Ruth Tongue and ‘The Chime Child’

The Chime Child, Ruth L. Tongue

The Chime Child is one of the most enchanting books I know. It begins with the rustle of autumn deep in the Somerset countryside where villagers, mindful of the old ways, have set up a corn dolly for Harvest Festival. A toddler is brought into the church to decorate the sheaf with marigolds: only she can do it, she is special, but the work is too hard for a little one and she is about to dissolve in tears when Old Shepherd takes her aside and sings to her. The Chime Child is enchanted, and then and for years after she will go anywhere in search of a song; through Taunton down the ugly alleys of poverty, where Gillavor sang, who had once been pretty before she followed the soldiers; with workers in the barns and hayfields of the Blackdown Hills; in the trim sun-filled cottage of Annie’s Granny, who knew both the hardships and the melodies of the poor. The Chime Child is initiated into the secrets of her birth; neither ghost nor ill-wisher can harm her, she is made free of the grim lore of local sextons, she rides her pony without fear over the rugged cleeves. At the very end, now a grown woman, she returns to collect one last song from wicked Isaiah Sully, the wily bent old man who tries at the last to ill-wish the Chime Child, and is defeated by goodness and a charm. You set the book down with a smile, excited to know that Ruth Tongue, the real Chime Child, went on to write down all the Somerset folklore that had been entrusted to her, and to tell story after story that she had gathered in her travels. What treasures in store!

For a day or so you go about with wonderful images from The Chime Child in your head and then, what with the collision between image and daily life, doubts start to creep in. It’s odd that everyone who ever sings a song to Ruth insists that their real name must never be known, when all the other folk singers you’ve ever heard had no problems about theirs going on an album cover. It’s strange how, wherever she goes, she bumps into Somerset people who seem to have no difficulty in recognising her as a chime child at first sight. It’s surprising that twenty or so singers from such different backgrounds should all hit on such a similar style, and that their songs, frequently said to be well-known throughout the countryside, should never have been recorded by anyone else. And the characters are simple and familiar: an old shepherd, a cheerful Irish navvy, a wrinkled Gypsy woman, a tart with a heart of gold. Colour is laid on thick, a little too thick: Annie’s Granny is the daughter of a woman raped at the age of 13, married two years later to a farm labourer, and dead at the age of 28 with 14 children. Work it out with pen and paper, and it’s just possible, but one has doubts. Annie loyally looks after her siblings, working her fingers to the bone until at last their descendents settle her in a bright little cottage, where just on her deathbed she passes on her two most precious fairy songs to the Chime Child. Hmm.

The bright cottage fades and with the suddenness of a dream, we imagine Ruth Tongue in a witness box where the prosecuting counsel is pressing some rather uncomfortable questions.


PC       Miss Tongue, you are I believe the daughter of Edwin and Mabel Tongue?

RT       That’s correct. My father was Congregational Minister at Taunton.

PC       And you are what is known as a Chime Child?

RT       Born after midnight on a Friday and before cockcrow on Saturday, yes.

PC       You moved to Taunton at the age of two. Is it not a little surprising that your neighbours should know the hour at which your mother went into labour?

RT       Oh, country people have their ways of finding things out.

PC       Miss Tongue, I have your birth certificate in front of me. You were born on 7th February 1898. The 7th was a Monday.

RT       There was some confusion… but people took me to their hearts as if I was special.

PC       On the jacket of your book Somerset Folklore it says ‘she has lived all her life in Somerset’.

RT       I have a deep love for the county and its people.

PC       Which you left in 1911. You did not return until 1954.

RT       But we were always coming back for holidays! My father, my dear brothers… Every autumn we would take lodgings for four weeks at the Blue Ball.

PC       The Blue Ball at Triscombe? Where some quarrymen told you the story of how the Devil made Cheddar Gorge?

RT       Yes, that’s right! It’s in my book!

PC       At page 124. Which I have compared with page 43 of ‘Local traditions of the Quantocks’ by C.W. Whistler. The two stories are identical.

RT       People in the countryside have long memories.

PC       Miss Tongue, I have read the Reverend Whistler’s article in Folk-Lore for 1908. It contains fourteen local traditions. All fourteen of these also appear in your book. If you would like to refer to the markers at pages 14, 130, 122, 128, 120, 127, 64, 123, 124, 228, 125, 116, 117, and 100 you will see that you are supposed to have collected several of these from a labouring couple, from the gamekeeper at Seven Ash, and from Quantock broom squires.

RT       So many friends…

PC       And that more of these stories were collected by you at Cannington in 1920, at Kilve in 1920, at Aisholt in 1912, at Cannington in 1910, at Kilve in 1908, and at Alfoxden in 1905 when, if I might remind you, you were seven years old. And in your book these stories have the same events, words and dialogue as they do in the Reverend Whistler’s paper.

RT       I may have used it to refresh my memory…

PC       Then if you refer to p116 of Somerset Folklore you will see a story about a labourer who finds a fairy’s ped –

RT       I remember! A little spade. ‘Ped’ is a dialect word, you know.

PC       We will take your word for that, although it is curious that it does not appear in the English Dialect Dictionary or Frederick Elworthy’s Somerset word lists. But if we turn to p49 of Whistler’s paper, we find that the same story is told about a baker’s shovel or peel…

RT       These stories often show oral variation…

PC       Indeed. But if we compare this example of your handwriting it is noticeable how close the letters el, when run together, are to a d. And furthermore…


Oh, don’t let’s go furthermore. I already feel a bit of a bastard pinning the facts down this way, which seems ironic when it is actually Ruth who is lying. Not embroidering or bending the facts a little, but lying. Remember, we’re not talking about an old lady in a lonely cottage getting confused about her childhood; when she started on this game with her first contribution to Folklore, she was a retired professional woman of 58. The Chime Child and Somerset Folklore were planned at the same time, one a collection of ‘folk’ songs which she had composed herself, the other a book of folktales copied from Whistler, Mathews’ Tales of the Blackdown Borderland, Knight’s Heart of Mendip and Snell’s Book of Exmoor. She followed with Forgotten Folktales of the English Counties, in which she avoided any risk of source criticism by making up all the stories herself. At the same time, she was busily feeding Katherine Briggs of the Folklore Society with invented material which would find its way into standard books of reference. The charge sheet against Ruth Tongue is, I am afraid, a long one.

And it’s not as if this wasn’t known. For a long time now, scholars have been pointing out that Ruth’s work should not be taken as reliable, but I don’t think the message has got through. It’s not as if they are saying that she sometimes exaggerated a bit: they mean that every word in all her books is a fabrication, except for the ones which are plagiarised. But artists, film-makers and of course storytellers still love Ruth. That’s a tribute to her incredible myth-making power, but isn’t there also a hint of factionalism? Ruth has been enlisted on the side of the Free Birds versus the Stuffed Owls, the creative spirits against those tiresome nit-picking scholars.

We don’t need this kind of tribalism. Ruth wasn’t an artist who was accidentally picked up by academics: she began by writing as a folklorist for folklorists, having first been careful to make things up in a way that couldn’t be called out. She knew, and exploited, the fact that collections of folklore are written in good faith between writer and reader: the folklorist says they heard or saw or took part in something, and you accept that, yes, they did. So if someone claims to have heard a song or a story when they never did, they are poisoning trust for all the people who come after them.

And behind a real folklore collection there is life, not art. Cecil Sharp did exactly what Ruth Tongue pretended to done, he collected songs – but from real people: they’re in the census, family photos have survived. But the genealogy of The Chime Child stops dead in 1965, when she wrote the book and sent it to the office of The Countryman. It has no grounding in fact, not even the opening scene, with the corn dolly and the marigolds… there was no dolly, there never were any marigolds. She took it all from Violet Alford’s Introduction to Folklore. Page 64, if you want the reference.

Have I disenchanted you? If I’ve gone further than seems kind, it’s to drive home the fact that there’s no core of real original folklore in Ruth’s books. She was a fraud. But she was also a genius, and she was a genius because she was a fraud. If she had known how to go out and collect stories, she might have written a useful monograph, as Kingsley Palmer was to do ten years later in his Oral Folk-Tales of Wessex. But because she sat in her room instead and fantasised about being at one with the Somerset folk, she became the Chime Child, and that is pure magic. You only have to compare one of Ruth’s versions – the Gurt Vurm of Shervage Wood, or Madam Joan Carne the witch – with her source texts to realise what an effective story-teller she was, how much life and pace she puts into what might have been a bare recital of facts. Without her there might not have been an English storytelling tradition. I’m not quite so enchanted by Forgotten Folk-Tales; when left to her own imagination, without the spur of written material to assimilate, Ruth tended to ring the changes on children, cats, little donkeys, and lots of secret stuff about charms and taboos. But her style remains inimitable.

And learning about the real Ruth has not been a disappointment: quite the reverse. Like the fairy midwife, with one eye I can see the daughter of a middle-class Edwardian family, but I only have to open the other and there is the magically protected child running up to the old men of Taunton Market to absorb their deep lore. We know a surprising amount about the Tongues, in real life that is; a file of family letters is preserved in the county heritage centre, and Ruth’s own archives are kept at Halsway Manor. She said they were all burnt in a fire, but that’s only visible to the enchanted eye; the actual papers are well preserved and their combustion was probably a story to explain the lack of field notes. Every now and then I’ve found a place where the two worlds overlap, like the letter from Kate the family servant (so ‘Kate’ in chapter 2 of The Chime Child is for real) or the window in Castle House that looks out onto the market (she must have spent hours sitting there, imagining). With one eye on the printed page you see Richard Garland, returning fatally to the Front after he has sung a ballad with the creepy refrain ‘Willow do walk if you travel late’ – now, courtesy of Katharine Briggs’ gullibility, enshrined as a bit of old tree lore. But open the other, and behind the dedication to ‘the Sedgemoor soldier’ is the real Clifford Carr Tongue, who lies on Hill 10 in Gallipoli.

They had been a closeknit family, forever writing to each other to share jokes or discuss what they were reading or send the latest news back to Dear Old Dad and The Major. The boys tend to be a bit dismissive of ‘Billy’, as you might expect of elder brothers, but her personality comes through, playful, disorganised, pushing here and there for independence but always supported by relatives: among them, prophetically perhaps, an uncle Edward German who had composed many popular songs. Carr’s death was a terrible shock and her grief seems to have found outward form in years of illness, during one of which she wrote her first fairy tale, The Castle of Twelve Towers. The manuscript (December 1916) is now at Somerset Heritage Centre; it contains, as you would expect, no influence at all from the local lore that Ruth is supposed to have been memorising for sixteen years (her earliest collecting, according to the citations in Somerset Folklore, took place when she was 2). But it does show the direction in which her imagination was working, and which forty years later would blossom into one of the most chequered, deceptive, unethical, influential, and creative interventions ever made in English folklore studies.

Further Reading

I wrote a timeline of Ruth’s (factual) life some years ago: ‘Ruth Tongue, the storyteller’, 3rd Stone 41 (2001) pp16–21. Another excellent account by Bob and Jacqueline Patten appeared as pp203–16 of in Women and Tradition, edited by Carmen Blacker and Hilda Ellis Davidson (Carolina Academic Press, 2000). The best account of Ruth as a person is by Biddy Rhodes in the introduction to Songs and Stories of Ruth Tongue (Halsway Manor, 2009), a shrewd but affectionate assessment from someone who knew in in her last years when, in a final crossing of the boundaries between truth and fiction, she really had become a Somerset tradition.

Research online includes a review of chime children, real and fictitious, by Dr. Beachcombing, pipe-smoking avatar of Simon Young: There’s a critique of the sources of Ruth’s stories, much more detailed than I’ve been able to give here, in And for a storyteller’s view, see

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Jeremy Harte is a researcher into folklore and archaeology, with a particular interest in sacred space and tales of encounters with the supernatural. His books include Cuckoo Pounds and Singing Barrows, and The Green Man. He is curator of Bourne Hall Museum in Surrey, where he lives alone in an old house full of dust and shadows.

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Jeremy Harte

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