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The Stories of Ella Mary Leather

The Life of

Ella Mary Leather

Written by Graham Saunders, Weobley and District Local History Society

If you were to define the character of a country, you would say it is in their history, their actions, beliefs and culture. Sadly, history slips away as people die and leave no record. Towards the end of the 19th century, a group of enthusiasts started collecting the songs, stories and beliefs of the “ordinary” people and Ella Mary Leather took up the task of collecting records in Herefordshire.

Ella was born on Bidney Farm near Dilwyn in 1874, and living in the country, she came into contact with the farm workers who sparked her interest. These were the days of women wearing long dresses, bonnets and aprons and cooking food over an open fire. In 1893, Ella married Frank Leather, a local solicitor, and she moved to Weobley. There they become fully involved in the village including the Red Cross. Ella was noted for visiting the sick and elderly and looking after poor people, giving them clothes, food and at Christmas she gave them presents. She recorded their stories and songs, with some help with the music by others, and by showing an interest, people would bring her more. Notably she collected many songs and sayings from Mr William Colcombe who had lived in Weobley, eventually moving to the workhouse.

Frank was active as clerk of the Board of the Weobley Poor Law Institution, the manager of Lloyds Bank, and Commanding Officer of the Herefordshire Rifle volunteers and Ella actively helped him in these local Weobley branches.

She was in contact with the composer Vaughan Williams and she sent him songs. He came to stay with her in Weobley several times and she took him around to meet the, by now, elderly singers, some at gypsy camp fires, so he could write down their songs. Their memories stretched back to the 1850s or even before. Later Ella was sent a wax phonograph to physically record the songs and a few of these still survive in the Ralph Vaughan Williams Collection at Cecil Sharpe House in London.

She collated her collection into “The Folklore of Herefordshire '', published in 1912 and still available in reprints. It may seem unbelievable to us modern folk that anyone could believe in witches casting spells and transforming into animals, devil raising, or fairies dancing and kidnapping people. And yet the education authorities complain that despite 50 years of state education (being compulsory), old beliefs persisted. There are many accounts of people and animals being bewitched and there are many suggestions for ways of countering bewitchment. These were serious issues as illness or the loss of farm animals resulted in the loss of livelihood and income.

Ella was also a good photographer and interested in the old houses and led a walk of the Woolhope Club around Weobley. During World War 1 she was the commandant at the hospital in Sarnesfield Court for injured soldiers.

She did not have an easy life. Her second son, Geoffrey, died aged 4 by choking on a chicken bone, and her eldest son, after serving as an officer in the army in WW1 and surviving, succumbed to the flu pandemic in 1918 while still in France just after the war ended.

Ella died in 1928 aged just 52, survived by her husband and third son. She is buried in the north churchyard at Weobley St Peter and Pauls. A stained glass window in remembrance was installed by Frank in the north wall. It contains some medieval glass.