Collection date: Sept 1911
Mary Sparling at Kelmscott: Sharp received the song ‘Hunting of the Wren’ (FT2699 Roud 236) in Sept 1911, sent to him by Miss May Morris, daughter of the designer William Morris. He noted that it was sung 'at Kelmscott in the 1870s'. He later published the song in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society 5 (1914 p75) and added that it was sung ‘by an old nurse’.
May Morris was born in 1862 and in 1871 her father began leasing the manor house at Kelmscott village, 24 miles W of Oxford. Mary Sparling cannot be found in the Kelmscott censuses of either 1871 or 1881, nor was she in the Morris household in London in either census. It’s likely, therefore, that she was hired temporarily when the Morris family visited their country house. William Morris only called his Hammersmith home ‘Kelmscott House’ from 1878, so May Morris’ memory of the song definitely comes from Oxfordshire! She lived at Kelmscott until her death in 1938 and was involved with the EFDS branch in Oxford (see profile of Mrs May Hobbs).
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.