Thoms, William John


Thoms, William John
(1803-85)
   His working life was spent as a civil servant. He showed early promise as a literary-antiquarian, and, encouraged by established figures such as Francis *Douce, was soon editing neglected literary materials, beginning with a three-volume edition of Early Prose Romances (18278). Thoms was a key figure in the development of British folklore; he invented the word itself, launched *Notes & Queries [N&Q], one of the main vehicles for information exchange, and was instrumental in the formation of the *Folklore Society.
   By the 1840s, it was clear that a new field of enquiry was emerging from the activities of antiquarians and historians, and a burgeoning interest in what is now called folklore. Various phrases had been suggested or used - 'popular antiquities' being a front-runner - but when Thoms wrote to the Athenaeum (under the pseudonym 'Ambrose Merton') to suggest a regular column in which enthusiasts could exchange information, he coined the term 'Folk Lore' to cover it. The column soon outgrew the Athenaeum, and Thoms launched the weekly Notes & Queries on 3 November 1849, which he himself edited until 1872. It was fitting that, in the 1870s, when the need for a society devoted to the collection and publication of folklore was felt, it was a suggestion published in Notes & Queries in 1876, and the subsequent correspondence on the subject, which persuaded Thoms to give his backing to the formation of the Folk-Lore Society and to serve as its first Director. Thoms also gave considerable time to other bodies, serving as secretary of the Camden Society from 1838 to 1873, for example. In retrospect, his talents were as an editor and organizer, rather than as a theorist, and he was content to gather the material which he knew to be important and make it available - with annotations - for others to use, and at this level he was indeed successful.
   ■ DNB; Obituary, N&Q 6s:12 (1885), 141; Dorson, 1968: 7580; William J. Thoms, 'Gossip of an Old Bookworm', The 19th Century 10 (1881), 63-79, 886-900.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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