folk-Lore, and lectured widely. She was a founding and Committee member of the Folk-Song Society and also the author of a number of popular books on children's games, some of which are still in print today. [Boyes, 1990: 198]

Laurence and Alice Gomme never contributed any artefacts to the Pitt Rivers Museum, despite their propinquity when they lived in Long Crendon. It may be that his interests always lay more with intangible rather than material culture.

Further Reading

Boyes, Georgina. 1990. 'Alice Bertha Gomme (1852-1938): A Reassessment of the Work of a Folklorist' Folklore, Vol. 101, No. 2 (1990), pp. 198-208

Burstein, Sona Rosa  1957 'George Laurence Gomme and the Science of Folklore' Folklore, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Jun., 1957), pp. 321-338

Dorson, Richard 1968 The British Folklorists Chicago: University of Chicago Press [pp. 220-229]

Gomme, Alice B. 1916 'Bibliography of the Writings of the Late Sir Laurence Gomme on Anthropology and Folklore' Folklore Vol. 27, No. 4 (Dec. 31, 1916), pp. 408-413

R. R. Marett 1917 'Presidential Address. The Psychology of Culture-Contact' Folklore, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Mar. 31, 1917), pp. 13-35





Gomme's publications in Folklore (taken from Alice Gomme)

Bibliography of Folklore Publications in English. Folk-Lore Record, v. P. 55-80; Folk-Lore journal, i. P. 77-84, 344-350; ii. P. 197-2o6.
Science of Folk-Lore (Presidential Address). Ibid. iii. P. 387-394.
Coorg Folk-Lore. Ibid. vii. P. 295-3o6.
A Highland Folk-Tale. Folk-Lore, i. P. 197-2o6.
Recent Research on Institutions (Presidential Address). Ibid. ii i891, p. 1-30.
Presidential Address. Ibid. x. p. 65-69, i894.
Ethnological Data in Folk-Lore. Ibid. x. i899, p. 129-143.