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Sir  (George) Laurence Gomme (1853–1916), by Bassano, 1911Sir (George) Laurence Gomme (1853–1916), by Bassano, 1911
Gomme, Sir (George) Laurence (1853–1916), public servant and folklorist, was born on 18 December 1853 at 3 Cecil Street, Stepney, London, the second of ten children of William Laurence Gomme (1828–1887), a civil engineer, and his wife, Mary Annie, née Hall (1831–1921). On 31 March 1875 he married Alice Merck (1853–1938) [see ], the daughter of Charles Merck, a tailor; they had seven sons, two of whom were killed in the First World War. Their third son, , became a librarian and historian of technology.

Educated at the City of London School, Gomme started work at the age of sixteen with a railway company, and later moved to Fulham district board of works. In 1873 he joined the Metropolitan Board of Works, whose functions were subsumed by the newly created London county council (LCC) in 1889. Gomme then remained with the council until retiring through ill health in 1914. He soon made his mark, becoming in 1893 statistical officer, effectively the head of policy formulation and development. In addition to providing information to council committees (council statistics were soon enlarged and improved, setting standards that other authorities followed), the office dealt with such matters as private bill legislation (important when the council was seeking to extend its responsibilities) and submissions to government inquiries. Gomme provided influential evidence, for example, to support the council's contention that there was an inadequate and uneven provision of workmen's trains, which in turn led to haphazard patterns in suburban growth, a significant issue at a time when London's population was increasing rapidly.

In October 1900, following an open competition, Gomme became clerk to the council, its chief administrative officer, at an annual salary of £2000. The council had already developed a dense committee structure with committee secretaries reporting to the clerk. During the 1890s the council had assumed new responsibilities, particularly in housing and tramways, adding to its original roles in such fields as highways and drainage; staff numbers grew from 3300 in 1890 to 6300 in 1898 and nearly 12,000 in 1904. In that year it became the education authority for London and staff numbers nearly tripled: to supervise the transition Gomme himself assumed the additional duties of secretary to the education committee until 1908. He wished to make London's administration a model for the nation, and contemporaries record the zest with which he went about his task.

Gomme described his recreations as ‘change of work’. History and folklore, ‘the scientific study of the survivals of archaic beliefs, customs, and traditions in modern times’ (quoted in Dorson, British Folklorists, 225), became a lifelong passion—his wife was also a distinguished folklorist. This was not just antiquarianism: he firmly believed in the evidence of continuity in institutions, thus linking the present with the past, and saw clear connections between his studies and his official duties. In his view it was important to devolve governmental functions to local authorities, and he drew extensively on historical experience to provide examples. This enhanced role called for dedication among staff; and he looked forward to a unified municipal civil service as a branch of the national civil service. Later, in a development of these thoughts, he saw ‘the civilisation of our future [as lying] in our cities’ (LCC Staff Gazette, March 1914).

From his official position Gomme was able to influence the fate of old buildings, about which he was deeply knowledgeable. They were tangible evidence of the past and an enrichment of the present, and he was one of a growing number who deplored the recent destruction of so many fine examples in central London. He helped the council secure legal powers to purchase threatened buildings (1898) and he was also involved in securing the participation of the council in, and its subsequent assumption of responsibility for, the Survey of London. (He wrote the historical sections of part 1, Lincoln's Inn Fields, of volume 3, The Parish of St Giles-in-the-Fields.) Gomme was also instrumental in persuading the council to assume responsibility for the commemorative (blue) plaque scheme (1901).

Gomme's historical writings, especially the books on London, and his works on folklore were highly regarded by his contemporaries, although to us they seem at times overlaid by outdated theorizing. But his contribution remains significant and, in folklore particularly, he is in the front rank as a collector and classifier. He was a prolific writer: his bibliography includes fifteen books, several more written jointly or edited, and some forty articles in learned journals. Laurence Gomme, as he was known, was a justice of the peace and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Statistical Society, the Anthropological Institute, and other learned societies. He lectured at the London School of Economics, was a founder member (1878) and sometime secretary and president of the Folk-Lore Society, and joint originator of the Victoria History of the Counties of England. He was knighted in 1911. He was of medium height and slender build and in disposition said to be amiable, cheerful, and receptive to ideas; a strong personality, he could sometimes become very attached to a particular point of view. He died on 23 February 1916, aged sixty-two, from pernicious anaemia, at his country home, The Mound, in Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire, and was cremated on 1 March at Golders Green crematorium, in Middlesex.

Robert Gomme

Sources  

The Times (25 Feb 1916) · E. Clodd, Folk-lore, 27 (1916) · A. C. Haddon, Man, 16 (1916), 85–7 · Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London, 2nd ser., 28 (1915–16), 211–12 · J. Simpson and S. Roud, A dictionary of English folklore (2000) · R. M. Dorson, The British folklorists: a history (1968) · J. Simpson and S. Roud, A dictionary of English folklore (2000) · R. M. Dorson, ‘The founders of British folklore’, TLS (14 July 1978) · A. Saint, ed., Politics and the people of London: the London county council, 1889–1965 (1989) · G. Gibbon and R. Bell, History of the London county council (1939) · H. Haward, The London county council from within (1932) · H. Hobhouse, London survey'd: the work of the survey of London, 1894–1994 (1994) · London County Council Staff Gazette (1900–14) · H. J. Dyos, Exploring the urban past: essays in urban history, ed. D. Cannadine and D. Reeder (1982) · Folk-Lore (31 Dec 1916), 408–12 · G. Boyes, ‘Alice Bertha Gomme, 1852 [sic]–1938: a reassessment of the work of a folklorist’, Folklore, 101 (1990), 198–209 · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert. · The Times (2 March 1916)

Archives  

Royal Anthropological Institute, London, handbook to folklore [copy] · UCL, Folklore Society papers |  LMA, London county council records


Likenesses  

Bassano, photograph, 1911, NPG [see illus.] · photograph, repro. in Hobhouse, London survey'd, 11 · photograph, repro. in London County Council Staff Gazette (March 1914), 57 · photograph, repro. in Saint, ed., Politics and the people of London

Wealth at death  

£6204 8s. 3d.: probate, 21 March 1916, CGPLA Eng. & Wales