Collection date: Sept 1911
May Sparling at Kelmscott: Sharp received the song ‘Hunting of the Wren’ (FT2699 Roud 236) in Sept 1911, sent to him by 'Mrs May Sparling'. This was the married name of May Morris, daughter of the designer William Morris. She had married Henry Sparling, secretary of the Socialist League, in 1890 but divorced him in 1898, reverting to her maiden name in daily life.
Sharp noted that the song was sung 'at Kelmscott in the 1870s'. He later published the song in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society 5 (1914 p75), attributing it there to May Morris and adding that it was originally sung ‘by an old nurse’.
May Morris was born on 25 March 1862 and in 1871 her father began leasing the manor house at Kelmscott village, 24 miles W of Oxford. May Morris’s memory of the song presumably derives from her old nurse, when she was a child.
May Morris was an influential embroideress and designer, teaching at the Central London School of Art for many years. The Morris family continued to live at Kelmscott village, even after the death of William Morris in 1896. May Morris hosted folk dance events at Kelmscott Manor and was involved with the EFDS branch in Oxford (see profile of Mrs May Hobbs). She died in 1938.
Sharp only collected two other versions of the ‘Hunting the Wren’ song - from a Mr Herbert Curlon in 1923 in London (FT4948) and from his wife’s brother Walter Birch, who had picked it up as a boy (FT2499). Janet Blunt collected the song on 3 occasions from a Mrs Hawkins and a Mrs Castle. Available versions were published in the 1914 Journal.
The hunting of the wren on St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day) is a custom that has mercifully ceased. A wren would be killed and displayed by boys who went around asking for money. It was more common in Ireland and parts of Wales. The wren was normally considered a protected bird, a bird of honour and good luck but only on the one day of the year might it be attacked.