Ella Mary Leather was born on 26 March 1874 at Bidney, in the parish of Dilwyn, Herefordshire, the daughter of James Smith, farmer, and his wife, Mary Ann. She was educated at Clyde House School in Hereford and at Hereford High School for Girls. In 1893 she married Francis Leather (1864-1929), a solicitor practising in the small Herefordshire town of Weobley, where she spent the rest of her life. They had three sons: John Francis, who died in France in 1918; Geoffrey, who died in infancy; and Godfrey, who became a solicitor and died in 1943.
In 1905 Leather was persuaded by a friend and local author, the Revd Compton Reade, to contribute a chapter, ‘The folk-lore of the shire’, to his Memorials of Old Herefordshire (1905). This was followed by the publication of a selection of Herefordshire folktales in the first issue of the Herefordshire Magazine (1907). Thereafter, she became an ardent folklorist, conscious that the modern world was catching up with Herefordshire and that many of the old country customs of her childhood were dying out.
In 1912 Leather's The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire was published by Jakeman and Carver in Hereford and this work is still considered to be one of the seminal texts of English folklore.
The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire contained the lyrics and music of 23 traditional carols, ballads and songs. Leather's musical skill was fairly rudimentary but she was encouraged by Cecil Sharp and the young composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who recognised the potential of Herefordshire as a source for folk songs and arranged for a phonograph to be sent to her. Indeed, Sharp and Vaughan Williams made several expeditions to Weobley and accompanied Leather on her visits to local gypsy encampments. Vaughan Williams later regarded a visit to Monkland in September 1912, where they collected a version of The Unquiet Grave from the Gypsy tenor Alfred Price Jones, as one of his “most memorable musical impressions”. In 1920 he collaborated with Leather in the publication of Twelve Traditional Carols from Herefordshire, especially admiring The truth sent from above which he used in the opening theme of his Fantasia on Christmas Carols dedicated to Sharp.
Leather was equally interested in the collection of folk dances, which included the morris dances at Brimfield in 1909, and she later, in 1925, established the Herefordshire branch of the English Folk Dance Society. One of her collected dances, Haste to the Wedding, was performed at the first National Festival of Folk Dance at the Albert Hall in 1926.
Ella Mary Leather died in Weobley on 7 June 1928 and was buried in Weobley churchyard. A scrapbook of her papers relating to folk music resides at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (VWML).