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The Special Collection: John Widdowson Folklore Collection

The John Widdowson Folklore Collection


Folklorist and linguist J.D.A (John) Widdowson was born in Norton, Sheffield, in 1935. After a grammar school education and National Service he won a scholarship to study at Oxford University and the University of Leeds where his MA dissertation was on the dialect of Filey in North Yorkshire. His fascination with the English language and its regional dialects began in England but it was at the Memorial University of Newfoundland that he was introduced to the collection and study of folklore by the anthropologist Professor Herbert Halpert. On the completion of his PhD John returned to the UK where he founded the Sheffield Survey of Language and Folklore in the Department of English Language at the University of Sheffield in 1964. The survey, based upon the fieldwork and classification system created by Professor Halpert aimed to collect all aspects of language and tradition throughout the British Isles and provide an academic base for research and teaching of these subjects. The six principal categories covered by the survey included 1) language and communication, 2) childlore, 3) custom and belief, 4) traditional narrative, 5) traditional music, dance and drama and 6) material culture.

The Archives of Cultural Tradition was established in 1968 for the collecting slips and questionnaires collected by students and volunteers alongside some 15,000 manuscript items and printed materials, tape-recordings, photographs and artefacts. In 1976 the Archives and Survey were designated a research unit and incorporated into the Centre for English Cultural Tradition and Language (CECTAL), one of three sections making up the university’s School of English. At the time CECTAL was one of only two institutions in England that offered taught undergraduate and higher degrees in folklore (it’s sister institution, the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies at the University of Leeds, closed in 1984). CECTAL was renamed the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition (NATCECT) in 1997. John remained as the director until his retirement in 2004. The NATCECT Archives and Survey materials are held by University of Sheffield Library and can be consulted in the university’s Special Collections and Archives at: MS452.

In 1982 CECTAL hosted the first conference in what became a series with the title Perspectives on Contemporary Legend that was attended by 67 scholars from 12 countries. The conferences and publications that followed, edited by Paul Smith, Georgina Boyes and John Widdowson established Sheffield’s reputation as a centre of academic inquiry in a newly recognised genre of folklore: the contemporary (or urban) legend. The initial seminars in Sheffield led to the formation in 1987 of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research (ISCLR) and its annual peer-reviewed journal Contemporary Legend.

The John Widdowson folklore collection held by Sheffield Hallam University Special Collections contains materials donated by John both from his personal collection and from the archives of the Centre for English Tradition Heritage (CETH). Founded in 2000 to ‘collect information on all aspects of language and tradition in England and throughout the British Isles’, John continues to co-edit the centre’s e-journal, Tradition Today, with Janet E Alton. The materials donated to SHU Special Collections reflect the research and teaching interests of the Centre for Contemporary Legend research group within the university’s Centre for Culture, Media and Society (CCMS). Taking its cue from the UNESCO definition of Intangible Cultural Heritage the multidisciplinary research group aims to encompass all forms of vernacular culture and contemporary folklore that is often unrecorded and overlooked, and ranges from that seen as historical and ancient to the extremely contemporary.

The collection includes more than one thousand books and pamphlets, a card index and interlinked paper archives, covering a range of folkloric topics including custom and belief, folk narrative and contemporary legend including many regional folklore collections.

To browse the catalogued books in the collection click here: The John Widdowson Folklore Collection - Sheffield Hallam University ( (N.B remember to check back regularly to browse this growing collection).

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