Traditions of Lancashire
John Roby is in many ways a typical early nineteenth century local folklore collector.
He’s cropped up on the podcast a few times, starting with the Spectre Horseman. He’s commonly referenced because the stories he told of Lancashire are some of the most well known and oft repeated from the county today.
Also almost every time I mention him on the podcast I have also thrown in some barb about how embellished his stories are.
This is perhaps somewhat unfair to the man, given his rich life and I hope to make some amends with this post (while also describing where he definitely embellished!)
Podcast episodes featuring Roby
A storytelling and folklore podcast.
Telling some of the famous and not so famous British and Irish myths, legends and folktales, in no particular order.
Coming direct from South Yorkshire it is currently regularish, and will feature all of the above and whatever other miscellaneous snippets take my fancy.
Presented by Graeme. Website at http://www.TalesofBritainandIreland.com
Born in 1793 to a middle class family in Wigan he appears to have been a very versatile man of many skills and talents, at least according to the Biography written by his second wife, Elizabeth Roby.
(Though I recognise such a source is the very exemplar on some pre-GCSE worksheet about bias there are no good reasons to doubt the general description).
His job was as a banker but this position appears to have allowed him quite a bit of free time to develop a number of other hobbies in a large range of fields.
He played the organ as a child, and was renowned for his whistling, he wrote poetry and stories, was a prolific illustrator and had a very keen interest in both architecture and botany. In this latter he even gave a short lecture series. A busy man indeed.
He remained local to Lancashire, living in Rochdale, and he’s on this website because an interest in his local Lancashire dialect and folklore were chief amongst his passions.
He was not as prolific as many other folklorists I mention on the podcast – producing just one work in two volumes. But his influence on folklore general, and Lancashire folklore in particular, was huge.
The Traditions of Lancashire
Across Europe the 1810s and 20s were the key decades in establishing the practice of collecting and publishing folklore and folktales (though folklore was not named so at this time).
This stemmed in no small part from the Romanticism movement, with its interest in folk knowledge and medieval tales which created a demand for such tales amongst the upper classes.
While there had certainly been earlier collectors (see for instance Walter Scott and Thomas Percy) big names in the new field were now at work. For example the Brothers Grimm in Germany first published in 1812, and the Irish Crofton Croker published his most important work in 1825.
Though a little after this Roby’s publications of The Traditions of Lancashire in 1829 still makes it one of the earlier collections of folk tales, before the proliferation of collections covering almost every nook and cranny of Europe by the end of the nineteenth century.
Roby apparently spent six years researching the stories, and at this stage he was clearly already somewhat well connected because he received help from “the representatives of the noble houses, whose early history he elucidated; particularly from the Earl and late Countess of Crawford and Balcarres, and also from the late Earl of Derby (1853)”.
He himself claimed that he collected his stories from the oral tradition of Lancashire with which he was familiar, having lived there all his life, without revealing any sources in particular.
He focused on making it a good quality book, in terms of its production values as well as the quality of the tales – including expensive illustrations that put it in the upper price bracket. “A book for a gentleman’s library [rather[ than for general circulation” as his wife writes.
The tactic was clearly successful, winning him a great many admirers amongst well known literary figures and reviewers alike and a second volume followed in 1831. Both would go on to be reprinted many times throughout the nineteenth century, and the work continues to be so up this very day.
The stories and their style
There are twenty stories in all with a slight leaning towards stories of ghosts and their ilk, though they also feature Witches and Wizards, Knights and Giants, and one or two are more simply about murderous medieval plots and betrayed love, without any supernatural element.
Most of the stories are tied very closely to a real Lancashire place. Existent or previously demolished Castles and Manor houses are front and central.
Noble ‘families’, many real, some imagined, appear very often, with Roby’s characters being drawn from these historic figures.
To give an illustration of how these factors work consider that at time of writing three Roby stories feature on the podcast – the Spectre Horseman, which focuses on Rivington Hall and the Pilkington Family, the Skull House, based around Wardley Hall and the Downes family and Sir Tarquin, based around the Roman fort of Mamucium.
Roby’s narrative voice is changeable between the stories but often, in a manner not entirely dissimilar to myself on the podcast, he spends considerable time discussing the story rather than telling it, particularly when introducing each tale with a short expert discussion section of his own.
When it comes to the stories themselves Roby’s style is, for wont of a better phrase, very literary, he is very wordy and descriptive, adjective stuffed at times, and featuring a great deal of first person dialogue between many named and to some extent fleshed out characters. This makes each and every story of a fair length – typically many thousands of words.
Here’s some typically rich language from a Roby story:
“The traveller hastened on. The pinnacles and stately turrets of the priory were just visible through the arched boughs, when, turning into a more sequestered path, he observed a female of a wild and uncouth aspect standing in the way. She showed no disposition to move as he approached, nor did she seem to notice his presence..”
This style is atypical for how most folk legends are recorded. Indeed a Roby story is closer to the length of one of the podcast episodes than it is to most folk tales.
The more usual style of collected stories: light on dialogue, lacking long descriptive pieces, is not so much a choice but a consequence of how the stories are told in an oral tradition and so have to be presented if they are to be accurate records of the tradition, without many extemporaneous details and/or with side details that change often between tellings and tellers.
Roby is very transparent about his intentions describing his method of story writing he employed as taking the original tales and aiming to present them:
“Divested of the dust and dross in which the originals are all too often disfigured, so as to appear worthless and uninviting.”
It should be said that this was an approach that was clearly favoured by critics of the time. In fact an oft repeated praise of the book Sir Francis Palgrave actually draws specific attention to this:-
“As compositions, the extreme beauty of your style, and the skill which you have shown in working up the rude materials, must entitle them to the highest rank in the class of work to which they belong”
Which while flattering to Roby is pretty blatant about the general low regard he and Roby alike held for folktales circulating in the oral tradition: essentially that they were far too dull and basic, and needed an educated man to make them really good.
Somewhat hilariously a 1911 version of the book has an introduction to Roby’s own stories that does not mince words about the displeasure with his style, and seems to very much take the opposite approach: “He uses too many words, and his words are frequently too long.”
In their version of his tales the authors substantially alter them to make them much simpler, in an almost complete reversal of Roby’s approach.
Now Roby is far from alone in recording largely orally transmitted folk legends in a detailed prose style (see William Bottrell for another example). However he is a particularly notable example of someone who has added considerable details to the tales he wrote down.
This sort of embellishment happens with almost all telling and writing of folk tales and is not meant as a slight upon him.
For these stories remain excellent, engaging pieces of work which have endured and gone on to inspire many others.
But for those who care about such things it does call into some question how much of the stories existed prior to Roby’s retellings, and how much he simply made up. It’s clear that in most cases characters were clearly invented just for the story. This in itself isn’t necessarily a problem if the basic form of the story remains unaltered.
However as Kathryn Briggs, former President of the Folklore Society and all around folklore doyenne writes: “The narratives have been so much adorned that it is almost impossible to find out what really happened in them”.
While keen to pass on the stories of Lancashire Roby very clearly had no interest in identifying any original story he might have collected. Though some of them are very clearly identifiable from earlier sources (both Sir Tarquin and the Wardley Hall Skull have earlier sources for instance), most of the stories do not.
Now there is a reasonable question to be asked of how much any of this actually matters, if the stories are good. It’s a very fair point. But it’s certainly the case that to a great many folklorists interested in those original tales his work is less useful than it might otherwise have been.
As William Axon puts it:
“Traditions of Lancashire” first appeared in 1829, [Roby] was a diligent collector of local legends, but his object was purely literary, and accordingly his book must be used cautiously, though it certainly contains important data”
or as Richard Dorson even more disapprovingly has it:
“Roby uncovered these traditions and then buried them in cumbersome fictions.”
But folklorists frustrations at being able to use the tales to find their sources does not in itself detracted from their value as stories.
Legacy and fakelore
As the quote above suggests Roby’s stories were well received at the time.
Since then because they were written early, highly praised and widely circulated Roby’s stories have in large part gone on to become the source texts of many folk legends of Lancashire told since.
They have in that time been much reimagined, just as Roby reimagined them, and they have even made their way back into local legend.
The Spectre Horseman story is now told about Rivington Pike quite separately from any direct reference from Roby and his more extended narrative.
It’s notable that sometimes in these retellings the horseman is headless, a blending with a very common trope, whereas in Roby’s version the horrible kiss makes it very apparent he is not.
So influential was Roby that it’s almost impossible to read any collection of Lancashire or Manchester legends without encountering at least one retold Roby story, and usually many more.
This is an example of a process that happens fairly often – Fakelore becoming folklore.
“Fakelore” is defined on Wikipedia as “Manufactured folklore presented as if it were genuinely traditional” a definition that some of Roby’s stories could be said to fit into.
Folkloric stories are often understood to be generally transmitted orally and devoid of any particular author, and therefore you’d think Roby’s embellished stories wouldn’t seem to fit that definition well. We know who wrote them. And he wrote them.
However what constitutes folklore is understood and defined mostly by its mode of transmission and by how the people understand the stories they are telling. And one definition of folklore is: “traditional customs, tales, sayings, dances, or art forms preserved among a people”.
So as Roby’s stories become altered and detached from him and instead preserved by the people of the community (including journalists and local authors!) they become actual folklore. A metamorphosis that has happened over the nearly 200 years since the publication of his work to be in my eyes at least, pretty much complete to this day.
(For completeness note that this only applies to some of his stories, not so much the ones that were already well known, before he put pen to paper.)
I find it very interesting to witness the inception of folklore in this way. It’s very interesting to see one way in which it can develop – from widely repeated stories to written down versions and then back to widely repeated stories again.
Roby’s later life
Roby had nine children with his wife, Ann, with three dying in infancy. She herself passed away in 1845. It was around this time that Roby was planning a much more extensive study of English traditions, starting with Yorkshire. But this never actually came to fruition.
He had plenty else to occupy his time, giving those lectures on his many subjects of interest and presumably doing his job at least occasionally.
He even got married again in 1849. However his life was cut short when he died in a shipwreck in 1850. His new wife, Elizabeth, was with him and in her biography of him she writes about the event, of losing him as they were abandoning ship:
“Only the conviction that the will of God was done can prevent the mind from agonizing longings for that night to come over again, were it a thousand times, for the merest chance of trying to save him.”
And that was that for him, but his stories live on still.
And because I have on occasion been sniffy myself about Roby on the podcast I’ll finish with this quote from a friend of his that has but praise for the man.
Is it true of his character? That I don’t know, but neither do I know to the contrary, so let us assume that it is:
“Few persons I should imagine could have been in Mr. Roby’s society without feeling a peculiar charm, a gladdening influence, which made life appear bright and genial.
Intercourse with him, invariably gave me a sense of power: this made me from the first recognise him as a man of genius.
A magician in the regions of the ideal himself, he seemed to inspire his listener with the same mastery over its elements.
Whatever might be the topic under notice, it stood out with new beauty as he handled it. His conversation, enriched from a thousand sources, sparkled like the many facets of the well-cut diamond.”
Episode pages featuring Roby
- The Legendary and Poetical Remains of John Roby
- Lancashire legends (aggressively edited 1911 version of his works)
- Echoes of Old Lancashire – William Axon
- The British Folklorists; a history, Richard Dorson
- The Necessity of scepticism – Katharine Briggs
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