Canning Town Folk 5: Elsie J. Oxenham and the Abbey Girls


Cover of The Girls of the Abbey School, showing two girls folk dancing
Black and white photographic portrait of the head and shoulders of a young girl
Book illustration showing girls folk dancing in the Abbey ruins
Elsie in about 1893

Black and white portrait of Elsie Oxenham, probably in her 30s, with a small boySome of the best records that we have today of how it felt to be part of the early folk dance movement are found in the girls’ stories of Elsie J. Oxenham (1880-1960). Her 38 books about the ‘Abbey girls’ describe the enjoyment that girls and women — and some men — found in the songs and dances, and the values that they embraced along with these. It is clear from her writing that Oxenham was as much of an enthusiast as her characters were, and passed on this love of folk to her readers.

“Folk dancing is country, morris or sword; old dances that have come down to us for hundreds of years, with the most beautiful old music that haunts one for days. It’s ‘folk’ because it grew among the common people and was kept alive by them; it was never made, any more than a folk-song is made. It’s for everybody, not just for a few trained and beautiful dancers; anyone can do a country-dance.” The Abbey Girls Again (1924)

Folk dancing was central to the plot of the first of Oxenham’s ‘Abbey’ books: The Girls of the Hamlet Club (1914). New (secretly rich) girl Cecily founds the Hamlet Club to give the poorer girls in her school something to do, as the rich girls had made sure that their clubs and societies were too expensive for the country girls to join. What the Hamlet Club does is folk dance, and this eventually brings the whole school together (with the result that all club membership fees are abolished). The Hamlet Club is featured for the rest of the books, the girls remaining members after they grew up, and each year the school-age members elected a May Queen (the choice of whom was often the subject of a sub-plot).

Black and white drawing showing a May Queen being crowned
"Here's our new Queen"

Cover of the Abbey Girls Go Back to School, showing a girl dancing a jigIt was only in 1922, though, with the publication of The Abbey Girls Go Back to School, that the Abbey girls — now women — discovered the English Folk Dance Society (EFDS). Initially Cecily had learned folk dancing at her first school, and had then taught the girls at her new school “from books” (possibly Cecil Sharp’s). Now they realize how much they had got wrong. This almost certainly mirrored Elsie Oxenham’s own experience — Oxenham dedicated the third book in the Abbey series, The Girls of the Abbey School, to members of the EFDS for their “helpful enjoyment” and “kindness”. The Abbey girls therefore spend August in Cheltenham at the Society’s summer school, learning the correct way to dance their old favourites as well as being taught new dances.

Book illustration showing a girl standing on a chair teaching a group of children to dance
"She stood on a chair, encouraging and explaining"

For the next four books the Society’s classes, parties and holiday schools continued to feature within Oxenham’s plots, as did key figures from the Society. Rather than using their real names, Oxenham gave them nicknames: Cecil Sharp became The Prophet; Maud Karpeles his Little Page (the name of a character in the traditional Christmas folk play); and Helen Karpeles and her husband Douglas Kennedy were Mr and Mrs Joshua. Oxenham herself appears as a character in the books featuring the English Folk Dance Society too, as ‘the Writing Person’. In The Abbey Girls Again she explains: “The dancing’s beautiful, and the music’s wonderful, and the people who teach and dance to us are thrillingly interesting personalities, some of them.”

The frontispiece of the Abbey Girls Go Back to School, showing a girl playing a fiddle while other girls dance on the moors
"To the music of Karen's fiddle they danced on the turf."

Oxenham’s favourite ‘personality’ of all was Daisy Caroline Daking, immortalized in the books as ‘the Pixie’, and to whom Oxenham partly dedicated two books. Daking was “tiny, but very very neat… She’s a lovely dancer, too. Fair hair—glasses—bright quick blue eyes.” As a result of her interest in Daking, Oxenham began to write about Daking’s work in Canning Town and Plaistow as well, and so brought the area to the attention of generations of readers.


Black and white drawing showing a young girl in bunches speaking, while a taller girl behind her holds a fiddle
"Stop! Stop! I will not have those crossings skipped!"
While the Hamlet Club flourished until the last book in the series, Two Queens at the Abbey (1959), the Society and its members largely ceased to feature in Elsie Oxenham’s writing after Queen of the Abbey Girls (1926). (The ‘Queens’ in both titles are May Queens.) By then Oxenham had moved out of London and could no longer attend classes regularly, so she may have lacked for material. It is possible, too, that her ‘real life’ characters were unenthusiastic about continually appearing in her fiction, and embarrassed by her obvious hero-worship. Folk dancing was never to play quite such a central role in Oxenham’s books again: Queen of the Abbey Girls ended with the marriage of the last of the first generation of girl characters.

However, folk dancing continued to be important to Oxenham’s characters until the end of the series. The Society made a brief re-appearance in An Abbey Champion (1946), when second-generation character Joan — ‘Littlejan’ — found that the Hamlet Club was now regarded as being solely for the younger pupils at her school. The older girls explained that they were bored of the dances that they knew, and so the Society was asked to recommend a teacher who could introduce them to new dances. It is clear from this episode that Oxenham kept in touch with developments in the folk dance world — characters refer to the “new books” which would have included dances collected by Maud Karpeles after Cecil Sharp’s death.

Black and white drawing showing manuscript music Colour photograph showing some of Oxenham's books on a shelf Black and white drawing of girls dancing
"Forget our troubles and dance."


Colour illustration of two young women in the foreground and people dancing in the background
"The Garden Fete"
Colour photograph of shelves containing Oxenham's books

Colour photograph of a girl dancing a jig among daffodils in the wood
"Jen was dancing a morris jig."

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Text © Ju Gosling aka ju90 2010

Supported by Arts Council England, Well London, East London Dance, English Folk Dance and Song Society, London Borough of Newham, Newham NDP. Lottery funded.