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John Symonds Udal - A Dorset Folklorist

by Mark North.


To Dorset people of old, customs, superstitions and traditions were inextricably interwoven with nature, countryside and social history. This formula produced a wealth of folklore in this county and the first person to make an intense study of the subject was John Symonds Udal.

John Symonds Udal aged 72

John Symonds Udal

A sportsman, antiquarian, collector, essayist and a miscellaneous writer, Udal was born on the 10th November 1848 in West Bromwich, Staffordshire . A member of an old Dorset family whose name was originally ‘Uvedale’. His Father William was born in 1802 at Netherbury where successive generations of his family lived.  He later married his cousin Mary-Anne Symonds, (born 1817) at her birthplace of Broadwindsor in 1836.  William Udal moved to Edgbaston, Birmingham, Staffordshire where he made a successful career as a merchant and property manager.  He was at one time in partnership with his brother-in-law Henry Symonds, who was also director of a bank there. William was a keen collector of coins and in this was the chief rival of Henry, another collector of coins. During William and Mary-Anne’s marriage they had nine children though three died in infancy.  J. S. Udal was the fourth child. He was educated at Bromsgrove School, where he became an accomplished cricketer amongst other things.  Later he began legal training at Queen's College, Oxford, to become a barrister.

The Lethaby Window, St. John the Baptist, Symondsbury

The Lethaby Window

One day in 1884, William Lethaby was attending a ceremony in the parish church of St. John the Baptist, Symondsbury : namely the marriage of his friend Edward Schroeder Prior to the daughter of the vicar.  This was probably the point of origin for an important commission, since it was in that year that J. S. Udal asked Lethaby and Prior to design a memorial window dedicated to his parents William and Mary-Ann Udal for the church.

He married Eva Mary Adelina Routh (born 1858), by whom he had two sons; Arthur Uvedale Udal and Robin Nicholas Udal and three daughters; Evelyn Routh Udal, Eva Beatrice Udal and Ida Vita Isabel Udal. John Symonds Udal left somewhat of a cricketing dynasty. His son Robin Udal played first-class cricket for Oxford University and the Marylebone Cricket Club, his grandson Geoffrey Udal played for Middlesex and Leicestershire, whilst his great-great-grandson Shaun Udal has played Test cricket for England.

During his legal career, J.S. Udal’s, many interests included his love of antiquities, especially in the field of folklore. He began to collect and record Dorset folk stories, customs and traditions.  Whilst pursuing his study he wrote many articles on the subject.  In the 1870’s he suggested to the editor of the Dorset County Chronicle, that there should be a folklore column in that newspaper.  Amongst its main contributors was the elderly poet and dialectologist, Rev. William Barnes.  This collaboration sparked a friendship between the two folklore enthusiasts and it was in a copy of William Barnes' 'Grammar and Glossary of the Dorset Dialect', published in 1863, that Udal would jot down notes to enter any new dialect words he came across, until it became too small for the interleaved pages to hold them. Barnes would occasionally visit Udal at his Manor House in Symondsbury and in turn Udal would

Rev. William Barnes
Rev. William Barnes

visit Barnes at his home at Winterborne Came. Lucy Baxter,  when writing the life of her father William Barnes (1801-1886), says 'Another visitor was J. S. Udal, Esq., a barrister who used to find time for a visit to the Rectory as often as his duties on circuit brought him near Came. Mr. Udal was of some assistance to the Dorset poet in sending him new words for the Glossary, which was always enlarging itself under his hand, and he returned the service by collecting legends and superstitions for Mr. Udal’s contemplated work on the Folk-lore of Dorsetshire, for which, nearly ten years later, Barnes, at his request, wrote an introduction.'

Unfortunately the Folklore column in the Dorset County Chronicle was short lived, however this did not stop him writing. Instead he published his collection of  poems, entitled ‘Marriage and Other Poems’ in 1876 and submitted serious papers on folklore and local antiquities to the Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, were he later became vice president. Also he wrote numerous articles for Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries and in the Dorset Year Book. Shortly after the founding of the Folklore Society in 1878, Udal was the first folklorist to express more than a passing interest in folk plays.  While at Symondsbury he noted down a rendition of the Mummers Play gleaned from an old Dorsetshire woman. This transcript of the play was later submitted in as paper “Christmas Mummers in Dorsetshire” to the Folk-Lore Record, (Vol.III Pt. I, 1880, pp.87-116) and later reprinted in his book and now forms the basis of all Mummers Plays performed by the villagers of Symondsbury today. This tradition would most likely have been lost if reliant only on oral tradition. He later became member of the Council of the Folklore Society 1889 and in 1901 he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

John Symonds Udal’s Home - Symonsbury Manor

John Symonds Udal’s Home

Symonsbury Manor was built, or more likely rebuilt, in a half H structure in the early 17th century, with additions later in the 17th century and the 18th century. Thomas Hardy, the famous novelist and poet, would often visit John Symonds Udal at his Manor House, both of them having a mutual interest in folklore.

His research on the folklore of Dorset turned his thoughts to writing a book on the subject.  However the completion of the task was interrupted due to the First World War and his long Government Legal Appointments overseas.  First accepting the position of Attorney-General and Admiralty Advocate of Fiji in the 1890s, where he captained a Fiji cricket team in New Zealand and did much to encourage the game as he did when he was in the Caribbean.  He left Fiji in 1899 but soon afterwards, in 1900, was appointed Chief Justice of the Leeward Islands, a post that he held until 1911. During his office, he still continued with his interest of antiquities and folklore, where, whilst on duty in Nevis he stumbled upon the 'Pinney Plantation'. He soon realised the connection between Nevis and Bettiscombe after he was shown a memorial on the island to John Pinney, son of Azariah Pinney, formerly of Bettiscombe. This appeared to give Udal a satisfactory answer to the question of the origin of the Bettiscombe Skull, the assumption being that the skull was that of a black slave of the Pinney’s brought back to Bettiscombe. He later discovered an old “Plantation Book”, an inventory of slaves belonging to the Pinney estate, containing a list of slaves given the names 'Weymouth', 'Bridport' and 'Bettiscombe'.  He suggested that if the skull belonged to that of a slave, it probably belonged to the faithful servant 'Bettiscombe', who died at or before the time of transfer of the Nevis estates, and whose master had then brought him to England. This skull, “memento of his faithful follower” was brought to the very place from which his trusty servant had been given his name. (This idea was later disproved long after Udal’s death). This research on the ‘Bettiscombe Skull Legend’ featured in a lengthy paper, which was submitted in parts by Udal to the 'Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries'.

Not long after returning home from overseas, Udal retired and spent the most part of his life in London, where he again could indulge his enthusiasm for antiquities, especially his interest in folklore, and at last he continued with the completion of his book. The final preparation made slow progress until publication in 1922 when it was finally brought out under the title of Dorsetshire Folklore.  

In the Preface of his book Udal says:-

1st Edition of J.S. Udal's 'Dorsetshire Folklore' 1922“It is not often, I should think, that an author carries about with him an introduction to a book now only just seeing the light written nearly forty years ago, and of which the writer was born more than 120 years ago! Yet, so it is. Not many months before he died in the autumn of 1886, William Barnes - usually known as the " Dorset Poet " - had at my request written an introduction - or " Fore-say ", as he would have preferred to call it, for he scorned a Latin derivative - to a contemplated work of mine on Dorsetshire Folk-lore, for which I had collected a large quantity of material. This was a subject upon which he had never before written specifically (except in a few isolated instances in William Hone's works) but in which he had always greatly interested himself, as may be seen from his delightful dialect poems. This material of mine represented the gleanings of many years of inquiry and research, both in the county and elsewhere. To this " Fore-say ", as I now call it, - it was an old term of his own, - (leaving to his great successor, Mr. Thomas Hardy, the use of the word " Foreword ", which he has for all time made peculiarly his own) I attach the highest value, as being, in my opinion, by far the most important part of my book. When one considers the circumstances in which it was composed - on what was practically his death-bed by a man of great age and of feeble health, but of undimmed intellect written upon any odd scrap of paper that came to hand without knowledge of what material I had collected, though brimful of its elements it is simply wonderful. As such I leave it, untouched by my hands and revered by me as his last and dying word of literary work.

A year or two after his death, and before I was able to complete my task, I left England to take up a Government legal appointment in the Colonies, from which I have not long retired. In the interim my work on folk-lore came practically to a standstill; though I may say that the delay brought some compensation as I was thereby enabled to add considerably to my collection of material, and had also the opportunity of contributing a good deal of it to the publications of our Dorset Field Club and the Folk-Lore Society.

On my retirement I commenced to put it all in order for publication. But shortly afterwards the Great War broke out, and again everything was delayed owing to the scarcity of labour and to the restrictions placed upon the use of paper. From these causes I found considerable difficulty in obtaining any publisher willing to undertake the publication of a book of this kind on his own responsibility. So in 1920 I made an effort to bring out the volume by way of subscription, and for this purpose issued a prospectus which was rendered abortive—at least temporarily - by the rapid rise in everything connected with the printing trade - more than 100 per cent over pre-war prices. At length, owing to the somewhat reduced figures of the last twelve months I have at last been enabled to bring it out—to a reduced number of subscribers, it is true, but nevertheless at the original subscription price.

And it was quite time I did so, for I found that in my long years of waiting several writers had helped themselves to much of the contents of my articles in the before-mentioned publications without the courtesy of the slightest 'acknowledgment of their indebtedness! Indeed, I am not at all sure that when this volume is issued I shall not be accused of plagiarizing from my own work! In works of a serious nature, such as anthropology and folk-lore, our best writers are always most particular to give chapter and verse for every statement made which is not their own. In my present volume this principle is fully carried out. I have given - principally in the text—the authority (there are more than a hundred separate ones) for every custom or superstition mentioned, every game described, every statement made. Where this is not attached my readers may rest assured that the statement is based upon my own personal inquiry and research or of those friends who have helped me in my collection. But it is finished now. As I wrote in the Folk-Lore Journal in a long paper on Dorsetshire Children's Games in 1889 (which, with additions, forms the subject of my last chapter here)'when speaking of the increasing difficulty one met with in obtaining exact information as to the games of our country children, and how they played : " If this is to be done, it must be done quickly; it is more than probable that their children will have none to tell."

No, such work cannot be done now. Our Board Schools have seen to that! Only very recently indeed have there been a few studied revivals in such matters. But the survivals - the genuine thing - no longer exist !

I claim no originality for my work. It is but a mere collection, a sheaf of gleanings, of what is left from old-time sources, with little or no attempt at any representation of comparative folklore. That will come from the folklorists of the future.  My task today is to provide them with the materials for their studies - from a Dorset source and from a Dorset source alone.

It only remains for me to express my most grateful thanks to so many friends (whom it would be invidious to mention) who have so kindly helped me in my work - some for nearly half a century - and to the governing bodies of the Dorset Field Club, the Folk-Lore Society, Notes and Queries and the Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries for their courteous permission to reproduce what I required from my various papers and articles in their publications.

For myself I am content. The fruits of my more than forty years' labour of love for our dear old county have at length been garnered in and put beyond all risk of loss. For this I am deeply indebted to the confidence and patience of my subscribers.”

The following is a review by W. Cooke, Folklore, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Sep. 30, 1922).

"Dorsetshire Folk-Lore. By J. S. Udal : issued by subscription. Hertford: Stephen Austin & Sons. 1922.

Most of the materials of this book were collected forty years ago, and the Introduction, the last work of the Dorset poet, William Barnes, was written soon before his death, which occurred in 1886. Judge Udal explains that a year or two after that date he left England to take up a Government legal appointment, and that this and the outbreak of the Great War made it necessary to postpone the publication.

This is in many ways an advantage, because much of the material was collected before the days of School Boards, which have exercised a destructive effect on local tradition. We have here one of the best collections of the kind, worthy in many ways to rank with Miss Burne's edition of Aliss Jackson's Shropshire Folk-Lore and Henderson's Notes on the Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders. As in all books of the kind, the county is not a water-tight compartment, and much which the writer records is found in other parts of the country. In this respect the notes indicating parallels are useful, and might have been with advantage extended. Besides William Barnes, Dorsetshire possesses a great writer, Mr. Thomas Hardy, who has freely used popular beliefs and traditions in his novels.

To readers of these the book will be very welcome. Judge Udal introduces us to a state of society rapidly disappearing, when he tells us of the rites of the Abbotsbury fishermen and the rules of the quarrymen of Purbeck. He gives an interesting account, based on personal enquiries, of the famous Bettiscombe Skull,- which since it was first described has somehow acquired the reputation of " screaming," an interesting example of a modern development of a legend. Among the many points of interest it is possible to refer only to a few : the valuable account of the customs connected with Sheep-shearing ; Harvest Home and Crying the Knack ; Mumming and Mumming Plays ; Marrying the Land at Portland ; the Bezant at Shaftesbury ; the Giant Figure at Cerne Abbas ; the place in the same village where a man drowned himself and the grass will not grow on the spot marked by his feet ; the Spectral Coach at Kingston Russell House, near Bridport, and at Wool ; the Black Dog of Lyme Regis ; Skimmington or Skimmity Riding. Other chapters on Witchcraft and Charms, Superstitions relating to Natural History ; Weather-Lore, Ballads and Songs, Children's Games and Rhymes, contain much curious information. Our only regret is that as the book is published in a limited edition, it may not be generally available for the use of folk-lore students.

W. Crooke."

John Symonds Udal's Grave, St. John the Baptist Churchyard, Symondsbury
John Symonds Udal Grave, Symondsbury

Some sixty years after conception, this significant record of the folklore of the county finally reached the shelves of the predominantly private libraries of his subscribers, including one, Lords Cricket Ground, a most suitable subscriber in view of Udal's cricketing expertise.

He died suddenly at his London home in St John's Wood, on March 13th 1925, aged 76. His ashes where brought back to his beloved home of Symondsbury and interred in St. John the Baptist churchyard adjacent to his Manor House where much of the original preparation of his book had taken place.

SYMONDSBURY
Between two hills of lofty prominence,
A humble village slumbered as it lay;
Nor oft disturbed by curious visitors,
To see its beauties, or to give it praise,
Secure, and free from noise, in peaceful quiet,
It thus had passed through ages unobserved,
The parish church, —  within its hallowed ground
Strewn o’er with mounds to mark the sacred
     dead, —
A cross in shape — upreared a massive tower
Towards the sky's deep vault of azure hue.
Sweet chimes the mossy belfry carolled forth,
To meet the freshness of the wanton air,


While o’er it all there dwelt an innocence,
A gentle calmness of a better world,
That falls on no palatial residence.
‘Twere best to view the scene from Colmer's
     hill : —
One side—the sparkling sea, its rolling waves,
Seething in endless motion on the strand,
Inspires the soul with heartfelt thankfulness .
For God’s great works, by nature's laws ordained.
And far below, the neighbouring town appears,
Decked out in picturesque attractiveness.
The other — distant hills the scene reveals,
Of Pilsdon with its furze and table top;

Poetic Lewesdon, too, whose threatening brow
O’erhangs the village Stoke spread out beneath;
While sunny cornfields, pastures, meadows, all,
Seemed to have found the very place to thrive.
The birds in joyous freedom pass the hours,
Unharmed by man — protected by their God.
So might the golden age have been indeed,

The village of Symondsbury

Which Virgil told in rapturous flowing verse;
When all was love, and friendship’s soothing
     power
Had shed eternal peace on all below.
At Colme’s foot the village rectory lies,
Encompassed by the shade of waving trees,
A calm retreat from weary toil; and from
The garden walls, in rich profusion hang,
Thick clusters of the luscious mellow peach,
And ruddy nectarine, with apricot.
The other side the garden’s mossy wall,
There stood an ancient farmhouse, prominent,
Where round the mullioned window’ embrasures
The honeysuckle clasped its pliant arms;
Where on the kitchen floor, overlaid with stone,
Before the cheerful woodfire's glowing heat,
The slow-revolving spit its task performed.
But now, by ruthless time and modern art,
Another structure rises in its place,
And of the old, nought but the walls remain,

Before the porch, a sparkling fountain plays,
Casting its streams of many coloured hues,
To greet in harmony the sun’s bright rays.
Elsewhere, indeed, the scene remains unchanged,
The undulating mead — the shady copse -—
Where both the pheasant and the rabbit lurk,
The fluttering partridge, and the nervous hare.
There from the top of Rybury's verdant slope,
We feel the influence of the sea-born breeze,
That floating o'er the open downs of Eype,
 Infuses strength, and renovates the frame,
Yet must we linger not too long a time
On one sweet place, while many us invite,
But parsing on to other scenes as fairy
Leave Symondsbury to slumber on again.

J.S. Udal - Marriage and Other Poems (1876)

Sources:

Wikipedia - John Symonds Udal

Symonds Family History website

My Heritage - Udal Family History website

Symondsbury Manour House

Symondsbury Parish Council Website

Dorset Folklore by John Symonds Udal - A facsimile limited edition, published 1989 by Dorset Books with indroduction by R. N. R. Peers (Curator of Dorset County Museum)


Copyright - Mark North 01/11/2009