This article was written a couple of years after the discovery of the 'forgotten manuscripts' at Killerton House and describes the discovery and gives an early aseessment of the material


Songs of the West rediscovered

Martin Graebe

This article appeared in ‘English Dance and Song’ in 1995 (Vol 57 No 2 p22 – 24)


The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould has been regarded by the Folk world in almost equal parts as hero and villain. Hero for his strenuous efforts to preserve the folk songs of Devon and Cornwall. Villain for his rewriting and ‘cleaning up’ of those songs. He was not insensitive to the significance of the changes he made, however. He wrote that;

“Our object was not to furnish a volume for consultation by the musical antiquary alone, but to resuscitate, and to popularise the traditional music of the English people. As, however, to the antiquary everything is important, exactly as obtained, uncleansed from rust and unpolished, I have deposited a copy of the songs and ballads with their music exactly as taken down, for reference, in the Municipal Free Library, Plymouth."

For many years it has been believed that the Plymouth manuscripts, in the form of the hand written fair copy of 203 songs as well as the field notes and other papers were the definitive record of his song collection.

My own interest in Baring-Gould stretches back over many years and I will confess that, despite spending a fair bit of time working with them, I had been underwhelmed by the Plymouth manuscripts. Though they go beyond the acceptable face of Victorian Folk Song as in ‘Songs of the West’ they do not, for me, live up to the promise Baring-Gould held out of a complete and unedited record showing what lay behind the mask of respectability. Moreover, there are many songs that had been collected and published by Baring-Gould that don’t appear in the Plymouth manuscripts.

I knew that part of Baring-Gould’s library from Lewtrenchard had been used to stock the Library at Killerton House near Exeter when the National Trust took on responsibility for that house and had seen that there was a comprehensive collection of Baring-Gould’s own books as well as those that he used as references, including a good range of folk song and ballad collections. I had also heard tales of there being some manuscript songs there as well.

In 1992 I was working with the Wren Trust on a recording of a concert that we had put together to celebrate the centenary of the publication of ‘Songs of the West’. We had been offered the chance to record a live performance in the library at Killerton, surrounded by Baring Gould’s books. In the course of this we were shown three manuscript volumes of songs whose contents appeared very similar to the Plymouth manuscripts. 

Since then I have visited Killerton several times to work with the manuscripts with the permission of the owner of the manuscripts, Merriol Almond, who is Baring-Gould’s Great-granddaughter and the National Trust who are their custodians. It is now clear that these three volumes are Baring-Gould’s own fair copy of the songs he collected, written up from his rough notes. They contain some 620 songs together with some variants that are listed in more than one place in the manuscript - a significantly greater number than the Plymouth Ms.

Each of the books is made up of lined foolscap with a vellum binding. Baring-Gould refers, in a letter to Cecil Sharp (16th July 1904), to his “vellum covered book”, having used it as the reference to solve a problem with a tune. An interview with the Rev James Dunk for “The Methodist Recorder” (17th Feb 1898) found by Jacqueline Patten in Baring-Gould’s papers gives the following description. 

“Upon touching the question of folk-melodies he literally leaped from his chair into the shadows of his long library, and came back with a bulky volume in his hand. ‘I have four of these - full,’ he said; ‘there you have on one page the words of the folk song, and on the opposite page the music; sometimes in two or three versions.’ These volumes are all in MS., done by Baring-Gould’s own hand.”

The fourth volume referred to is probably that which is currently kept with the other three and is of similar appearance which does not, in fact, contain songs but details of Baring-Gould family history. 

The layout of the three books of songs is identical to that used for the manuscripts that Baring Gould gave to Plymouth Library as the public record of his folk song collecting. On the left hand page he used red ink for drawing the stave lines for the music, probably with a ruler, but usually, it seems, in haste so that the right-hand ends of the lines start to bend and drift. He then used black ink for the notes and for the words, which he wrote on the facing page. In most cases he has recorded several variants of the tune and also of the words, with the source of each being recorded next to it.

Sometimes he has used pencil - often in short notes to himself to refer back to another song or, occasionally, seeming irritated with himself for making a mistake. Over ‘Lord Arthur’ in volume 2, for example, he has written “I never took down the words opposite. They do not belong to this tune or fit it.” In a few instances the pencil indicates uncertainty. For the song ‘In the Winter of Life’ which he collected from Charles Arscott the singer would not allow him to take down the words, only the tune. Baring Gould reconstructed the song from memory but wrote it into the manuscript volume in pencil. Two years later, on a subsequent visit to South Zeal, Arscott relented and Baring Gould was able to write over his pencil marks in triumphant black ink.

Volume 1 of the song manuscripts is, essentially, the fully detailed collection notes for the first edition of ‘Songs of the West’ There are some differences and, as with the other volumes, Baring-Gould has economically filled the last few pages with additional songs which do not appear in the published volume. In the second and third volumes SBG decided to leave adequate space between songs to be able to insert variants as he obtained them. In fact this was not necessary by the third volume as he was not collecting as actively and was usually only getting one or two variations of each song. He must have taken a pragmatic decision at some point not to start a fourth volume and, instead, to fill in the spaces as new songs arrived. This, of course, meant that his numbering system no longer had any meaning and he stopped numbering the songs altogether. This, together with several errors in numbering songs and pages makes reference to songs by page number and song number difficult. Because of this I have developed a numbering system identifying volume, page and song number by which each song can be found and have used this in producing a full index for the manuscripts.

It seems that Baring-Gould continued adding songs and annotating earlier entries until about 1912. The main activity seems to have been between 1888 and 1894 with a renewed burst of activity between 1901 and 1906. Much of the material that is written in the second and third volumes was actually collected much earlier. This suggests that Baring-Gould was adding to his fair copy from his original collecting notes as well as with new material collected by him or sent to him by others. It is interesting to see that, as time passes, he includes a number of songs that would not have met his earlier definitions of a folk song and many that he would not have published because they were risqué.

Baring Gould records a number of songs that were supplied to him by various correspondents. In the main these were people who had remembered songs and who supplied them from memory without their having been noted from a named or known singer. There were one or two correspondents who were clearly passing on a number of songs that they had collected from local singers. such as Miss Wyatt-Edgell of Upton Pyne and Miss Bidder of Stoke Fleming. Baring-Gould certainly visited Miss Bidder and there are a couple of songs from her informants where he has recorded himself as the collector. The majority of songs, however, were collected by Baring-Gould and his two partners, Dr Frederick Bussell and the Rev H Fleetwood Sheppard. From these manuscripts it has proved possible to identify more than 150 singers in Devon and Cornwall from whom Baring-Gould collected songs.

One of the most interesting discoveries in the manuscripts has been the confirmation that Baring-Gould entertained other collectors at Lewtrenchard and that song collecting was part of that entertainment when they visited him. Lucy Broadwood noted two tunes for SBG on September 7th 1893 and the manuscript records that Dr Gardiner collected a number of songs in and around Launceston in February 1905. In a letter to Cecil Sharp dated July 18th 1904 Baring-Gould wrote:

“There is an old man named Dingle near here I will get him to sing to you. But we have never used his tunes, either because we had them already or because he was not sure. However I have no doubt that he has others he has not sung to us and he may sing them to you ....... When shall you be here? I hope soon. I have a musical daughter (married) coming here the week Aug 6 - 13.”

According to the manuscript Cecil Sharp visited John Dingle at Coryton on August 12th 1904 when he noted a tune for ‘Come all you worthy Christian men’. He visited Baring-Gould again in 1905 when, on September 12th, he collected two more songs from John Dingle and also visited John Woodrich from whom he collected a tune for ‘Jacky my son’.

There are, of course, a few problems to be dealt with when working with the manuscripts. I have already mentioned the problems of numbering, pagination and duplication of songs. Of greater significance is the difficulty of dealing with Baring-Gould’s hand writing. Unlike the Plymouth manuscript, this was a private record and he was not always as careful as he might have been had he known that we would be reading the work 80 years later. Familiarity and practice make it easier, but there are some words where only a guess is possible. The same applied to the tunes. There are a number of occasions when we cannot be sure that what is written was what was sung because it makes no sense musically. Again, there are times when it is necessary to solve the difficulty with common sense and a feeling for what is ‘right’. If this approach seems unscholarly then I suppose the justification has to be that it is what Baring-Gould himself would have done in this situation.

It is worth reporting that, as well as the song manuscripts there are a number of other interesting items in the library. Baring-Gould’s personal copies of his published collections ‘Songs of the West’ and ‘A Garland of Country Song’ have bound into them a number of additional hand-written pages with notes and variants of tunes, There is also Baring-Gould’s own copy of Sharp’s ‘English Folk Song - Some Conclusions’ with an inscription from the author under his printed dedication of the volume to Baring-Gould.

Another interesting footnote is that, when I embarked on this project, I was also shown more than 30 boxes of letters and other papers related to Baring-Gould which were in the basement at Killerton. Jacqueline Patten has spent some time working with these papers and they have now been transferred to the Devon County Records Office in Exeter. It is going to take a long time to work through all this material but it is already clear that there is much here of interest to admirers of Baring-Gould and his work.

The song manuscripts are of great interest and importance and it is essential that they are studied and that the songs are made available to be sung again. The National Trust is only able to grant access to the manuscripts for study on a very restricted basis because of the lack of suitable facilities at Killerton and because the manuscripts can only be studied when the house is closed to the public. I am now discussing with Merriol Almond how we might get microfilmed copies of the manuscripts made and placed in the West Country Studies Library at Exeter and in the Vaughan Williams Library. She is extremely enthusiastic about this idea, as have been all the people I have talked to so far about it. Having established the feasibility of the project the next step is to get some financial help and this is now being followed up. The intention is that the original manuscripts should remain at Killerton where, with the rest of Baring-Gould’s library, they will form the best possible record of the achievements of this remarkable man.

So far few of the songs have been sung in public. The only project that has been undertaken using the manuscript so far was that, to celebrate the centenary of Baring-Gould having visited South Zeal in August 1894. This was an event that Baring-Gould had described vividly in his writing and we extracted a number of the songs that were sung to him by the singers of South Zeal and included them in a concert for the Dartmoor Folk Festival. One of the songs that we performed was the one that old Charles Arscott had been so reluctant to pass on - ‘In the Winter of Life’. It seems appropriate to append this robust little song as an example of the wonderful material to be found in the Killerton manuscripts.

(To look at the song 'In The Winter of Life', click on the link below)

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