Collection: MS 1600: Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture, (Survey of English Dialects, and the Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies)

Archive Collection icon Archive Collection: Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture, (Survey of English Dialects, and the Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies)


Title: Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture, (Survey of English Dialects, and the Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies)

Level: Collection 

Classmark: MS 1600

Creator(s): University of Leeds

Date: 1836-2003

Size and medium: 379 boxes ms. and printed items;; 888 open reel and audiocassette tapes;; 841 gramophone discs;; 5 reels cinefilm;; 8 reels videotape;; 2168 black and white/colour photographic prints;; 620 glass and film negatives;; 930 glass and plastic slides;; 713 book and periodical titles.; 118 linear metres.

Persistent link: 

Collection group(s): Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture

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The Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture comprises the combined multiple media holdings of the archives of the Survey of English Dialects (ca. 1946-1978) directed by Harold Orton, and the University of Leeds' Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies (1964-1983) directed by Stewart Sanderson. These contain printed, manuscript and photographic paper items, sound recordings held on gramophone disc, open reel and cassette audio tape formats, glass plate and plastic transparencies, video tapes, 16mm and 35mm films.

The subject areas covered include custom and belief, traditional narrative, children's traditions, traditional music (vocal and instrumental), traditional drama and dance, material culture, crafts and work techniques, language and dialect.

Administrative or biographical history

The dialectologist Harold Orton (1898-1975) was born in Byers Green (County Durham). Following service in the Durham Light Infantry during the First World War, he studied dialectology at Merton College, Oxford University, before taking up teaching positions at Uppsala University, Armstrong College (Newcastle upon Tyne), and the University of Sheffield. Whilst based at Armstrong College, he was instrumental in a survey of Northumbrian dialects. During the Second World War Orton was seconded to the British Council. In 1946 he became Professor of English Language and Medieval Literature at the University of Leeds. In collaboration with Swiss colleague Eugen Dieth (1893-1956) he instituted the English Dialect Survey. The majority of fieldwork for the Survey was conducted between 1950 and 1961 in over 300 mostly rural localities. The Survey publication programme included an Introduction (1962), four volumes of Survey of English Dialects Basic Material (1962-1971), A Word Geography of England (1974), and the Linguistic Atlas of England (1978). Orton was instrumental in the establishment of the Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies at the University of Leeds, having recognised the interdisciplinary nature of the study of dialects and folklore/folk life. The Institute opened in 1964 under the directorship of folklorist Stewart Sanderson (1924-2016), who was previously based at the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. The Institute's remit included the ongoing collection of research and other materials relating to dialect, folklore, and folk life, including a Folk Life Survey; and teaching and research in various aspects of these subject areas at undergraduate and postgraduate level. The Institute was closed in 1983 due to University budget cuts.

Harold Orton was born in the mining village of Byers Green, County Durham, on 23 October 1898. He attended King James I Grammar School, Bishop Auckland, before going on to study at Hatfield College, University of Durham in 1916. It was from here that he enlisted in the Durham Light Infantry, serving from 1917-1919. He was injured twice in 1918, leaving his right arm permanently damaged. Following demobilisation, Orton studied at Merton College, Oxford University, under Professor H. C. Wyld. He was awarded a B.A. in 1921, a B.Litt. in 1923 and an M.A. in 1924. From 1924-1928 he was Lektor in English at Uppsala University in Sweden.

On returning to England Orton took up a post as a Lecturer at Armstrong College, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (then a college of the University of Durham). During this time the Armstrong College Survey of Northumbrian Dialects was inaugurated. Orton was very much involved in the Survey, and as part of his fieldwork used a portable disc-cutting machine to record informants. The discs and other items produced by Orton during the course of his Northumbrian survey work now form part of the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture.

In 1932 Harold Orton first met Eugen Dieth, with whom he would later work on the inception, development and eventual publication of their 'A Questionnaire for a Linguistic Atlas of England' (Leeds: Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, 1952). In 1933 he published 'The Phonology of a South Durham Dialect : Descriptive, Historical, and Comparative' , a study of the dialect of his native Byers Green. In September 1939 Orton was appointed Lecturer in charge of English Language at the University of Sheffield. Following the outbreak of World War Two, he was seconded from this post to the British Council, first as Deputy Education Director, and then Acting Education Director.

Harold Orton accepted the Chair of English Language and Medieval English Literature at the University of Leeds in 1946. It was around this time that he and Eugen Dieth began actively to discuss collaboration on an English Dialect Survey, with work on the development of a Questionnaire beginning in 1947. (Click here or see below for further information on the Survey, its history and development.) During his time at the University of Leeds Orton combined his teaching commitments and dialectal research with administrative roles and other activities. He held the post of Dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1947-1949, was Chairman of the Board of the Faculties of Arts, Economics and Commerce, and Law from 1954-1956, and was also involved in the University Senate and University Committees. He was responsible for the resurrection of 'Leeds Studies in English', and was its Editor from 1952-1964.

Harold Orton was also committed to the development of study and teaching in dialect and folklife studies at the University of Leeds. In 1959 his 'Proposals for the Inception and Development of Folklore Studies within the School of English in the University of Leeds', co-authored with Professor A. Norman Jeffares, were submitted to the University authorities. These proposals led in the following year to the employment of Stewart Sanderson as Lecturer in Folk Life Studies within the School of English, and the establishment of the Folk Life Survey (initially focussing on Yorkshire) under Sanderson's direction. In June 1963 Orton put forward a proposal for the establishment of a Research Centre for the Study of Dialectal English; and in October of that year submitted proposals for a Leeds University Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies. The Institute opened in 1964. (Click here or see below for further information on the Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies, its history and development).

In September 1964 Harold Orton officially retired, and was awarded the position of Professor Emeritus. As Editor in Chief of the Survey of English Dialects, he continued to be very much involved in the Survey and its publication programme. He also undertook a number of visits to universities in the United States to lecture and to promote dialect studies. He was Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan in 1965; at the University of Kansas in 1965, 1967 and 1968; at Iowa University in 1966 and 1969; and at the University of Tennessee in 1970. It was during his time at the University of Tennessee that he began to collaborate with Nathalia Wright on the production of 'A Word Geography of England', the first linguistic atlas based on the results of the Survey of English Dialects. He was awarded a Ph.D. in honoris causa from the University of Uppsala in 1969, and an Honorary D.Litt. from the University of Durham in 1970.

Harold Orton was also involved in activities relating to English language and dialectology beyond his academic commitments. From 1934-1940 he served as a Consultant Member on the BBC's Advisory Committee on Spoken English, and from 1940-1944 as a Member of the British Council's Advisory Committee on English Overseas. He was Editor of the 'Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society' from 1947-1961, and was awarded the positions of Honorary Vice President in 1963, and Honorary Life Member in 1968. He was also awarded Honorary Membership of the Linguistic Societies of America and Canada in 1964 and 1965 respectively.

Harold Orton died on 7 March 1975, aged 76. He did not live to see the publication of 'The Linguistic Atlas of England', the ultimate aim of the Survey of English Dialects.

The Survey of English Dialects.

When plans for a survey of the dialects of England were first put forward, and throughout its planning, creation, development and implementation, the Survey was known as the English Dialect Survey (EDS). The title, Survey of English Dialects (SED), historically refers to the publication programme that followed the Survey proper. It is this title that is used throughout the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture catalogue.

Harold Orton and Professor Eugen Dieth (the latter based at the University of Zürich) first discussed the idea of producing a survey-based Linguistic Atlas of England in the 1930s, but it was not until the period immediately after World War Two that the Survey began to take shape, following a letter from Dieth to Orton in July 1945. The changing social landscape in the War's aftermath, increasing social and geographical mobility and the growing influence of broadcast media, would inevitably alter Britain's linguistic landscape. A survey of English dialectal usage at this time was therefore felt to be of the utmost importance in linguistic terms. In Orton's own words, the time was ripe for one more, and possibly the last, coordinated large-scale investigation of the all-important English dialects.

In discussing plans for the Survey, Orton and Dieth were influenced by the methodology employed by Hans Kurath for his 'Linguistic Atlas of New England' (Providence: Brown University, 1939-1943). As a result, they recognised the need for a specially devised questionnaire with which to collect dialectal data, and the direct interviewing of linguistic informants by trained fieldworkers. In addition they hoped to glean additional data on familiar dialect forms through the recording of casual conversation, and aimed to make mechanical recordings of informants. Although the latter was not possible in the immediate post-war period, these four precepts were to form the basis of fieldwork for the Survey of English Dialects.

Work on the first version of the Survey Questionnaire began in 1947. Between 1947 and 1951, Orton, Dieth and research assistants Peter Wright and Fritz Röhrer developed and revised five versions of the Questionnaire. Each version underwent testing in the field, and by 1950 Orton and Peter Wright were able to make the first official recordings for the SED, using Questionnaire version 5 at Spofforth in West Yorkshire. Version 5 was also the first version of the Questionnaire to be published, and was issued by the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society as part of its 'Transactions' in 1952. The complete Questionnaire consisted of 1092 numbered questions, including over 1300 individual questions, aimed at eliciting responses which would demonstrate lexical, phonological, morphological and syntactical aspects of the dialect of each locality.

From 1950 to 1961 trained fieldworkers collected linguistic data for the SED using the Questionnaire in 313 individual localities. An initial network of 300 localities was drawn up by Peter Wright in 1949-1950, which was supplemented by eleven sites investigated by Howard Berntsen and David Parry in 1960-1961, and two sites added at the editorial stage from results collected by David Parry and Peter Wright. The majority of the localities selected were rural communities, with preference given to small communities with a historically stable population. Areas of known dialect contact were avoided, and consideration was given to physical features such as hills and rivers which might at one time have formed natural dialect boundaries. Fieldworkers were responsible for finding suitable informants at each location, with the selection criteria crucial in maintaining the goal of comparability between dialects. In most cases two or three informants were selected at each location. Preference was given to non-mobile, older, rural males with a long-established presence in the community and (preferably) born of native parents. Data was recorded manually in fieldwork response books using narrow phonetic notation approved by the International Phonetic Association in 1951. Fieldwork was facilitated through the acquisition of a dialect car, which enabled principal fieldworker Stanley Ellis to conduct fieldwork throughout the UK whilst living in a caravan with his family.

The experimental tape-recording of SED informants began in 1952, using a portable tape recorder. Harold Orton, Stanley Ellis and Peter Wright all recorded informants answering the SED Questionnaire. Ideally, Orton would have liked to mechanically record the answers of all informants to the entire questionnaire, but the recording quality at this stage was unsatisfactory, and costs made it prohibitive. In 1952 Peter Wright experimented with recording samples of informants' casual speech/conversation. Following the acquisition in 1953 of a mains-operated tape recorder, and the subsequent improvement in the sound quality of the recordings, the recording of the casual speech of a selected informant at each SED location became part of the Survey structure. Some localities were revisited in order to make mechanical recordings at localities where fieldwork had been undertaken prior to the regular use of the tape recorder. In some revisited localities it was necessary to find new informants to record as the original informants had died. Tape recordings had been made in all SED localities by 1967. Fieldworkers selected samples from the field recordings, which were first dubbed onto 78 rpm shellac gramophone discs, and later 33.3 rpm 12 inch double-sided discs, by Henry Ellis, technician at the University of Leeds' Phonetics Department.

Eugen Dieth died on 24 May 1956 and thus did not live to see the fruits of the Survey's fieldwork in its published form. The first publication to come from the Survey (following the publication of the Questionnaire by the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society) was the Introduction, published by E. J. Arnold and Son Limited in 1962. As well as giving information on the history and scope of the SED, this included a revised version (version 6) of the Questionnaire published in 1952, and outlined the SED publication programme envisaged by Orton. Such a programme was to include four volumes of Basic Material, in tabular form (The Six Northern Counties and Man; the West Midland Counties; the East Midland Counties and East Anglia; and the Southern Counties); four companion volumes of selected Incidental Material; a linguistic atlas of England; and phonetic transcriptions of the tape-recorded speech of selected informants. In addition, the programme was to have included an anthology of selected tape-recordings of informants. The Basic Material volumes, each in three parts, were published between 1962 and 1971. Although not strictly part of the SED publication programme, 'A Word Geography of England', a collaborative work based on lexical SED data compiled by Harold Orton and Nathalia Wright of the University of Tennessee, was published in 1974.

The culminating point of the SED publication programme was the production of the work that had always been the ultimate goal of Orton and Dieth's Survey, 'The Linguistic Atlas of England' (LAE). In 1968 Stewart Sanderson, Director of the Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies, agreed to co-edit the Atlas with Orton, and to oversee its completion should Orton be unable to. John Widdowson joined the editorial team as a third co-editor in 1971, and a grant from the Leverhulme Trust enabled the employment of research assistants Sue Powell and Clive Upton, and a cartographic draughtsman to work on the production of the LAE maps. The completed atlas consisted of 473 maps representing 300 phonological, 80 lexical, 84 morphological and 9 syntactical notions. Published in 1978, Orton did not live to see its completion.

Harold Orton and the English Dialect Survey were initially based on the University campus at 1 Virginia Road. In 1959 the Survey headquarters moved to the Arts Building, University Road, and in 1968/69 moved again to the Biology multi-purpose Building.

The Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies.

Harold Orton was instrumental in the establishment of the Institute for Dialect and Folk Life Studies. Proposals for the inception and development of folklore studies within the School of English in the University of Leeds were first submitted to the University authorities by Orton and Professor A. Norman Jeffares in November 1959. In the proposal, the University of Leeds is cited as the obvious place for a department of Folklore Studies following the research undertakings of the Survey of English Dialects. Orton realised that the data collected, contacts made and equipment used in the survey, could be utilised in survey work and research in folklore; and his recognition of the interdisciplinary nature of dialect and folk life studies prompted him to assert that University departments including History, Sociology, Phonetics, Geography, Economics and Agriculture, as well as the wider community, would take an interest in the activities of a department specialising in the study of folklore. He championed the establishment of an academic centre for research, study and teaching in folklore which could compete and co-operate with existing institutions in Scandinavia, mainland Europe and beyond. As such, Orton and Jeffares proposed the establishment of a specialised lectureship in Folklore and Folk Tale Studies, and the inauguration of a Folk Life Survey which would focus initially on the Yorkshire region. A copy of this proposal is held at LAVC/STA/1/1/3/6.

Orton and Jeffares' proposal was successful and in 1960 Stewart Sanderson, a folklorist previously based at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, was appointed Lecturer in Folk Life Studies in the School of English at Leeds. The Folk Life Survey was also inaugurated in this year under Sanderson's Directorship. Following an unsuccessful proposal submitted in June 1963 for the establishment of a Research Centre for the Study of Dialectal English, in October 1963 Harold Orton submitted another proposal to the University of Leeds for the establishment of an Institute of English Dialect, Folklife and Folklore Studies (a copy of which is held at LAVC/STA/1/1/3/6). It is clear from this proposal that as well as continuing to press for a centre for the academic study and research of these subjects, including survey work and the collection and preservation of archival resources, Orton was keen to find a home for the continuation of the Survey of English Dialects and its publication programme. His proposal was successful, and the Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies was formally opened in October 1964 under the Directorship of Stewart Sanderson.

The Institute was initially accommodated in numbers 2, 4, 6 and 8 Virginia Road, on the main University campus. In 1968/69, it was relocated to the University's Biology multi-purpose Building, and in March 1980 (as part of the School of English) moved to a building in Cavendish Road.

From the outset, the Folk Life Survey (FLS) was an integral part of the programme of Folk Life Studies at the University of Leeds. As with the dialects investigated in the SED, it was clear to both Orton and Sanderson that as society continued to change, many British oral, material and social traditions were gradually disappearing, as were the opportunities to record them. The FLS was seen as a continuation and extension of the work undertaken by the SED.

In the first instance, the FLS was to focus on the collection and analysis of oral, material and social traditions in Yorkshire. It was envisaged that the Survey would eventually extend to survey work in other counties, and in Wales and Scotland (conducted either as part of the Leeds FLS or survey work by other institutions). An archive would be created from the items collected, which would also serve as a holding repository for folk life material collected in other counties until such time as surveys of those counties were inaugurated. The objectives of the Survey were initially limited to research into whether versions of international folk tale types were still extant in oral tradition, the recording of traditional crafts and craft vocabularies, and the recording of local festivals. Fieldwork was to be undertaken by Survey (and later Institute) staff, undergraduate and postgraduate students, and voluntary collectors. There was also to be a publication programme based on the Survey's findings (see Stewart Sanderson's Memorandum on the Folk Life Survey, held at LAVC/STA/1/1/3/6). Many of the items in the archives of the Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies are testament to the ongoing nature of the Folk Life Survey, and the development of its archives throughout the Institute's lifetime. These include items in the LAVC photographic and audio collections, the Folk Life File and specific surveys undertaken by members of staff at the Institute.

Teaching activities at the Institute focussed on both stimulating the interest and imagination of students in aspects of folklore, folk life and dialect, and training students in fieldwork and research. A series of survey courses were offered at undergraduate level, including an introduction to the theory and principles of the study of oral, material and social traditions; oral literature; custom and belief; and ballad and folk song. Fieldwork techniques, the classification of items and other practical aspects of the study of folklore, folk life and dialect were also taught. An extended piece of research in the form of a dissertation was also expected at undergraduate level. Postgraduate teaching was initially offered at Diploma level, and aimed at the professional training of students in archive methods, fieldwork, photography and sound recording, the preservation of museum specimens, exhibition techniques, as well as involving survey courses. The postgraduate teaching programme was further developed to include an M.A. in Folk Life Studies; and also included provision for higher research degrees at M.Phil. and Ph.D. level. The production of student theses and dissertations at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, on aspects of folklore, folk life and dialects, including studies of traditional crafts, customs and oral traditions, ultimately contributed to the development of the Folk Life Survey's archives.

In addition to its general teaching activities, the Institute was involved in providing short courses for students undertaking professional training for museum work, in conjunction with the Museums Association. It was also involved in the hosting of conferences for organisations such as the Oral History Society and the British Association.

The Institute closed in September 1983 due to University budget cuts.


The Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture comprises the following seventeen subfonds (subcollections). This arrangement is derived principally from the identification of the provenance, form and function of these individual collections, but does retain within each any original arrangement, where it has been possible to identify such an order. In some cases it has been necessary to impose an arrangement (again based on form and function), where no pre-existing system has been apparent.
- Orton Corpus
- Survey of English Dialects
- A Word Geography of England
- The Linguistic Atlas of England
- Maps
- Institute Staff Papers
- Student Research Papers
- Non-Student Research Papers
- Non-Institute Surveys
- Folk Life File
- Archivists' Papers
- Sound Recordings
- Photographic Collections
- Film
- Video
- Artefacts
- Printed Collection

Access and usage


Access to the Archive

The archive is available for consultation in the searchroom of Special Collections, University of Leeds, by all bona fide researchers. Conditions relating to access and use have, in a number of cases, been applied to particular items by individual depositors, or because of their fragile physical condition. These are noted within the relevant individual records throughout this finding aid.

Some parts of this collection have not been listed in detail and access may be restricted under the Data Protection Act and other relevant legislation. Please consult the relevant part of the catalogue for specific details. Where a detailed record does not exist, please contact Special Collections. Upon receipt of your request, a member of the team will discuss your requirements with you and review relevant material accordingly.


Publication Rights

Property rights reside with the University of Leeds. Copyright in unpublished papers, photographs and sound recordings are retained by their authors or his/her heirs or assigns, irrespective of present ownership. Permission to publish copyright material should be sought in writing from the Head of Special Collections, University of Leeds.

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Related subjects

WARNING: many of our records have not been classified by subject. So if you search our catalogue by subject using the links below then you are unlikely to find all relevant records. But you will find some...

Language surveys

English language


Material culture

Manners and customs

Collection hierarchy 

What is an archive hierarchy?

Catalogues of archives are usually arranged in hierarchies - one hierarchy for each collection in the archive. The details on display will be of a record at a particular level of the hierarchy. There may be other records above, below, or alongside this record in the same hierarchy. The full hierarchy is shown below.

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Books, manuscripts and archives in Special Collections are usually grouped together in collections. Catalogue records for individual objects link to a collection record, which show the object's context, and associated material.

You can see the full hierarchy under 'In this collection'.

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What is the Level?

Catalogues of archives are usually arranged in hierarchies - one hierarchy for each collection in the archive. The details on display will be of a record at a particular level of the hierarchy. There may be other records above, below, or alongside this record in the same hierarchy. You can see the full hierarchy under 'In this collection'.

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Collection hierarchy 

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