Stanley Ellis

Portrait of Stanley Ellis

Stanley Ellis was born on the 18th of February 1926 in the Lidget Green district of Bradford where his family were much involved in the woollen industry. His father was employed in a supervisory capacity for which the local term was "wool overlooker". Stanley attended the local Grange Grammar School with notable success. He ended his school career in 1944 as head boy and gained a scholarship which took him to Corpus Christi College Cambridge where he read English. His studies were interrupted by service in the Royal Air Force in which, having trained as a navigator, he then spent most of his time stationed in India.

On his demobilisation and return home to Yorkshire he enrolled in 1948 in the Leeds University School of English where after graduation he went on to obtain in 1952 the degree of MA for a thesis on Lincolnshire dialect. He followed that up by becoming the principal researcher on the large-scale University of Leeds Survey of English Dialects. During the fifties he investigated more localities than any other of the dozen fieldworkers, 118 out of the 313 ie about 38%, using a questionnaire of 1300 items that generally entailed about eighteen hours of questioning of each informant. His friendly unpatronising manner made him the ideal interviewer of the elderly farming men who were the chief targets of this mainly-rural survey which aimed at rescuing from oblivion remnants of our linguistic past that were about to disappear for ever. He didn't have the kind of accent that might put many farmers off and he didn't talk over people's heads: so they opened up to him with great willingness. This was clearly realised by the Survey's director Harold Orton the Leeds Professor of English Language and Medieval English Literature who keenly appreciated Stanley's outstanding gifts for auditory speech analysis.

He began his fieldwork in the first place using a motorcycle with sidecar but, when the never lavishly funded Survey (Orton used candidly to refer to his researchers' "starvation wages") was able to scrape the money, he was provided with a LandRover which could tow a caravan that contained what was at the time quite newly developed transportable high-quality tape-recording equipment and besides that his new young wife Jean. He became the Survey's recording specialist. His many sound recordings are now housed in the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture. Some of them are being disseminated by the British Library including various items accessible online. Besides his pioneering use of recording equipment, Stanley was to be among the earliest to respond to the arrival on the academic scene of the personal computer.

After a decade of fieldwork for the Survey from 1952 throughout the length and breadth of England he then carried on with editorial work on its findings. The dozen volumes of the collections of Basic Material of the Survey were published between 1962 and 1971. He also became a lecturer on English language. He was noted for his entertaining asides about his fieldwork, stories that might include things like  encounters in farmyards with fierce sheepdogs. One of his students who fondly remembers being taught by him recently commented: Stanley Ellis was my tutor for the history of English course and his enthusiasm meant he never finished tutorials on time, and we would have stayed on and on if we'd been able. I was regularly late for the history lecture that followed and often didn't make it to the lecture at all!

In 1983 he took early retirement from his senior lectureship and devoted himself more fully to the forensic voice recognition work he had begun to undertake in the sixties. He was the first person to give expert evidence on speaker identification in an English court of law at Winchester Magistrates Court in 1967. To this he added various lecturing activities and also highly successful broadcasts in which he genially drew from people in many parts of the British Isles fascinating illustrations of their local speech and verbal lore in a very popular series of programmes including Take a Place and Talk of the Town, Talk of the Country. Some of these then took him to Wales and Scotland. Besides his BBC programmes he later took on frequent radio phone-ins in which he engaged in often-late-night chats with his callers not only about their speech but their questions about the origins of their names and local placenames. Many of these later sessions he was delighted to be able to carry on from his home phone in his pajamas and carpet slippers.

However, he chiefly spent his time on a great deal of serious forensic work as an "expert witness" attending at lawcourts up and down the country advising Crown Prosecution Service barristers and defence counsels in the ever-increasing number of legal cases in which recordings of the voices of accused persons played an important part. Something he never talked about was the various occasions on which he was asked to put his special skills at the service of MI5. His most famous forensic case began on Tuesday the 26th of June 1979 the day on which the police released for broadcast to the nation a recording that purported (actually falsely) to be spoken by a man who had brutally murdered more than ten women in the previous five years becoming known universally as the "Yorkshire Ripper". Stanley astonishingly declared almost immediately that the accent of the man on the tape they had received through the post, with all possible clues to its source cunningly removed, was that of a person who hailed from a small village on the edge of Sunderland. He was proved to be absolutely right — but not until 26 years later. In recognition of his contribution to the foundation of forensic phonetics as discipline, Stanley was awarded Honorary Life Membership of the International Association for Forensic Phonetics and Acoustics at their 13th Annual Conference in Helsinki in 2004. He was the first person to receive that award.

Besides his University teaching, Stanley took great pleasure in participating in summer courses on English for teachers from abroad which took place over many years in Leeds arranged by the British Council. Latterly he became the very popular director of many of them. It was at a social function at one of these that, twenty years after he and Jean had divorced, he met Maggie Wilcock a lively Chief Nurse in the National Health Service whom he married in 1980. After what was for him a new period of stability and happiness she sadly died very suddenly in 1996. After a while Stanley had the good fortune to enjoy the friendship of Margaret Schofield. They were married in 2001. He'd always given generously of his time to the Yorkshire Dialect Society, editing many of its Transactions, and now he could share with her his enthusiasm for it and for travel abroad. Their devotion to each other and the affection of the daughter and two sons of his first marriage and his four grandchildren made for the great happiness of his last decade despite his gradually failing health.

Much of the above was included in my obituary published in The Guardian newspaper on the 14th of November 2009.