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A painting of Mary Ella Leather sitting at a desk, resting her chin on her hand, with a thoughtful expression. She is wearing a brown garment with green accents and a white blouse. In the background, there is a window with diamond-patterned panes and a vase with red flowers on the windowsill.

Ella Mary Leather: The female folklorist who saved Border Morris

As people congregate to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Ella Mary Leather's birth, Joshua Dyer takes a look at her remarkable legacy.

It’s no secret that there were a good number of female folklorists working throughout the late Victorian and Edwardian eras to help preserve the songs, dances and stories that we enjoy today. If you’re a seasoned folkie, you’re probably familiar with names such as Mary Neal and Lucy Broadwood, but have you ever heard of Ella Mary Leather?

With her 150th birthday being celebrated this year, perhaps it’s time to shed some light on on her life and her legacy. Despite relative obscurity, Leather’s work is probably more relevant now than ever, as Border Morris and cider wassailing, two things that would be unrecognisable today without her work, are becoming increasing popular throughout the world.

Who was Ella Mary Leather?

Born in 1874 on a farm not far from the Herefordshire village of Dilwyn (a name that will be very familiar to any border morris-dancing readers), Leather’s first foray into the world of folklore collecting was made at a remarkably young age, and in later life, she could recall multiple childhood trips to see a local cottage-dweller named Martha who supplied her with a wealth of folk stories, sayings and superstitions.

Starting with those early ventures, her mental library of folklore steadily expanded over the years. Her family’s hop-yards were a great initial resource for the young collector, as locals and gypsy-travellers would flock there in the summer to pick hops for extra seasonal income. Leather was also known to visit the homes of impoverished families who had fallen on hard times to bring them soup and other comforts. These trips gave her access to the heart and hearth of ‘the folk’, allowing her a great insight into the traditions and customs that were still being upheld in her native county.

It’s worth noting that these visits were not made in a cynical attempt to harvest folklore from those in disadvantaged positions, but were instead genuine acts of goodwill that she kept up before, during and after her collecting days. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Ella Mary Leather was genuinely immersed in the rural life that she later tried to preserve, and thus continues to be fondly remembered by Herefordshire families for her kind and charitable nature.

From amateur folklorist to professional writer

After decades of accruing knowledge, she finally published her first professional writings in 1904, by which point she was a married mother living in the town of Weobley, only a few miles from her childhood farm. Her debut comprised only of a modest chapter about local folklore in a book called Memorials of Old Herefordshire, but her work was positively received and seems to have motivated her to take her collecting more seriously.

In the following years, she became more active in her efforts to attain folk material, seeking out families from further afield to gain a well-rounded understanding of Herefordshire’s rich bounty of songs, dances and stories.

During this time, she became a member of the now famous circle of 1900’s folk collectors, consisting of Lucy Broadwood, Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams and the like. Indeed, both Sharp and Williams sought out her assistance when collecting in the Welsh border region. Despite being among such highly regarded company, Leather considered herself “a mother […], a hausfrau and other things before folk song collector.” This attitude was in stark contrast to the lofty ambitions of the more grandiose figures that were working in her field and it seems likely that her down-to-earth character is part of the reason Border Morris survives today. Indeed, whilst Sharp dismissed most Border Morris dancing as ‘corrupt’ and ‘decadent’, Leather was passionate about her local dances and made efforts to record them when she could, despite their less refined manner.

The Folklore of Herefordshire

Her efforts culminated in 1912 with the publication of The Folklore of Herefordshire, a nearly 300-page volume that now serves as the bedrock of the county’s living folk culture. 

In the preface of the book, Leather expresses a deep love for Herefordshire and its people, alongside an underlying anxiety that their ways may soon be lost. Only two years later, this anxiety became a reality, with the Great War claiming the lives of many of the young tradition-keepers and reshaping the cultural landscape forever.

The entire Leather family, as with so many others, was caught up in the war effort to some extent. Their matriarch was appointed commandant of the local Red Cross hospital in 1915, helping tend to injured soldiers who had been sent home from the front lines, just as she had been tending to local families for many years before.

At the outbreak of the war, her eldest son John abandoned his prestigious place at Oxford University to join the fight, eventually rising through the ranks and being recognised for his gallantry and strong leadership. After facing many battles throughout the duration of the war, it was influenza, rather than active combat, that caught up with John in the end. He passed away less than a month before the fighting concluded.

The impact that her son’s loss had on Ella Mary Leather is incalculable, and led to her setting aside her folk collecting after the tragedy. She remained a key figure in her local community, however, founding the local Women’s Institute and continuing to aid those in distress. As the years passed, she returned to her mission to preserve folklore where she could, establishing the Herefordshire branch of the Folk Dance Society in 1925, before succumbing to a heart attack in 1928.

Ella Mary Leather’s legacy

Although she has no direct descendants living today, Leather’s legacy is probably more prominent now than ever. Her recording of Border Morris dances and her recognition of their intrinsic value laid the groundwork for later collectors, who may have otherwise overlooked the tradition. Now found across the world, Cider wassailing in its current form is a hybrid between the West Country variation and the Herefordshire tradition, which was recorded entirely by Leather. She may have also started the trend of Morris dancers being associated with the ceremony, having invited a local side to a wassail that she held in 1906.

Cider wassailing in its current form… was recorded entirely by Leather.  

Her impact continues to be felt strongly in her native county – the well-known Leominster and Silurian Morris sides are heavily informed by her work, and even Herefordshire’s more innovative folk dance groups like Blackthorn Ritualistic Folk often pay homage to her. Beyond the folk scene, local musicians and artists take inspiration from her recordings, and wassailing is now seen as an integral part of the county’s calendar and identity.

Celebrating the big 1-5-0

A number of events are being held this year to celebrate the life of this remarkable woman, and her story resonates with folkies and non-folkies alike. Her kind and selfless nature in the face of tragedy, her respect and appreciation of others regardless of social standing, as well as her general community mindedness is something that everyone should aspire towards. Behind the songs, dances and traditions is a legacy built upon Ella Mary Leather’s genuine, humble love for her people and her place.

Ella Mary Leather events

10th June 2024, 7.30pm

An Exceptional Legacy: Ella Mary Leather, Ralph Vaughan Williams and the songs of old Herefordshire. Talk by Nicholas Williams, Publishing Director of Stainer & Bell Ltd. Leominster Museum.

14th June 2024, 7pm

Creative Collaboration: A Concert at Leominster Priory. Celebrating the work of Ella Mary Leather and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Featuring the internationally acclaimed violinist Julia Bishop and others. Leominster Priory.

5th July 2024, 7pm

Herefordshire Folk NOW. Featuring Leominster Morris, Fetch Theatre, About Face Theatre & the Mummer’s Boys, celebrating Ella Mary Leather’s 150th birthday in song, dance and story. Leominster Museum.