“In a village in Mummerset: The Squire’s daughter sings.”
stage photograph showing a scene in Bric-a-Brac
from The Sketch (London) – Wednesday 6th October 1915
A humorous blend of the common noun mummer [note 1] and of the name Somerset [note 2], the noun Mummerset has two meanings, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED – 3rd edition, 2003):
– a pseudo-rustic dialect used by actors, modelled on dialects from the west of England;
– an imaginary rustic county in the west of England.
The earliest instance of Mummerset in the OED is from 1951. In fact, this word is much older; it was mentioned in The “Ee” Dialect, published in The Globe (London) on Monday 11th October 1915:
The speakers of this peculiar tongue [= the “Ee” dialect] are to be found in the suburbs in large quantities. When we say suburbs we mean those principally in the North-West and West of London. Over the water the robust and hardy natives use a different mode of speech. West Kensington and Hampstead are the principal habitats of those who indulge in the peculiar lingual contortions of which we treat. […]
The Ee dialect, in fact, eliminates all vowels except E. Hearty A, rotund O, penetrating I, and useful U are all turned into the scrannel pipe [note 3] of E. At the railway station the Ee-ist disdains to refer to a “main line train.” He, or she, is heard to speak about a “meen leen treen,” and goes to the bookstall to “bee a peeper” (i.e., buy a paper). […]
The hardy Yorkshireman prolongs his vowels till they can only be expressed in writing by diphthongs. The Cockney clips some of his and broadens others, speaking of a “styte of moind,” instead of a state of mind. But better any of these, better the burr of the West Countree, of the peculiar drawl of the Birmingham district, better even that irritating stage convention known as “Mummerset” than the atrocious affectation of the “Ee” dialect.
This article does not specify whether the pseudo-rustic dialect in question is, as the OED says, “modelled on dialects from the west of England”; but, according to the following from the same newspaper on Wednesday 13th December 1916, Mummerset denotes in reality a blend of every know dialect, i.e., of English, Irish, Scots and American:
It is interesting to read that a troupe of amateur actors at Ruhleben recently produced “Hindle Wakes” for four performances. This is not interesting in itself, as those bitten by the acting-spider will get up a performance anywhere—on a desert island, in Wigan, or anywhere else. No; the notable feature of the disturbance was that it was attended by German professors of philosophy and similar scientists, who wished to study the dialect. The persevering thoroughness of the German professor mind is once more illustrated. It is lucky, however, that all the players were Lancastrian by birth, and the conscientious devotion to duty of the German professors is likely to be rewarded. One shudders to think of the curious jumble of tongues in which the average “character-actor” (professional as well as amateur) expresses himself on the stage. That artist is not slow in claiming to speak any known dialect in stageland—stage Scotch, stage Irish, stage Yankee, and the rest—but as a rule he speaks them all together, which is confusing. This has resulted in a kind of jargon known as the “Mummerset” dialect.
In the sense of an imaginary rustic county—perhaps not necessarily situated “in the west of England”—Mummerset is also attested in 1915; on Monday 20th September of that year, The Manchester Courier (Manchester, Lancashire) published the following review in its London Letter:
Brilliant Revue at the Palace.
Many people have had a hand in the twice-postponed revue, “Bric-a-brac,” produced at the Palace last night. Arthur Wimperis and Basil Hood are responsible for the book and lyrics, the music is composed by Lionel Monckton and Herman Finck while Edward Royce and Tom Reynolds are the producers. With such a galaxy of talent much was expected, and it hardly possible to imagine a prettier or a wittier concoction than this latest extravaganza. It is the last word in revues, and it scored an instant success. Properly speaking, it is not a revue at all. It deserves a new name. It is a succession of beautiful stirring stage pictures—burlesque, comic opera, ballet, impersonations, and spectacular pantomime all rolled into one—and each effort seems better than the last. There is neither plot nor story, just a kaleidoscope of slices of life, sparkling catchy songs, topical wheezes, and exquisite colouring—a charming medley of merriment, piquancy and beauty. There are seven scenes, beginning with a peep into a village in Mummerset, with its market place, its Punch and Judy show, and its town crier, and Miss Gwendoline Brogden as the smart daughter from the Squire’s house, Miss Teddie Gerard (who was one of the hits of the evening) as an American heiress, and Miss Gertie Millar as the local belle. Then there is the outside of St. James Palace, with Mr. Nelson Keys and Mr. Arthur Playfair as two incomparable sentries—one optimist and the other pessimist. A visit to the front at Brighton, an effective and striking Grecian Temple scene, “La Toilette de Venus,” with a superb ballet, and a delicious Italian villa with cypress trees in the background. It is difficult to pick out the plums, but Miss Brogden’s song “A Hundred Years Ago,” Miss Millar’s “Toy Town,” the sentries’ duet, Mr. Keys as a cheapjack, and last, but not least, the vigorous versatility of the sixteen Palace girls are sufficient to make the town flock to see this merry, delightful melange.
On Wednesday 29th September, The Tatler (London) observed:
There is not a scene or an artist in ‘Bric-a-Brac’ which does not make good. It is the brightest “show” which the Palace has had since the first “show” passed. It starts in quite the old Daly-all-English-musical-comedy style. The scene is laid in a Mummerset village. There is no name to this village—which is, perhaps, just as well, seeing that it seems to be inhabited by nobody but beautiful girls and has a fire-brigade of sixteen fascinating dancers, so charming as to make it worth a man’s while to burn his own house down.
1 A mummer is an actor in a traditional masked mime or in a mummers’ play (i.e., a traditional English folk play performed especially at the major holidays).
2 Somerset is a county of south-western England.
3 The adjective scrannel means harsh and unmelodious; it refers to this passage about the bad shepherds from Justa Edouardo King, naufrago, ab amicis mœrentibus, amoris & μνείας χάριν (Cambridge, 1638), by the English poet and polemicist John Milton (1608-74):
What recks it them [= what does it matter to them]? what need they? they are sped [= satisfied];
And when they list their lean and flashie songs
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw.