Thursday, 12 June 2014

Biddle Moor in the 1890s


I had always assumed that the collecting of folk music and custom at the end of the 19th century was always a male preserve. I think of people like Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughn Williams and Gustav Holst weighed down with heavy sound recording equipment seeking out some ancient in the depths of Somerset to meticulously note down folksong.

 Over the years I have had an interest in folk music and have attended many a concert. I had always assumed that North Staffordshire was not especially rich territory as far as local folk music or lore was concerned. Some areas of the country such as the West Country appear to have a richer tradition although subsequent commentators have suggested that the industrial areas were missed because folklorists felt they were somehow” tainted”.

 I looked recently at the archive of folksong that exists at Cecil Sharp House and the digital archive contains a number of games and dances collected in the Cheadle and Tean areas by Alice Keary and Charlotte Burne in the 1890s. Charlotte Burne who was born on the borders of Staffordshire and Shropshire was something of a pioneer in folk music and rose to pre-eminence within the organisation.  She produced a book on Shropshire folklore and edited the Folklore Society’s magazine. She became the first women president of the Society unusually as the organisation was London based and she remained in Staffordshire. She lived near Eccleshall. Miss Keary was from Oakhill in Stoke on Trent and spent most of her life immersing herself in the myths of North Staffordshire.( Her brother wrote an experimental novel which was admired by James Joyce)  Together the two women spent three years circa 1890-1893 collecting materials  in North Staffordshire. While a number of joint papers were published, Burne moved to Cheltenham in 1894, and their research failed to be realised in book form. It is probably true to say that the role of women in the story of collecting the folk tradition of the country has been neglected by a masculine dominated art form.

In the 1890s they were collecting material on Biddulph and their account of life on the Moor is worth recounting

 “One very curious settlement we have, locally reputed to be a separate race, the "Biddle Muir" men. Biddulph Moor is situated in the north-western extremity of the county, bordering on Cheshire. The people live in houses scattered here and there over the moor, and are said to have been much more peculiar a generation ago than they are now. They wore their hair, which is said to have been generally either red or black, cut short in front and hanging long at the back. Their houses consisted of two apartments, one entered through the other. The outer room was the abode of the cattle and pigs, the inner one that of the family. Tradition, according to the guide-books, says that they are descended from a party of Saracens brought home in the time of the Crusades by the lord of the adjoining manor of Knypersley. Their dialect is said to include many words which are unknown in the surrounding district, and which some have thought they could trace to an Arabic origin”