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Walter William Skeat letters in Tylor papers, PRM ms collections Box 13a

Skeat (1866-1953) 'joined the Selangor Civil Service in 1891 and retired as the District Magistrate of Larut (Perak) in 1898. He undertook the first ethnographic expedition to Kelantan, sponsored by the University of Cambridge, in 1899, from which the bulk of CUMAA’s collection (of over 500 photographs) originate'. Illness contracted on this trip forced him to resign from the colonial service, and he spent the remainder of his life in London, serving as one of the Studeley lecturers at the British Museum from 1914 until his retirement in 1932. He was the son of a philologist, also named Walter William Skeat

Skeat S3

2 Salisbury Villas


Jan 26 99

Dear Professor Tylor,

I think you know of the exploring expedition which I am accompanying to Malaya (the unexplored states) so I will not waste time over it talking about it now, beyond telling you that we are trying to get ready to start on the 7th February. I am now writing to ask if you think there would be any chance of our getting a grant, solely for the purchase of ethnological specimens from the University [insert] Museum [end insert] of Oxford. If we do so [insert] this for them [end insert] I think it would only be fair that they should contribute their mite (whatever it may be) to the expenses of the expedition--or they might allow us a small percentage on collections made. This however is only my private opinion & is not meant for publication as such as you will, I am sure, understand. I know too that you will feel assured that it is in no grasping spirit that I suggest this, but merely because I have the interests of the expedition entirely at heart.

It would suit us best if we could get a contribution of say £50 towards the expedition expenses, in return for which we would purchase [insert] all [end insert] the specimens [insert] they want [end insert], but but if you think this too much, to ask, it would be best to suggest a small percentage. One if not two Oxford men are accompanying us (Evans & Annandale) [1] and this might perhaps appeal to them. If it should be possible to arrange anything of the sort, either nor, or after we are gone, the amount should be paid in to my account (in the name of Walter Skeat) at Mortlock's bank here. It would of course be an advantage to know before the seventh, but it would be a mistake to spoil a chance by undue hurry, & I shall make arrangements for other money to be sent out to me, with which it could go if necessary.

If anyone wishes to know the sort of thing I would undertake to buy, you could refer them to the Ethnological Dept here, if they do not think care to take my suggestion as it stands [2]

My book, you will be glad to hear, is going through the Press, as fast as I can push it. [3]

Yours sincerely

Walter W. Skeat


[1] Thomas Nelson Annandale (1876-1924) and Richard Evans (a biologist about whom little has been found out). There are 49 objects from Evans in the PRM collections, collected during the Skeat expedition of 1899-1900 to parts of Malaysia then under the control of Thailand. There are 1595 objects from Annandale in the PRM, not all acquired during this Expedition.

[2] Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge University. See here for information about the Cambridge Skeat collection (though at the time of writing there was no automatic access to the information)

[3] Skeat's 'Malay Magic' published in 1900 in London by Macmillan.


Skeat S4

2 Salisbury Villas


Jan 29 99

Dear Professor Tylor,

Since writing you, I have consulted one of the heads of depts. interested in the expedition, and he advises me that I should state definitely to you that the type specimens [1] must in any case come to Cambridge in the first instance. Also that I should make a point of the £50 which I asked you about. Should you think that any arrangement could be reached in these lines, you will I hope left me know what you propose--as I should like to lay it before the members of the Board for ratification Personally I think that many even of the duplicates wold be worth your taking, but it is for you to say whether you think so too.

Yours sincerely

W.W. Skeat

P.S. I am sure you will quite realise my position with reference to the Board W.S.


[1] It is interesting to hear ethnographic objects described as 'type specimens', although the Skeat expedition collected many natural history specimens and this letter was written to Tylor ostensibly presumably in his guize as Keeper of the Oxford University Museum (of Natural History)(to which Skeat specifically refers), S3 makes it clear that Skeat was only offering ethnographic specimens collecting.


Skeat S4 alt.

University Museum


Feb 1st 1899

Dear Skeat

I have been somewhat long in answering your last letter, but it has taken time to consult those interested here. It is desired to obtain £50 from some University source as a contribution to your expedition, but as this takes time the Vice-Chancellor & others have informally guarenteed this sum to be contributed if the conditions can be arranged satisfactorily. Of course under the circumstances the money arrangements cannot be very strict or minute. [?] I can however say that considering that the Expedition is a Cambridge one, it is felt that the type specimens & a general priority should belong to Cambridge. But considering that two Oxford men are to be of the party, it may be thought reasonable that Oxford interests should come next? You will I hope have time to go more into the matter with your Board & settle roughly some plan on which we can pay the £50 to the credit of the Expedition when we get it. It is I think already understood that we are speaking both of Zoology & Anthropology. [1] The Hope Department under Poulton [2] strongly suggests attention being given by the Expedition to specimens illustrative of mimicry &c to which special research is now being devoted here. I hope you will not find anyting unreasonable in these suggestions, if so there is still time to exchange letters before you leave.

Yours very truly

Edward B. Tylor [3]

P.S. You will see that I have only dealt with points requiring particular notice



[1] Skeat's first letter [S3] seems clear that he is offering to collect ethnographic specimens, but Tylor's letter makes it clear that he wanted zoological specimens for the Oxford University Museum (of Natural History) and 'Anthropology' items for the Pitt Rivers. 

[2] Edward Bagnall Poulton, (1856-1943) Hope professor of zoology at the University of Oxford.

[3] Note that this and the final letter in S5 is written by a copy clerk not Tylor.


Skeat S5

[in Tylor's? handwriting] Feb 8 copy

2 Salisbury Villas


Feb 6th 99

Dear Professor Tylor,

I have been going into the proposals contained in your letter as carefully as possible, & regret to say that I do not, after due consideration of all the interests concerned, see my way to [illegible crossing out] [insert] the making of [end insert] any [illegible crossing out] [insert] really [end insert] satisfactory arrangements in the short time which now remains.

The essential facts are, that in the formal petition which I addressed to the Vice Chancellor I bound myself to a clause which stipulated that all the collections made by the expedition should return to this University. My applications being laid before the Council in the usual way was referred by them to the joint departmental board (of zoology, geology, Botany etc) who cordially supported the application. In order to obtain the necessary relaxation of the above terms, a fresh application would have to be forwarded to the Board, council, & this would certainly cause a delay of at least a week at the least.

As I am starting on Friday, it is now obviously impossible for me to go any further into the matter. Although I cannot in any way pledge the University I hope some return may yet be made to Oxford for the assistance which the expedition has received from that University, more especially in view of Professor Poulton's generous help in the matter of outfit.

Greatly regretting the loss of what I shall always feel was an unusually good opportunity.

Believe me

Yours sincerely

Walter Skeat


Copy [in Tylor's handwriting]

University Museum


Feb. 8 99

With reference to the Cambridge [insert] Naturalists' [end insert] Expedition [insert] to Siam [end insert] for purposes of Natural History, as to the partial cooperation of Oxford with which you were so good as to offer help when I saw you a few days ago, it now appears that the time is too short to make any regular combination possible. I have therefore written to Mr W W Skeat, in whose [insert] who is in [end insert] charge of the expedition is, that as they could probably expend more than the funds provided, a transaction [insert] for their return [end insert] between the two Universities to the extent of the £50 mentioned might on the return very likely be advantageous to both. In view of this being possible [insert] agreed upon [end insert] I wrote that the only thing we could do [insert] now possible [end insert] would be to ask the approval of [insert] by [end insert] the Vice-Chancellors of both Universities of some such understanding, and that I would ask whether as certain ask if you are willing that [insert] approved [end insert] such an arrangement should if possible being carried out if possible practicable.


All Souls College


Feb. 9. 1899

Dear Dr Tylor

I fully approve of the arrangement you propose in your letter about the Cambridge Naturalists Expedition to Siam.

I am

yours very truly

William R. Anson [1]


[1] William Reynell Anson (1843-1914), Vice-Chancellor in 1898 but he resigned after a year to become an MP for the University.


Feb. 8th 1899

Dear Skeat

I am not surprised at difficulties arising as to a definite scheme of cooperation in consequence of shortness of time. But I should be disappointed if a plan of common action by the two Universities should fall through altogether. I should venture to suggest that if on your return you find that your expedition has spent somewhat more than the funds provided, there might be a transaction between us to the extent of teh £50 which has been mentioned. In such a case the practice here would I think be to ask the Vice Chancellor's approval. If your Vice Chancellor approved also, that would I suppose be as near an approach to an understanding as would be possible.

With best wishes for the success of your expedition.

Yours truly

Edward B. Tylor


Note that with the exception of the Annandale and Evans material from the Skeat Expedition, no items were received from Skeat. 


Skeat S6

2 Salisbury Villas


4 3 1901

Dear Professor Tylor,

I have put together my notes on the Malay Divining Rod. They are strung together very roughly, but I am rather pushed for time at present, & so could not manage to work them up. I think however you will find that they agree pretty exactly with what I told you from memory--& even to the fact of the spirit entering the foot of the rod which I am sure was what they told me, & which I find I have set down in my notes. Although the in precise location of the spirit is a point which had not occurred to me before. In the and though I have not looked it up, I feel fairly sure that a good many similar instances could be found among the Malays. The man, in fact, is a true medium ([illegible crossed out][insert] in many cases at all [end insert] events), rather than a true embodiment, & the spirit passes through him to reach the magical object into which it is intended to enter.

The fact that the Rod is in this case the embodiment (using the word figuratively) into which the spirit is meant to enter, is, to my mind proved by the yellow cloth & the fillet of thread wrapped round the foot of the Rod bundle. If it had been intended that the spirit should enter the man only, the man would, however I expect, have worn the yellow cloth or the fillet, or at least some other sign that of his readiness to receive the spirit. As I have said, the point is one which had never occurred to me before, because I had hardly expected to find the spirit so accurately located. The more I enter one thinks over it, however, the more reasonable [insert] & consistent [end insert] does the Malay explanation [insert] (of his own point of view) [end insert] seem.

If you would care to tackle the matter from the comparative point of view, nothing would delight me more. [1] It would I think make a fine paper & [illegible crossed out] [insert] if properly illustrated shd. be of [end insert] no small interest to people in general as well as to folk-lorists & ethnologists in particular.

As for Warington Smyth, I don't quite like to bother him just now, as he is already doing some heavy work for me, but later on I shd. be quite willing to ask him about it. With kind regards to Balfour,

Yours very sincerely

W.W. Skeat.

[Separate sheet]

A Malay analogy of the Diviner's-Rod

The "Rotan Mo-pek (or Mo'Pek?) is a birch or Rod used by Malays [insert] native [end insert] mediums on the East coast of the Malay Peninsula. It should properly [illegible crossed out] [insert] consist [end insert] of seven rods of a kind of cane (rattan called "Rotan sega" (the most valuable class of [insert] Malay [end insert] cane). Six of these rods are usually connected [insert] united [end insert] at their base, so that the affair consists of three pairs of rods (joined at the base) and an odd one. The correct [insert] proper [end insert] "measurement" of [insert] each of [end insert] these rods is said to be three "spans" (measuring from the the tip of the outstretched thumb to the tip of the middle finger). The They are all bound tightly together at the foot base (by which they are grasped in the right hand) and the binding [insert] material [end insert] is of an interesting character, as it consists partly of yellow cloth (yellow being the royal colour amng the Malays) & partly of what is called "Java thread", a hank of which is wound wound round the rods & helps to keep them in position. This "Java thread" is used by Malay medicine men in numerous [insert] magic [end insert] ceremonies & is evidently emblematic. [insert in pencil] A fillet of it was tied round boys' heads after circumcision &c cf the fillet of the Greek prophetess &c [end insert]

Although seven rods are said to be the "correct" number (seven being also the number of souls said to such [insert] which every individual [end insert] was formerly supposed [insert] by the Malays [end insert] to possess) any [insert] lower [end insert] odd number is said to do, though the full number is [insert] probably [end insert] the more efficacious [insert] I succeeded in buying three specimens of these Rods one of them, one of five, & the other of seven lengths or pieces. I also saw one with a single length but could not get it. [end insert] Even a single rod is sometimes used. The performer grasps grasps the rod or [insert] rod or [end insert] bundle of rods in his right hand fumigates them thoroughly in the smoke from a burning censor, & repeats [insert] repeats [end insert] the appropriate invocation, one form of which reads:--

"Peace be with thee, old Father Long-beard!
Descend from the Hills, come hither, &  
Enter into your embodiment"

(i.e. the Medium)

Presently (I tell the tale in the exact words of my informant) the Cane Rods commence to rotate [insert] to describe [insert] a [end insert] arch at their tips [end insert] & this rotation continues with ever increasing rapidity [insert] velocity [end insert] until the medium "loses consciousness". [insert] While he is in this state [end insert] If a ring, or any other object, is lost of hidden, this Rod will point it out. It will also [insert] (I was told) [end insert] point out water underground, if necessary, but in the Malay Peninsula this is very seldom necessary & it is to the discovery of lost or hidden treasure etc that the use of this rod is mainly dedicated. 

The reference to old "Father Long-beard" is an allusion to the Feathery sprays of the young [insert] growing [end insert] shoots of the rattan, & the object of the Malay medium in mentioning it is to show that his acquaintance with the origin of the spirit he is apostrophising, this being in entire accordance with what is perhaps the most numerous class of Malay charms The rods [illegible] be either [insert] are sometimes [end insert] plain, sometimes inscribed with Arabic words & letters or other symbols intended to increase their efficacy. [insert] I was further told that [end insert] When the spirit descends in response to the invocation, it enters the medium's head at the top of the skull, & passes down his arm at into the (foot of this [insert] rod or [end insert]) rod-bundle. Although [insert] usually [end insert] made of the Rotan Sega (or Sega rattan) these rods are called by the Malays Rotan Samambu (wh. is the native name of the Malacca cane) or Mo Pek, which latter I suspect is the Siamese equivalent of the latter expression.


[1] Tylor did, see 1902 '40. Malay Divining Rods', Man, Vol.2, pp.49-50: 

Plate D Tylor 'Malay Divining Rods' JAI 1902 pp. 49-50Plate D Tylor 'Malay Divining Rods' JAI 1902 pp. 49-50'Malay Folklore. With Plate D [see illustration] Tylor.

Malay Divining Rods. By Edward B. Tylor, D.C.L., F.R.S., Professor of Anthropology in the University of Oxford. 40

Among the interesting specimens brought by Mr. W. W. Skeat from the Malay Peninsula are certain bundles of rattans (Plate D.) called Rotan Mo'pek, and used as divining rods by the native pawangs, or sorcerers. It appears by Mr. Skeat's information that from a single rod to a bundle of nine may be used, and the cane must be of the finest variety, known in the trade as Rotan sega. The bundle of rattans is tied together at the butt ends with hanks of Java thread, after being incensed with the smoke of benzoin. It is grasped firmly in the magician's right hand with this incantation

"Peace be with you, Father Long-beard!
Come down from the heights and enter into your embodiment!"

Presently the tip of the rod or rod-bundle begins to move in circles, small at first but with increasing force till the sorcerer loses consciousness. The rod in his hand then points in the direction where lost property will be found, and, if asked, it will even point in the direction of underground water. When the invoked spirit enters the magician's body it passes in through the fontanel at the top of the head and down the arm into the butt end of the rod, causing its frantic gyrations.

The rods have written on them Arabic words and phrases from the Koran, and cabalistic signs such as pentagrams, familiar to Eastern magic. These at first suggest a Moslem origin; but a careful examination of them by Professor Margoliouth showed that they have no connexion with the special use of the instrument, and Mr. Skeat points out that the invocation above is in old-fashioned Malay, though, indeed, it begins with Arabic. The Arabic element is only that varnish of Mohammedanism which overlays everything Malay, though leaving native ideas almost unchanged beneath. Mr. Skeat was told that the magical figures did not matter if only the rattan was of the right kind.

Considerable interest attaches to this instrument as bearing on the modern discussion of the divining rod, which, after the decline of its reputation in the hands of Dr. Dousterswivel, has of late revived. Mr. Andrew Lang has set forth its claims to consideration on anthropological-psychological grounds, and Professor Barrett has collected particulars of a great number of trials for water, among which he estimates the failures as only about one in ten. On the other hand, a very fair and careful inquiry by Mr. T.V. Holmes, recorded in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute, led to the conclusion that the water-finders do find water with the divining rod, but, so far as experience goes, might have done as well without it. [Footnote 1]

My own interest in the matter turns on a special point, which I may illustrate by mentioning my only experience of the methods of the English water-finder. It was some 20 years ago at Somerleaze, near Wells, then the home of Professor Freeman the historian. One morning a well-known and successful practitioner in the Mendip district came over by invitation and showed us the manipulation of his hazel fork divining rod. He especially called attention to the distinction between mere surface springs and deep " main springs" giving a permanent supply of water. It was not a very serious trial, and after the dowser had selected suitable places for sinking, which we know are not difficult to find in the neighbourhood of Wells, he was asked if the rod would, as reported, also find treasure. He answered yes, and my watch, a large old- fashioned gold repeater, was hidden in the house under rugs, and the rod dipped not many yards from the place where it lay. The water-finder when he had found it said admiringly that he had felt by the rod that he was over "a good main-spring." This dowser was to all appearance and report a straightforward man, thoroughly believing in his craft and undeniably a successful well-sinker. But it seemed quite natural to his mind that a main-spring, whether of water or of a watch, would be likely to deflect his forked twig in the same way. Now this is typical in the art of the divining rod and analogous instruments, from the coffin which leads the bearers of the corpse to the murderer, to the ring suspended by a thread over a glass which tells what o'clock it is. [Footnote 2] As is well known, the European divining rod used to find not only water but mineral veins, stolen treasure, and even the thief who stole it. [Footnote 3] The Malay instrument finds lost property and, if asked, springs of water. Now what have these various objects in common? Nothing but that the diviner wishes to find something. The divining instrument has no physical relation with water more than with stolen goods, or murderers, or the time of day; it only follows the seeker's state of mind and body. He may imagine that the instrument is giving him information, an explanation which is at its heighten the Malay rattans, which are believed to be possessed by a demon and can be used to drive out other demons, and in the European divining rods, which used to be, and possibly still are, wrapped in a baby's clothes and taken to church to get them surreptitiously christened.

If it is true, as is stated, that bursars at Oxford and Cambridge employ diviners to find water on college estates, this is tantamount to saying that a man who puts himself into an abnormal nervous state by taking tight hold of a twig gains knowledge and guidance, wanting in his saner moments. If this be true, how is it that Mr. Lang, while exalting the powers of the water-finder, has not a word to say in favour of the treasure-finder or thief-finder? Is it because in the civilised world the magical thief-finder has proved an utter failure, whereas the dowser, happening to be a trained well-sinker, is more successful than if he knew nothing about springs?


Footnote 1: A. Lang, Making of Religion, pp. 164-8. Journ. Anthr. Inst., Vol. XXVII., p. 233. 

Footnote 2: Instances in my Primitive Culture, Vol. I., p. 126.

Footnote 3: Brand, Popular Antiquities, Vol. III., p. 332-5. Chevreul, La Baguette Divinatoire. 

Note: See here for an article by Chris Wingfield about this article. The Pitt Rivers Museum does not own a set of these divining rods. 


[Skeat S7 not particularly relevant]

Skeat S8

2 Salisbury Villas



Dear Tylor,

Your letter of this morning with the notice of the Rods delighted me greatly. I think it is admirable & that you have brought out the one point that we have all been groping [insert] for [end insert] in the dark. I think I may say at once that I am convinced of the correctness of your view, & if the matter is controversial you have taken I think an impregnable position--even as against so plausible an advocatus daemonum as A.L.!

Obviously I think, now you point it out, the difference between the divining-rod methods of Asia and Europe lies in the fact that in Eur Asia it is the rod which is [insert] (hypothetically) [end insert] possessed, & which consequently drags about or otherwise affects the man, whereas in Europe it is the man's own nervous tension which affects the rod, the only use of which is therefore to give him an external indication of his own state of mind

With renewed and most sincere thanks for the trouble you have taken, fruitful as it has been.

Yours most sincerely

W.W. Skeat

I will certainly see that you have a proof. The "main-spring story is excellent! W.S.


Skeat S9 is a letter dated 23 October 1904 from Skeat to Tylor thanking him for agreeing to write an introduction to his book and giving him various details about what is required, and referring him to particularly useful points Skeat believes will be of interest to Tylor for the introduction. I have not transcribed this letter. The book was presumably Skeat, Walter William and Blagden, Charles Otto. 'Pagan races of the Malay Peninsula' Macmillan, London, 1906.

Transcribed by AP April 2013.

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