George Ewart Evans
Born on 1st April 1909 in Abercynon, a coal-mining village north of Cardiff, Evans was one of a family of eleven to Welsh-speaking parents, His father was William Evans and mother, Janet, née Hitchings, and they both ran a grocery business. George’s was a radical liberal family. As a boy he assisted in the delivery rounds travelling by pony and trap through the neighbouring farms and villages until the business closed following the 1924-5 coal strike. The loss of his father’s shop and the experience of bankruptcy was a strong influence on young George, although shopkeepers it seems his parents strongly identified with working class neighbours.
George went to Mountain Ash School and graduated from University College, Cardiff, in 1931, with an honours degree in Classics and a teaching certificate. During a long period of unemployment and after an unsuccessful attempt to move to London, he joined the Communist Party in 1934, which he stayed in it for the rest of his life.
He won a prize for a translation of Catullus, in the Sunday Referee in 1934 and tried, unsuccessfully at this stage, to pursue a writing career. Eventually, after retraining to teach physical education, George managed to obtain a post as an athletics teacher at Sawston Village College in Cambridgeshire. This was where he met Florence Ellen Knappet, a fellow teacher and a Quaker. In 1938, they married and the couple started a family, which grew to four children.
George was secretary to the Cambridge branch of the Communist Party for three years, although he was briefly also a dual member of the Labour Party in the very late 1930s, when many Communists felt it imperative to seek to draw Labour activists away from their leadership-inspired anti-Communism and draw them into anti-fascist work.
He was called up in December 1941 and served in the Royal Air Force working with wireless equipment during the Second World War. Because his hearing was poor, he was consigned to routine duties and moved around a lot; it was a difficult and unhappy time for him. Nonetheless he began to write and produced a number of short stories and poetry, some of which were republished in 1975 in a collection titled ‘Let Dogs Delight’. He also wrote an account of his childhood in the South Wales valleys.
He moved briefly to London on demobilisation, where he and his young family lived in Edmonton, where he taught English in what he described as a ‘three-storey barracks of a school, a bleak nineteenth century learning-factory’.
In 1947, they moved to the remote Suffolk village of Blaxhall, where his wife taught in the school and he became a tutor for the WEA. He then began to write – first off, mainly stories, poetry and film scripts for the BBC, especially about the people of the village of Blaxhall. This was eventually published as `Ask The Fellows Who Cut The Hay’ in 1956. Evans wrote another ten books of this kind over the next three decades.
Most of his neighbours were agricultural labourers, born before the turn of the century, who had worked on farms before the arrival of mechanisation. He found that the speech men and women who were born after 1890 differed substantially from those born earlier. Their language had lost a great deal of its visual imagery, which commanded long attention spans by virtue of its vitality.
George began to record the dialect and to collect details of rural customs, traditions and folklore. As he travelled around, George also found that the working people who had come to maturity under the ‘old culture’ differed, not just in their use of language but also in their values. He was particularly interested in ‘horse magic’, what we might call `horse whispering’ today, although superstition had turned the practice of controlling a horse by will into magical beliefs. But some of this depended on the use of herbs and oils and an appreciation of the horse’s sense of smell.
By the 1960s George had become influential in persuading many people to start collecting oral history in 1969 he became a founding member of the Oral History Society. His tape recordings formed the basis of radio scripts for features broadcast on the BBC Third Programme. George also became a tutor for the Extra-mural Department of the University of Cambridge and the WEA in East Anglia. In 1982 his contribution to oral history and education was acknowledged by the Universities of Essex and Keele, both of whom awarded him honorary doctorates.
On retirement, he and his wife settled in Brooke, Norfolk, where George continued to write. He made extensive collections of oral history on tape relating to East Anglia. In 1980, he satisfied his curiosity by visiting China to see how agriculture was faring on the road to socialism.
Having published some fourteen books by the time he died in 1988, George had also become almost infamous as a folklorist and collector of oral history (or ‘spoken history’ as he preferred to call it) in the East Anglian countryside from 1956 and 1977.
His collection is maintained by the British Library, and consists of 250 recordings of interviews and songs made mainly in Suffolk, with a smaller number in Wales, Ireland and Scotland. The recordings document rural life and agricultural work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, folk beliefs about animals, medicine and witchcraft, folk and popular songs.
The recordings can be browsed by clicking this link: http://sounds.bl.uk/Browse.aspx?category=Oral-history&collection=George%20Ewart%20Evans%20collection&browseby=Browse+by+interviewee&choice=A-C
The George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling also maintains his memory. http://storytelling.research.glam.ac.uk/GeorgeEwartEvans/
Sources: as above plus `Smallholder Magazine’ – May 2007
Alun Howkins ‘Inventing Everyman: George Ewart Evans, Oral History and National Identity’, Oral History 22, 2 Autumn1994
Guardian 22nd June 2002