Brown, Theo


Published in DA Transactions, 1993.

THEO BROWN 1914–1993

Theo Brown was born during World War 1, the daughter of a Welsh scholar later the head of a department of the British Museum. His wife died in childbirth. The infant was placed in an orphanage for children of ‘gentle birth’. There she remained for two years until she was adopted by the Langford Browns of Barton Hall, Kingskerswell. Educated mostly by governesses, she had extensive woods to roam and the run of a countryhouse library. Mr Brown’s interests were those of a country squire – that is estate management and fishing. He published a little book on fishing with some illustrations by Theo. Mrs Brown was an artist. She encouraged her daughter to develop her talent for wood engraving. Theo became a member of the Kenn Group of artists exhibiting with them.

During W.W.2 she served as Petty Officer WRENS with the Fleet Air Arm, much of the time in Cornwall where she was fascinated by the local beliefs and customs in particular with the powerful Padstow Oss which dies and revives each spring. In 1945 a chance encounter on the platform of Central Station Exeter with the great classical scholar Jackson Knight was the inspiration and starting point of her career as a folklorist. He sent her a copy of his seminal work The Cumaean Gates, those gates to the underworld were to be a theme to which she would constantly return. He it was who first introduced her to the Folklore Society in London and later suggested that she join the Devonshire Association which she did in 1946. He was then Recorder for Folklore, an office in which she was to follow him and serve for thirty years.

In 1957 she was instrumental in founding the Folklore Section supported by Jackson Knight whom she proposed for their first chairman. She cherished the section never willingly missing a meeting. She was for many years on the Council and in 1988 the Devonshire Association gave her the Maxwell Adams Award for her long and notable service.

She had joined the Folklore Society at Jackson Knight’s instigation and in 1957 was elected to their council. On that occasion he gave a lecture on ‘The afterlife in Greek and Roman Antiquity’. In 1971 she organized a colloquium entitled ‘The Journey to the other world’. It was sponsored jointly by the London Folklore Society and the department of History of Exeter University. It was the first of a series of such conferences organized by the Folklore Society and published by them. Theo herself contributed a paper on the West country entrances to the Underworld. It can safely be assumed that the subject and that of her own book The Fate of the Dead was greatly influenced by Jackson Knight. This was the only scholarly work she was able to complete before her stroke in 1978. In 1983 the Folklore Society awarded her the Coote Lake medal for research.

1978 was also the year of the centenary of the Folklore Society and Theo was in the midst of planning a celebratory exhibition in the University Library when she was taken ill. It seemed most unlikely that it could take place unless someone else took over. The very idea was enough to rouse her for the very considerable effort necessary for its completion. She was then Research Fellow in the Department of Theology she also continued lecturing to her students in the Department of English and with her work as a freelance lecturer. There was one more book to come. Jarrolds wanted a book on Devon Ghosts. There was great fun in the making. It entailed travel to spookridden spots on the moor and grimly haunted houses to take photographs in the most appropriately inclement weather.

As she became more frail it became difficult for her to concentrate except for short periods, but she always wrote her monthly article for Contact, the parish magazine of Broadclyst and Pinhoe which she had started in 1986 and continued until her death. In her latter years she went twice a week to teach at Broadclyst Primary school, having absentmindedly wandered in one day thinking it was a polling station. She was very popular with the children. She said ‘I tell them stories and let them draw’. Students from a film school in London enlisted Theo’s help for a video project on the ‘Hairy hand of Postbridge’. She was given a copy of the completed project and it was shown to the school to their great delight. There were innumerable drawings of hairy paws after that.

In April 1991 Theo attended a Colloquium at Madingley Hall in Cambridge on ‘Boundaries and Thresholds’. Theo read a paper entitled ‘Tom Pearce’s Grey Mare a boundary image, – that last boundary which is death’. It was published in 1993 and arrived just in time for her to see a copy and have it by her bedside before her own death in February that year.

P.M. Bourke

Papers published in DA’s Transactions

Year  Vol.Pages
1952Miss Theo BrownA Further Note on the Great Devon Mystery84163-171
1955Miss Theo BrownThe Trojans in Devon8763-76
1957Miss Theo BrownHoly and Notable Wells of Devon89205-215
1958Miss Theo BrownHoly and Notable Wells of Devon, II9060-61
1959Miss Theo BrownHoly and Notable Wells of Devon: Part III9136-37
1959Miss Theo BrownThe Black Dog in Devon9138-70
1960Miss Theo BrownHoly and Notable Wells of Devon: Part IV92101-103
1966Miss Theo BrownHoly and Notable Wells of Devon. Part VI98154-156
1975Theo BrownHoly and Notable Wells of Devon, Part VIII10743-46