The Origins of Tolkien’s Gaffer Gamgee

Let’s talk a bit about The Gaffer while our heroes continue their journey to the Last Bridge.

Thoughts on the Passage ā€“ Book I, Chapter 12 (p200, 50th Anniv. Ed.)
A few days ago, I wrote in passing about the first time Tolkien mentioned Gaffer Gamgee, Sam’s father. The Gaffer is easily our favorite old hobbit, dear to most even more than the Old Took, I bet.

The modern interpretation of “gaffer” is an electrician on theater or movie set. Hell, they even have their own adhesive tape (I used to use it in book binding)! But before that, “gaffer” meant a grandfatherly old man. And that’s how Tolkien was using it. So I just figured that Gaffer Gamgee was an alliterative riff on that. And it was – but there’s more to the story.

Lemorna Cove, circa 1990ish (?)

Lemorna Cove, circa 1990ish (?)

In 1932, the Tolkien family vacationed at Lamorna Cove, a small, rustic village near Penzance (which was incidentally the setting of the musical where I was first introduced to gaffer’s tape when I was on the crew of a high school production – but anyway). The place was, according to Tolkien in 1964, “wild and fairly inaccessible”.

I’ll let him take it from here:

“There was a curious local character, an old man who used to go about swapping gossip and weather-wisdom and such like. To amuse my boys I named him Gaffer Gamgee, and the name became part of lore to fix on old chaps of the kind. At that time I was beginning on The Hobbit. The choice of Gamgee was primarily directed by alliteration; but I did not invent it. It was caught out of childhood memory, as a cosmic word or name. It was in fact the name when I was small (in Birmingham) for ‘cotton-wool’. (Hence the association of the Gamgees with the Cottons.) I knew nothing of its origin…..”

In a much earlier letter, written to Christopher, his son who was serving in World War II, there were hints of a slightly different origin. In 1944, Tolkien wasn’t happy with the name “Sam Gamgee” and wanted to change it to Goodchild, “if I thought you would let me.” Christopher must have taken some sort of slight offense to this and asked him not to change Sam Gamgee’s name.

“As to Sam Gamgee. I quite agree with what you say, and I wouldn’t dream of altering his name without your approval; but the object of the alteration was precisely to bring out the comicness, peasantry, and if you will the Englishry of this jewel among the hobbits. Had I thought it out at the beginning, I should have given all the hobbits very English names to match the shire.

“The Gaffer came first; and Gamgee followed as an echo of old Lamorna jokes. I doubt if it’s English. I knew of it only through Gamgee (Tissue) as cottonwool was called being invented by a man of that name last century. However, I daresay all your imagination of the character is now bound up with the name.”

As for this cottonwool stuff, it was a gauze type of surgical dressing invented by Dr Joseph Sampson Gamgee (he did go by Sampson Gamgee on several of his publications). Dr. Gamgee, originally from Italy, and from a family of doctors, was a surgeon in Birmingham during the 1800s, inventing the tissue in 1880.

Dr. Joseph Sampson Gamgee

Dr. Joseph Sampson Gamgee

Gamgee Tissue is actually still in production, now manufactured by the 3M Corporation (among others). It’s “100% cotton wool with non-woven cover for wound dressing, support, padding, protection and insulation.” They claim it to be “ideal for equine first aid kit.” What would the old Gaffer say if he knew that his bandages were being used on ponies? Oh he’d have something to say about that – there’s little doubt that those queer Bucklanders had something to do with it.

While it’s clear that Dr. Gamgee inspired the hobbit name, that didn’t stop Tolkien from retconning it into the larger story. In Appendix F, he gives the “actual” origin of the name:

I buy my Gamgee by the roll!

I buy my Gamgee by the roll!

“According to family tradition, set out in the Red Book, the surname Galbasi, or in reduced form Galpsi, came from the village of Galabas, popularly supposed to be derived from galab-‘game’ and an old element bas-, more or less equivalent to our wick, wich. Gamwich (pronounced Gammidge) seemed therefore a very fair rendering. However, in reducing Gammidgy to Gamgee, to represent Galpsi, no reference was intended to the connexion of Samwise with the family of Cotton, though a jest of that kind would have been hobbit-like enough, had there been any warrant in their language.”

While I find this fascinating, it sometimes bugs me that Tolkien had no problem at all writing and editing this, but couldn’t get around to finishing Aldarion and Erendis: The Mariner’s Wife, published in Unfinished Tales. What the hell, Professor?

A Few Notes

  • For a time, Dr. Gamgee lived with Joseph Lister, who inspired Listerine – their house must have been impeccably sterile.
  • The letters used were Nos. 76 and 257, as published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (which you need to own).
  • The Letter 257, Tolkien also complained about where he was living and the urbanization that cropped up around him. When he moved there, he lived in a peaceful cul-de-sac. Now (in July of 1964), it was a busy street full of “radio, tele, dos, scooters, buzzbikes, and cars of all sizes but the smallest.” Additionally, there was a house three doors down where dwelt “a member of a group of young men who are evidently aiming to turn themselves into a Beatle Group. On days when it falls to his turn to have a practice session the noise is indescribable…..” Also, get of my lawn.
  • This was a ridiculously fun post to write.
Camera: Kodak Brownie No. 2, Model D (1914) Film: Fujichrome Provia 100F x-pro as C-41

Camera: Kodak Brownie No. 2, Model D (1914)
Film: Fujichrome Provia 100F x-pro as C-41

About the Photo
Weirdly, this is the only photo I have of anything that even sort of reminds me of a cove. It’s Larabee State Park near Bellingham, Washington.

  • Day 67
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 326
  • 134 miles to Rivendell
  • 1,453 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place: Still south of the East Road, southeast of Weathertop. (map)

An illustration from Dr. Gamgee's 1882 collection "On the Treatment of Wounds and Fractures"

An illustration from Dr. Gamgee’s 1882 collection “On the Treatment of Wounds and Fractures”


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