Beyond Notability: Alice Gomme

Beyond Notability (BN) is an academic project. Click here to find out more about it.

I have been commissioned to devise & tell four stories about women from the BN database– including their contradictions and complexities. I was expected to undertake some of my own research as well as getting help from the BN team. it’s been fascinating, fun and difficult.

Read about the other stories: Edith Blake / Jessie Mothersole and Elizabeth Hodgson / Charlotte Stopes.

Okay what’s the story?

Alice Gomme was a folklorist with a special interest in childrens games and folk cookery. A quick glance at her wikipaedia page will tell you that, while a lot of her writing on folklore survives, her life was not, apparently, dramatic! She was simply the wife of a folklorist who took a keen- though amateur- interest in her own right. Her enormous book Traditional Games of England Scotland and Ireland is still considered seminal. She excelled in organisation, playing a key role in many events including the International Folklore Congress Conversazione in 1891.

We had a brilliant meeting with Dr Paul Cowdell of the Folklore Society. He provided a lot of articles and extra material by Mrs Gomme which we had not seen before and some essential background on the folklore of childhood. However our disscussion STILL didn’t lead to any more story ideas, Alice Gomme’s life, it seemed, was just not very exciting.

Perhaps I could simply present a simple biographical timeline using a series of six or seven songs? This would be a fun “high concept” for a story, but it was also a bit of a cop-out!

The only thing which surprised me about Alice Gomme was how MUCH work (research, writing and organising) she did. I assumed she must have been a lady of leisure with nothing else to do? When I saw that she had seven sons*, all quite close in age, I had to rub my eyes and look twice. SEVEN sons? It’s the kind of thing which is easy to read about but difficult to do! The Gommes were comfortably middle-class but did not have an army of servants to help.

Aside from the toll that seven births would have taken on her body, it would have been a lot of ongoing work, even with a nursemaid. At a time before supermarkets, washing machines or vacuum cleaners, a time without baby-gros, disposable nappies and bottle sterilisers… looking after young children and managing a large household was, perhaps, even more work than it is now.

Alice Gomme took her domestic role seriously. (A telling detail- In her article Women at the Polls, about local elections, she writes “the aid of a womans administrator is much needed. It is necessary she should bring to the public good some of those economic practices which she learns in her own household, for men are not economical in small things.”)

I started to wonder how on earth she managed to fit it all in. At the time when she was busy creating the Folklore Conversazione, organising local children to displays of traditional games and also replying to literally hundreds of handwritten letters for her seminal book, she was also managing a household and caring for six children …while pregnant with a seventh.

At this point, Dr Amara Thornton and I had a long phone conversation where, between us, we tried to picture what a day in Alice Gomme’s life might have looked (and felt) like. This was really the lightbulb moment for me! We based our imaginings on a charming real incident which is recorded in her book. Although the tale is conjecture, I have tried to make it as historically accurate as possible. Also, I thought it was important that the story included at least one childrens song! We will sing along together when I tell the story on 8th March at this event.

Read about the other stories: Edith Blake / Jessie Mothersole and Elizabeth Hodgson / Charlotte Stopes.

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  • two were later killed in WW1

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