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The Astonishing Percy Manning

Who was Percy Manning and why is the city of Oxford celebrating the centenary of his death? We investigate the short but fascinating life of ‘The man who collected Oxfordshire’
"He wrote articles for magazines such as Folklore and he used his not inconsiderable energy to revive the custom of Morris dancing, which had fallen out of vogue."

Tim Metcalfe


Percy Manning was born in 1870, the son of a highly successful, Yorkshire locomotive engineer. He came up to Oxford in 1888 to become an undergraduate at New College.


It seems that he suffered from aphasia, had a severe stammer and perhaps other related medical problems – all of which may have contributed to the fact that he did not obtain his degree until 1896. But it was more likely that Manning’s growing fascination with archaeology delayed his studies – he would often disappear to join digs when he should have been studying or sitting an exam.

In addition to digging things up, as soon as Manning observed something going out of use he liked to preserve it for posterity. Candlesticks, rush lights, agricultural tools, household items, forgotten folk songs and lithographs of Oxford all became part of his growing collection of local ephemera. Manning also developed a passion for folklore and Morris dancing. It seems that his passion for recording things, be they artefacts, manuscripts or oral history, was all the keener because the written word came to him so much more easily than the spoken word; Manning never kept a diary or any personal notes so it is impossible to be certain about this. As far as his collections were concerned, his focus was almost entirely on the county he had adopted and its borders.

Being of independent means, Manning rented rooms in various houses – one of the most colourful being the salmon pink building in St Aldate’s which today is occupied by a well-known firm of financial advisors. His final address was an Edwardian villa, bought by his brother, on the Banbury Road. Manning joined many societies in Oxford related to his interests, serving as honorary secretary to the Oxford Archaeological and Historical Society from 1891-1898, and was vice-president in 1899 and 1914. He was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and was a founder member of the Oxford University Brass Rubbing Society (later the Oxford University Antiquarian Society).

He wrote articles for magazines such as Folklore and he used his not inconsiderable energy to revive the custom of Morris dancing, which had fallen out of vogue. He revived and equipped the Headington Quarry Morris side, who had given up some ten years previously, and supported them in staging a grand performance in Oxford in March 1899.

The dancers were seen performing during the December of the same year by the famous folk song and dance revivalist, Cecil Sharp. The event caught his attention and led him to add Morris dancing to his list of folk traditions to be rescued. Some readers may be familiar with Cecil Sharp House in London’s West End, which is a centre for folk song and dance and houses the Vaughan Williams library.

When the First World War broke out, Manning joined the Oxford and Bucks national reserve as a sergeant. He was posted to fire watching duties at Southampton docks where, sadly, he contracted pneumonia and died in February 1917, aged just 47. Manning bequeathed his collections, manuscripts and books to the University of Oxford, and the archaeological papers were transferred to the Ashmolean Museum while all other papers went to the Bodleian Library. Having been personally acquainted with the head of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Henry Balfour, Manning had given the museum some 219 objects during his lifetime. Many hundreds of artefacts went to the Ashmolean and, indeed, they bought even more from his estate.

One of the most interesting collections is that of police constables’ staffs or truncheons, the earlier ones being a policeman’s badge of office before warrant cards were introduced in the 1860s. Included in the collection is the truncheon used to arrest the then Prince of Wales at a farm in Barton. His criminal act? He was arrested for riding his horse across fields of crops, thus destroying them.

If you would like to learn more about Percy Manning, his biographer, Mike Heaney is giving a free, lunch-time lecture on March 22 at the Weston Library in Oxford. A book on Manning’s life and work, edited by Michael Heaney, is being published this year by Archaeopress and will be obtainable from the Bodleian Gift Shop, Blackwell’s and other bookstores. There will be a centenary concert celebrating Percy Manning’s connections with folk song and Morris dancing on March 24 at St Andrews Church, Linton Road, Oxford at 8pm. It will feature Michael Heaney (as Percy Manning), with guests Magpie Lane and Headington Quarry Morris Dancers.

Manning was assisted in his collecting by Thomas Carter, a brick maker and self-taught fossil finder. When worsening arthritis forced Carter to find an alternative way of making a living he became an important figure in Manning’s life. How they first met is not recorded, however it is clear from correspondence that Carter was supplying Manning with finds from at least 1892. In an article by Manning written in 1907 he refers to Thomas as an ‘old friend.’ Carter acted as an agent for Manning and became adept at not only acquiring artefacts on his behalf, but picking up folklore, songs and stories, no doubt aided by the fact that he was a less intimidating figure than a ‘gentleman’ making such enquiries. Clearly, Manning’s great collections owed a good deal to Thomas Carter’s endeavours on his behalf.

Four institutions in Oxford are mounting exhibitions to honour the memory of Percy Manning. They have collaborated with each other, staggering the four exhibitions, various workshops and events to give as many people as possible the opportunity to learn about the county’s past through Manning’s collections:

The Bodleian Library will showcase various manuscripts, by and relating to Manning, in Blackwell Hall, the main entrance hall of the Weston Library. This is a free exhibition, open to the public.

The Pitt Rivers Museum is planning to display a 100-year-old Morris costume alongside a contemporary one. It will also be showing pipes made of willow bark which were blown on one day of the year only – Whit Monday – for the hunt. The bark had to be collected at a very specific time of the year when it was at its most supple. It will also be hosting a workshop on pipe making.

The Ashmolean is showcasing Roman remains such as coins and pottery excavated and donated by Manning as part of an exhibition about Oxfordshire during the first millennium.

The City Museum at the Town Hall is putting on an exhibition entitled Mummers and Maypoles and it will be hosting workshops where you can make a Green Man mask or a Morris dancer’s hat.


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