Since the project started in 1998, much information has been gathered concerning the whereabouts of manuscript books. Many are in library and local history archives. Others are in private ownership. Some manuscripts are only known of because they are referred to in the writings of bygone researchers. In many cases their present whereabouts is unknown. There are over 300 manuscripts that we know about and more are added as we find out about them. The definitive list of the manuscripts that are known to exist or to have existed is maintained at the Folkopedia Project.
The manuscripts that we have had access to have been transcribed into ABC format and mostly rendered as printable pdf documents. You can access these by referring to the list here or via the shortcut links in the menu.
They originate from all over mainland UK but not all stayed in the country, some being now lodged in US and Canadian archives. The project has attempted to cast a little light on who was compiling them, when, how they changed over time, the sources (printed/oral), how and when the tunes were used
The people who wrote down these tunes were generally educated and literate people with some available leisure time. Some of them were people who can be identified in history. Eliza Tennyson was Alfred Lord T’s mother. There’s a book written down by reformer Robert Dale Owen and another by poet John Clare. Another belonged to Grace Darling’s father. Others belonged to the artisan classes – gentlemen farmers, a paper maker, an architect, shoemaker, alehouse keeper, parish clerk, vicar, generally people who had some leisure time and the money to afford an instrument and access to printed music to expand their repertoire, although why would anybody write down tunes into their manuscript book when they own the published version? However, some manuscripts have been handed down accompanied by printed music books so the question is still open. It’s said that John Clare used to stand in the bookshop in Stamford copying the latest tunes from published books into his manuscript book. No doubt some musicians copied from books owned by more monied people than themselves.
A number of the manuscripts have been researched to the extent that we know a great deal about the author. In some cases this has been to provide background and contextual information for a paper published version of the book and probably two of the best examples of this are the Lawrence Leadley and Joshua Jackson publications but other manuscripts have received similar treatment.
Spanning just over 150 years, the manuscripts show the progress of fashion in social dance music. The early books contain the Playford and similar country dance tunes; there are slip jigs, 3/2 and 6/4 hornpipes and minuets. We see the cotillions and quadrilles coming into fashion in 1760s which helps date some of the books. The mid 18thC has an abundance of undotted hornpipes whose names reflect the dancers and dance characters of the theatre plays in which they featured. The waltzes develop through the late 18thC and after a while we see the hornpipe become more dotted, but the biggest change is when the polka and schottisches arrive in the middle of the 19thC. The George Watson ms (Norfolk – up to 1887) is full of brisk polkas and ballroom variants of the schottische.