Outstanding Natural Beauty - Vol 1
by Rob Williams and Friends

Jane's Story

Jane Gulliver (Gulliford) was born Jane Lovell, in 1862, in Lydeard St Lawrence in Somerset. She was the eldest daughter of George and Elizabeth Lovell. George was born in 1832 in the nearby village of Ash Priors, and at the time of his marriage was an agricultural labourer. Jane's mother, Elizabeth, like her daughter, was born in Lydeard St. Lawrence, and was 20 when Jane was born. Elizabeth went on to have 4 more daughters and 2 sons. The family seem to have moved around, but always within a tight circle of Somerset villages only 2 or 3 miles apart.

Jane was born the year the West Somerset Railway was opened, and this had a huge impact on the local community, including improved job prospects. Once the navvies who built the railway had moved on there was a continuing need for maintenance workers, often local people. By 1881 George had become a railway packer, part of a team of labourers who maintained the tracks. By then the family were in Combe Florey and Jane, now 19, was working as a general domestic, possibly at one of the big houses in the village. Unlike her younger sisters, Jane appears not to have gone away into service in her early teens, maybe because she was needed at home to help care for the family.

At some time in the next decade Jane moved into Taunton, but in 1891 she moved back to Combe Florey to marry Frederick Gulliver, who, like his and her own father, was a railway packer. They had three children.

Apart from her brief foray into the "Big Town" of nearby Taunton, Jane lived an unremarkable life circumscribed by geography, class and gender, barely moving from a few square miles of Somerset. Like legions of others she would have passed into obscurity were it not for the upsurge of interest in folk music which led to her coming to the attention first, in 1905, of the Hammond brothers (Henry and Robert) and then, in 1908, of Cecil Sharp. (Sharp refers to her as Jane Gulliford, which was a local variant of the name). Jane had a huge repertoire, learned primarily from her mother and grandmother, and "other old people" although she deliberately learned one song from someone she met in Taunton, suggesting a positive interest in collecting and passing on folk song. Henry Hammond described her in a letter to Lucy Broadwood as a "wonderful woman", and she clearly collaborated enthusiastically with the folk-song project, passing on over 40 songs to the Hammond brothers, and 20 to Cecil Sharp, only some of which overlapped.

Jane's repertoire bears a family resemblance to that of other singers in the area. It is worth noting that Hammond describes, in the same letter, some of her songs as "abominations". He refers specifically to one, "Won't you tell me why, Robin?", which is a sentimental parlour love song, from America. The collectors valued traditional songs and music, and seem to have regarded the singers as simply channels for them. So we know almost nothing about what other types of song Jane had in her repertoire, and what relationship she saw between the various genres, or how she valued them. Similarly, we do not know to what extent Jane modified or extended the repertoire passed on to her by her mother and grandmother; how much, that is, she selected songs because they meant something specific to her, much as any modern-day folk singer would.

We have, therefore, only Jane's extant repertoire of folk songs from which to reconstruct some idea of what singing meant to Jane. Although the menfolk in her family were deeply involved in the railway, we know of no railway songs in Jane's repertoire - but it is highly likely that they would have been of no interest to the Hammonds anyway. Similarly, although being "in service" was a major feature of the lives of young women in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and figured largely in the lives of Jane and her sisters, Jane's songs hardly reflect it. Interestingly, Jane's repertoire also does not reflect the agricultural pursuits or the round of the seasons, which must have been of huge significance in her life, and of which there is of course a large folk corpus.

Instead, Jane's songs allowed her to move outside the constraints of her actual life. A large proportion of her songs are about the sea, and many feature women in heroic and feisty roles, setting off in rowing boats to find lost lovers, or dressing up as seamen (or soldiers) to go adventuring. "The Lady and the Box" is one of the few which mentions being in service (and, incidentally, London, of which Jane can have had only the haziest concept), but its main theme is the independence and courage of its heroine, leading to an improbable Hollywood style happy ending. Indeed, many of her songs have stories which these days would be told in romcoms, of lovers separated and reunited, of faithfulness rewarded and bravery recognised. These songs allowed Jane to enter imaginative worlds which took her outside the hard reality of keeping alive in rural England in the late nineteenth century.

There was one reality, however, which Jane does not evade. Like other singers, male and female, Jane sings of amorous, sexual encounters. 13 of the songs she sang for Hammond are about seduction, and of these 5 end in a pregnancy which is explicitly ruinous for the girl and/or the child. From 1834, a "reform" of the Poor Law had meant that mothers alone were responsible for maintaining their illegitimate offspring (the father had no legal responsibility), and were also ineligible for state relief. This Act led to the deaths of many babies, and the destitution of many women, whether they were the victims of seduction or rape. Whatever these songs had meant to, say, Jane's grandmother, by Jane's time they referred to a terrifying reality, which Jane does not ignore.

Jane died only 2 years after Sharp collected from her, aged about 47. The early collectors did us a great service in seeking out and recording a wonderful body of folk song. They, inadvertently, also bequeathed to history traces of the lives of ordinary men and women who would otherwise, like their peers, have disappeared without trace. However, we need to acknowledge that Jane and her like are themselves bearers and shapers of the tradition; if without the songs we would not know of Jane, assuredly, without Jane and her faithfulness to her heritage, we would not have the songs.

Angela Shaw
December 2011

Web Site by Rob Williams 2011
Last modified: Mon Jan 30 00:51:41 GMT 2012