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An astonishing Mumming revelation.

The World Wide Web has many critics and a great deal of that negativism is certainly well founded. Nevertheless, as one who has advocated for more than three decades the tenet that the history of a custom is the history of the people who maintained it, I believe that the World Wide Web has the potential to become the greatest research tool ever devised. I spent many years searching for biographical details of men who had participated in sets of mummers and morris dancers during the nineteenth century. Until a decade ago, the census returns, taken nationally every ten years since 1841, were available only on microfiche and were limited to individual localities. No name index had been created and it was necessary to search the image of each page in the hope of finding the required individual. If that man was absent from his anticipated location during a particular census, a checking of adjacent parishes, or those that logic and reason suggested might be the correct one, became necessary. At times this approach was successful, but more often it was not. Whether or no, it was usually a labour-intensive and time-consuming process.

As an example, for a good many years I wondered what had become of the Adderbury, Oxfordshire, morris dancer, John Dorsett. Born in 1825 and remaining in his home village up to and including the date of the 1871 census, he was enumerated in successive decades from 1841 onwards as 'male servant', 'innkeeper', 'agricultural labourer', and 'coachman'. Following the sale of a house, recorded in a land deed dated 1873, he apparently vanishes from all accessible local sources. He was nowhere to be found in the surrounding area during the subsequent three censuses, nor was any evidence of his death discovered. Now, however, the posting on the World Wide Web of the census returns, in both original form and as transcriptions, has provided a means to locate precisely an individual in a manner that had hitherto been impossible.

When the 1881 census was first posted in its entirety on the website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I discovered that John Dorsett was then living in Moss Side, Manchester, earning a living as a picture-framer (1) To assume that I would never have dreamt of looking for him in that city is an understatement. And even if there had been any reason to suppose that he might be there, where would one start looking in a city of millions of inhabitants? Following the 100-year moratorium on the availability of any census, that taken in 1901 has been posted on the World Wide Web by the government and is once again fully searchable (2) Dorsett was, I discovered, still very much alive at that date, still living in Manchester, and now socially elevated to 'fine art dealer'. The website has gradually added transcriptions of complete national censuses, and when that of 1891 became available Dorsett's set of entries was complete. (3) Still in Manchester, he was enumerated in that year as 'picture dealer'.

The technique outlined above is predicated on knowing the name of the person you are seeking. I was, however, astonished at the ease with which a major anonymous informant could be identified. The text of the mummers' play from Islip, Oxfordshire, a community on the western fringe of Otmoor, apparently deriving from a manuscript dated 1780, was mailed anonymously from Chichester, Sussex, to E. H. Binney in Oxford in1902.Binney's informant expected to remain anonymous in perpetuity and could never in his wildest imagination have anticipated the digital revolution of a century later. A transcription of the play text is on the World Wide Web suffixed with the following notes (some evident typos corrected): (4)
  The text is an exact reproduction of Ms. Top. Oxon. d. 199, ff.
  [301.sup.r] - [306.sup.r].

The original ms. was sent to Mr. E. H. Binney by an anonymous person who mailed it from Chichester, March 4, 1902. Binney's copy of his letter follows:
  Mr. Binney
  Sir, someone sent me the Oxford Journal this week tis not often I get
  it, I saw your article on the mummers was pleased with it, (fifty
  years ago I used to belong to a gang of mummers at Islip) and thought
  praps the enclosed might interest you. Copy made this afternoon the
  4th March 1902.

Following the letter, Binney copies from the manuscript:
  This copy, The Mummers Play, taken from an old M.S. dated 1780 The
  M.S. was the property of the late Thomas Johnson of Islip Oxon & in
  his hand writing. He was Clerk of the Parish.

Thomas Johnson was baptized on 21 May 1754, at the village church in which he would later officiate as parish clerk at all marriages performed from 5 November 1800 until a fortnight prior to his burial on 3 April 1825. He would, therefore, have been aged twenty-six at the date given for the creation of the manuscript. There is no evidence to suggest that he was himself a member of the performing set, merely that as a literate man he was, for whatever reason, in a position to commit to posterity the text as it was apparently enacted at that time. (5) That a copy then passed into the hands of Binney's correspondent suggests that later incarnations of the set may, as has been recorded for other communities, have used the manuscript as an aide-memoire. That the same correspondent should have retained his copy intact for half a century implies a degree of nostalgic attachment to the memory of personal performance, or at the very least a passive historical or antiquarian interest.

Eleven months before the letter was sent to Binney the national census had been taken. A century later it became possible to access that very same census online. Using the search engine and typing 'Chichester' into the 'Where living' box, and 'Islip' into that for 'Where born', just one name was revealed. This man was Martin Henry Timberlakev Checking the website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which in addition to the 1881 census features freely searchable details of entries from countless baptism and marriage registers across the length and breadth of England, revealed the baptism ofTimberlake at Islip on 23 July 1837. If, as he stated in 1902, he had been a member of'a gang of mummers' in that community 'fifty years ago' (i.e.c.1852), he would then have been only in his mid-teens. By extension, the set to which he belonged is likely to have been a side of youths. When Timberlake was just five years old, the noted antiquarian James Orchard Halliwell had just relocated to Islip and recorded the following information:
  Mummings are common in Islip and the neighbouring parishes. Tie little
  boys black their face all over. On Christmas day they go round saying.
  A Merry Christmas
  And a happy new year
  Your pockets full of Money
  & your cellars full of beer.
  Some of the mummers wear masks, others who cannot get masks black
  their faces, and dress themselves up with hay bands tied round their
  arms and bodies. Alice, our cook, says they act a play, which she says
  contains such indecent expressions that she cannot repeat them.
  (November 15th 1842). (6)

Once identified it took but a few minutes to locate Timberlake in every census year. He was the son of William and Elizabeth Timberlake, with his father's occupation given as 'shoe m[aker]' in 1841, and ten years later (very close to the date of his son's apparent involvement with the mummers) as 'shoemaker (master)'. He was, then, certainly no day-labourer but a member of 'the middling sort', which has social implications for the composition of the mumming set. No occupation was supplied beside Martin's own name in 1851, although his brother Frederick only a year his junior, was given as 'scholar'. It seems likely that Martin would have been assisting his father and learning the shoe trade. If so, he subsequently rejected that calling and in 1860 joined the rural constabulary. (7) At the date of the 1861 census he was stationed at Speen, Berkshire, as a 'police constable'. This choice of career was also relatively short-lived, and in 1871, having married during the intervening decade, he was living in Birdham, Sussex, by which dare his social elevation had progressed even further and he was now a 'grocer'.

A search of the civil registration of marriage data on the freely provided (though still incomplete) FreeBMD website reveals that his wife was nee Rosa Elizabeth Kimbell and that the union was recorded in the Chichester registration district during the third quarter of 1868. (8) She, as revealed by subsequent census entries, had been born not far from her husband, in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire. By 1881 the couple had returned to live in the village of his birth and he was noted as 'retired grocer', which implies a degree of financial independence. Seemingly restless and unwilling to settle anywhere for any length of time, by 1891 he had moved a short distance down the road to Beckley, Oxfordshire, where he was a 'licensed victualler', keeping The Abingdon Arms. Our final sighting of him is in the 1901 census in Chichester (where he died during the final months of 1907 at the age of seventy). A short time later he evidently read a newspaper-report of Binneys lecture on mumming to the Oxford University Antiquarian Society, 'illustrated by lantern-slides of the performers taken at [...] Islip', (9) and took up his pen to write that anonymous letter which originally set me upon this quest. On learning that in 1901 Timberlake was recorded as 'living on own means', a term typically used by enumerators to denote those who were independently wealthy, the reason behind his desire for anonymity came into focus. Whatever nostalgia he may have felt on reading about an old custom in which he had taken part in his youth, it was apparently insufficient to overcome his perception of his elevated social status.


(1.) ( asp?PAGE=census/search_census. asp) [accessed 5 September 2011].

(2.) ( now relocated to ( [accessed 5 September 2011].

(3.) ( [accessed 5 September 2011].

(4.) ( [accessed 5 September 2011]. The manuscript in question is Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms. Top. Oxon. d.199, ff. 301(r)-306(r). See also Michael J. Preston, 'The Oldest British Folk Play, Folklore Forum, 6.3 (1973), 168-74.

(5.) Oxford, Central Library, Family and Local History Department, typed transcripts of parish registers for Islip (originals held in Cowley, Oxfordshire History Centre).

(6.) Oxford, Oxfordshire Archives, [no reference number], Thomas Symonds MS [nine hard-bound volumes in the Davenport collection], IX, ff. 33 - 34, Additional Notes Relating to the History of Islip Collected by James Orchard Halliwell 1842. On cover of each volume: 'This collection [of nine volumes] is from the pen of the Revd. Th. Symonds M.A. Vicar of Ensham Oxfordshire, who died 7th. Jan. 1845'.

(7.) Reading, Berkshire Record Office, Q/APE/1/1/265, Police Examination Book; summarized at ( [accessed 5 September 2011].

(8.) ( [accessed 5 September 2011].

(9.) Oxford Times, 1 March 1902, p. 3. Timberlake had evidently seen the equivalent report in Oxford Journal,
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Author:Chandler, Keith
Publication:Folk Music Journal
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 20, 2011
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