Enid Porter; a keeper of treasures

The woman behind the notebooks

Charlotte Wilson

Enid Porter
Photo by Peter Harmer
Enid Porter and others

Enid Porter lived in Cambridge from 1933. After spending some years in teaching, Miss Porter took up museum work and became Curator of the Cambridge and County Folk Museum (now known as the Museum of Cambridge) in 1947, a post she held until 1976. In this role Enid Porter was as energetic a student and writer on folklore as she was in all the practical tasks of running the museum. Her book, Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore, remains the standard work on the subject, with Fenland material provided by W.H. Barrett. In addition to her work at the museum, Miss Porter did a great deal of lecturing on Cambridgeshire, its history and folklore and came into close contact with the schools and Village Colleges of Cambridgeshire.

Collecting and Recording

Enid Porter spent several years collecting and recording from Cambridgeshire people and the folk beliefs and customs held and observed in the County in the past. She spent most of her life in Cambridge and her mother’s family lived there since the 16th Century so she includes information based on her own observations and on those members of her family.

Enid Porter’s original notebooks are held in the Museum of Cambridge who also own the copyright.

Folklore and traditional occupations

Miss Porter explored subjects such as the folklore of courtship, marriage, birth and death; of trees and plants and the whole world of nature to traditional Cambridgeshire food and drink; from ghosts and witchcraft and the cure of disease to charity and land-letting customs. She also recorded the traditional occupations of the county as well as the dress worn by the workers in the various crafts and the tools and implements they used. Enid Porter also captured accounts of various Cambridgeshire sports and pastimes. She also looked at University customs, ranging from the ancient procedure observed at examinations and degree ceremonies, through College Stamps and Mock Funerals.

A wealth of vibrant information

Miss Porter credits much of her success in recording Cambridgeshire’s folklore and customs to Thomas W Bagshawe, F.S.A. under whose guidance she worked for the first six months at the Cambridge and County Folk Museum. Miss Porter said that Bagshawe impressed upon her how important it is to make careful record of the local name of objects, how they were used, worn or carried and as much other information that can be learned about local customs, beliefs or traditions associated with it (in addition to the typical recordings of measurements, age, material and provenance). Certainly Miss Porter captured a wealth of vibrant information which would not have otherwise been recorded if she was interested only in the physical, material aspect of museum artefacts.

Gathering information over a cup of tea

Bagshawe also stressed to Miss Porter the even greater importance of going out to collect information rather than to sit and wait for it to be brought to the museum. Therefore, the talks that Miss Porter was invited to give on the Museum, on local and social history, on folklore and on many other subjects proved extremely useful. Much information was gleaned over cups of tea with Women’s Institute members, Parent Teacher Associations, church organisations, evening classes and a wide variety of other clubs and societies across the county.

Writings and notebooks

She was editor of ‘Tales from the Fens’, ‘More Tales from the Fens’ and ‘A Fenman’s Story’ (all by W.H. Barrett) and of ‘Sixty Years and Fenman’ and ‘Fenland Railwayman’ (both by A. R. Randell).

Certainly we should be most grateful to Enid Porter for providing, through her notebooks, such a comprehensive picture of Cambridgeshire life about a century ago, which might otherwise have been lost as new generations replace old and memories fade. The customs, traditions and rituals that thrived in a bygone day can still be enjoyed today thanks to Miss Porter’s diligence and enthusiasm many years ago.

See also