Baring Gould – Man of Many Parts

Based on and expanded from a piece originally written for ‘Dartmoor – the country magazine,’ Autumn 2000.


The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) was one of the most extraordinary men of the nineteenth century, and certainly one of the most remarkable Devonians who ever lived. In his ninety years he managed to squeeze in enough activity for at least half a dozen normal lifetimes. He was squire and parson of his West Devon parish of Lewtrenchard, prolific novelist and author of miscellaneous books, folklorist, antiquary, traveller, hymn writer, theologian and – not the least of his achievements – father of fifteen children. As with other great Victorians like Dickens and Brunel, it is the sheer energy of the man that impresses, as much as anything that he did.

He is best remembered today for a number of chatty guide books to the West Country, as an early collector of local folk songs, and perhaps for his hymn ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers.’ Students of Devon still respect his pioneer work on Dartmoor stones and circles, and cherish him as a personality no less individual than those who feature in his two-volume Devonshire Characters and Strange Events. Further afield, his story touches places as varied as industrial Yorkshire and rural Essex, and he himself ranged in his wanderings all over Europe, from Iceland to Rome, as well as almost every tor and valley of Dartmoor.

He was born in Exeter, but spent much of his childhood travelling around the continent with his parents in genteel poverty. This fed his romantic love of the past, his eye for landscape and his nose for a good story. He had little formal schooling, but ended up speaking between six and nine languages (according to the source you use), an unusual accomplishment for an Englishman of the time, or indeed any time. He was always a magpie-collector of odd facts, strange tales, archaeological fragments and ancient traditions, and these found their way into his voluminous writings, which are now themselves a rich quarry for all who enjoy delving into folklore and the byways of literature.

Though he was the eldest son, and destined to inherit the family estate at Lewtrenchard, Sabine was determined to enter the church. He already had a vision for his life’s work, which was to secure the spiritual, physical and moral well-being of his ancestral community. For this he had to wait until, as patron of the parish church, he could present himself to the living, thus combining the roles of squire and parson (or ‘squarson’). He was to reign there as village patriarch for over forty years, leaving a mark on the parish that can still be felt. But before this could happen, he had to spend some time away from Devon.

From his studies at Cambridge he went to Sussex as a schoolmaster, where he was remembered for wearing bright suits and keeping a pet bat on his shoulder. He then worked for several years as a curate at Horbury, a roaring industrial village in Yorkshire. Here he met the love of his life, a beautiful, illiterate mill girl, much younger than himself, called Grace Taylor. Against huge opposition from both families, he sent her away to be educated and turned into a ‘lady,’ and married her. They were to remain devoted to each other until her death in 1916.

There followed a few years as rector of East Mersea on the Essex marshes. From Sabine’s experience here came his most famous novel, Mehalah, a strange, powerful tale of the remote marshland communities he grew to know so well. Swinburne thought it was as good as Wuthering Heights, and more recently John Fowles has written a respectful introduction to it. Like all his novels it is gothic, melodramatic, colourful and full of unforgettable imagery. The description of a wedding in a decayed church, and the scene where a madman, a heart-broken girl and an injured seagull all seek comfort and oblivion in the night sea, show a grasp of symbolism that is very effective.

It is only very recently that his novels have started receiving any serious attention, but they deserve it, and he certainly knows how to grab the reader from the beginning: a sailor walks into a pub with a baby under his arm, and puts it down on a table which the landlady has just cleaned with a poisonous substance; a coach and horses driving across Dartmoor crash into a stone, smashing the coach to pieces; a young man hangs half-crucified from a tree, while a wolf sniffs his blood; a woman throws herself and her twelve-year-old daughter into Sutton Harbour off Plymouth’s Barbican, but the tide is out and they land safely on stinking mud and filth; how could anyone not read on, after openings like these?

In 1881 Sabine was finally able to enter into his inheritance at Lewtrenchard. Here he became rooted. He beautified his church and manor house with artefacts from all over Europe, making both buildings unique memorials to his personality, cared for his estate and its tenants, raised his large family and pursued his myriad interests. It was never easy, and this is one reason he wrote so much: he needed the income. He wrote, standing, at night, and the words poured from his pen: novels, short stories, guides, biographies, travel books, unclassifiable collections of oddities, folk-tales and legends, articles, papers, sermons and hymns. He published at least 159 books, and his bibliography is still not complete.

His prose style may not be ‘great,’ but it is always readable and sometimes memorable, and every sentence reveals the man. He puts down each thought as it comes to him, goes off into digressions and anecdotes, reminiscences and opinions, until the thread seems to be completely lost, then he suddenly remembers it and gets back to the point. When he has written the required amount to fill a book, or an article, he stops, and moves on to the next project.

Sabine’s contradictions are many. A man of cosmopolitan culture, he rails at the foreign waltz for replacing good old English dance tunes. Fascinated by the occult and supernatural, he yet refuses to take any of it seriously. He will cite case after case to prove the efficacy of dowsing or faith healing, convincing the most sceptical reader that there must be something in it, but even while doing this he seems determined to dismiss it as nonsense. It has to be peasant ignorance and superstition. The result is that reading too much Baring-Gould at one time can be rather confusing.

Sabine’s old home, Lewtrenchard House, is now a hotel. Here can be seen the desk at which he stood and wrote (I have stood and written at that desk). His library is now at Exeter University, but until recently was at Killerton House, Broadclyst, local headquarters of the National Trust. Here, some years ago, I was able to wander amongst the very books he used, and which surrounded him as he laboured tirelessly through the night. It is always strangely moving to be in an author’s library or study, to see the actual volumes from which he gleaned a particular fact, or out of which he copied a certain reference (or, in his case, probably didn’t copy it; he relied very much on memory, and did not always interrupt the flow to check his sources).

He believed that, after his parish work, his greatest achievement was his collection of West Country folk songs and tunes. This may have looked an eccentric judgment at the time, but is now generally agreed to be the case. It started, in characteristic fashion, as a casual conversation over a meal in 1888, and became his dominant interest for over ten years. During that time he walked and drove all over Devon and East Cornwall, seeking out the old village singers and noting down their words and melodies. At a time of rigid class distinctions, he believed that illiterate hedge-cutters and stone-breakers had something of immense value, and though he may sometimes have been what we would consider patronising, he gained their trust, and they opened up to him. His informants were men like James Parsons of Lewdown, who once sang for sixteen quarts of ale, and Robert Hard of South Brent, who, weeks after he spent the day singing for the parson, was found dead in a snowdrift.

Baring-Gould collected hundreds of songs, and while he was not the first to publish such material, he was probably the first to want to get the songs actually sung again, rather than merely preserved as antiquarian items. He believed them to have an integrity, even a purity, lacking in commercially produced music. If the people could be persuaded to sing the old songs, it would be all the better for society (this is, of course, still a familiar argument of folk revivalists). To this end he took his family and friends in a touring concert party around Devon and Cornwall, introducing the local bourgeoisie to the newly discovered ‘peasant’ songs. Unfortunately, to make them acceptable to middle class sensibilities he cleaned up, and sometimes completely rewrote, the words. He has been ridiculed for this ever since, but it is difficult to know what else he could have done. He at least preserved the real words, in all their rudeness. This, however, is why generations of children grew up thinking that ‘folk songs’ were twee ditties about buttercups and daisies. In fact that particular song, ‘Strawberry Fair,’ is a very aggressive one about sex, using the time-hallowed imagery of a key entering a lock.

The more I learn about Baring-Gould and his work, the more I like him, with all his contradictions. Despite his impeccable, landed family background, and his position as parson and squire, he was in many ways an outsider. Because of his wandering childhood, and lack of the public school education usual for one of his class, he never built up the network of friendships and contacts which men of his and later times used to develop a more normally successful career in the church, army, politics or foreign service. But this isolation, together with his continent-wide store of knowledge, also enabled him to be who he was, and to do the work that only he could do.

He certainly left his imprint on his home landscape. I cannot be in the area between the north west edge of Dartmoor and the eastern edge of Bodmin Moor, say between Okehampton and Launceston, without being acutely aware of his personality. This is his country, as much as Dorset is Hardy’s. Coming down, with friends, off Great Lynx Tor not long ago, looking out over that great expanse of Devon and Cornwall, I almost expected to find him striding along with us; later, as we drew up at the Castle Inn at Lydford, where we were to eat, I found myself wondering if old James Parsons or Edmund Fry would be in there, singing for their ale; then I remembered that they were all long dead. But they live on in the works of the unique squarson of Lewtrenchard.

The Longmarsh Press will soon be publishing a new edition of Baring-Gould’s Dartmoor Idylls.

For those interested in learning more about the man and his work, see the Sabine Baring-Gould Appreciation Society.