This article, written in 1999, updates progress with research on the manuscripts and their publication and outlines Baring-Gould's life and work


The Notable Victorian - Sabine Baring-Gould

Martin Graebe

This article appeared in 'Folkwrite', issue 71, April 1999

If you have heard about Sabine Baring-Gould in the past it was probably for one of two reasons. You might have seen his name in your hymn book as you sang one of his hymns like 'Now the day is over' or, more likely, 'Onward, Christian Soldiers'. Or you might have heard that this was the Parson from the posh family who collected old songs and then changed them. You might not have known that he was one of the top ten novelists of Victorian times and that he remained in print until the 1960s. That he also wrote a huge number of non-fiction books, sermons and articles that has put him at the head of the league table in terms of number of publications listed by the British Library. Or that he has been credited with being the inspiration for Shaw's version of the Pygmalion legend because of his unconventional marriage to a young mill-girl and is said to have influenced Conan Doyle in writing 'Hound of the Baskervilles'. He was one of the leading archaeologists of Dartmoor at the end of the last century. He also rebuilt his home, his church and the estate at Lewtrenchard as well as being the father of fifteen children. When he died in 1924 a few days short of his ninetieth birthday his obituary in the Morning Post was headed 'A Notable Victorian'. Yet of all the things that he did with his life, the one Baring-Gould himself valued most highly was the collection of the folk songs of Devon and Cornwall, a quest which started at a dinner table in Tavistock when Baring-Gould was already 54 years old and which was to last for nearly 30 years.

As a churchman and a novelist Baring-Gould brought a different point of view to the collection and presentation of songs to other collectors. Though some of his methods and the presentation of his material fall short of what is expected of the modern collector it is worth remembering that this was, as Cecil Sharp put it, "The first serious and sustained attempt to collect the traditional songs of the English peasantry". Because he was trying something new Baring-Gould did it his way and brought into his work all the prejudices and conceits that marked his character as well as the scholarly interest, phenomenal memory for detail and ability with words that make it an exceptional collection.

He also brought his deep interest in people and in 'characters'. His published work contains many word pictures of the singers from whom he collected and these accounts give us a unique insight into the lives of the men and women from whom he collected. We can learn about James Olver's childhood, when he would sneak out of his bedroom at night to listen outside the pub to the songs that his strictly Wesleyan father would not allow into the house. We also find his love of old rogues like William Houghton, one-time smuggler, then Harbourmaster at Charlestown or John Woodrich, the blacksmith who had deserted his wife and children to roam Britain in search of songs and seen the inside of several gaols in the process. And we can hear about the evening he arranged for Robert Hard and James Helmore to sing for a company of ladies and gentlemen when their robust version of 'The Molecatcher' proved too much for Victorian ears.

In recent times some attempts have been made to find out more about these old singers. Peter Kennedy recorded from the Bill and Harry Westaway as Baring-Gould had done from their father, Harry. Cyril Tawney interviewed Edmund Fry's son Bill at the age of 90 and learned that the boy had been with his father on one occasion when he had passed on a song to him. In the last couple of years we have made contact with the families of Sally Satterley and Robert Paddon but the trail is cold after 100years and mostly we have to content ourselves by supplementing Baring-Gould's descriptions with census details and parish records.

The criticisms most often laid at Baring-Gould's door are to do with his editing of songs and tunes and of his treatment of these 'robust' songs. Cyril Tawney, writing on this subject in the 1970s pointed to the struggle that Baring-Gould faced between his broad-minded and enquiring nature and the role required of him as a clergyman and public figure. Though from our end of the century we may criticise Baring-Gould for the material he took out he was criticised when he originally published his collections for songs like 'Three Drunken maidens' for what he left in. Cyril was one of the first people to make an extensive study of the manuscripts that Baring-Gould gave to Plymouth Public Library in which can be found many of the original versions of the songs. These papers included Baring-Gould's 'Fair Copy' of the songs he collected together with some of the notebooks in which he and his colleagues noted down tunes and words in the field -   the 'Rough Copy', complete with mud stains.

It was believed that everything else had been lost or destroyed in the years following Baring-Gould’s death in January 1924. It has now been established that a large quantity of manuscript material had survived at Lewtrenchard Manor, Baring-Gould’s home. The house had been tenanted from the time of Baring-Gould’s death and run for most of that time as a hotel. Contrary to expectations this seems to have been a relatively safe environment because it was not until the 1970’s that, following water damage due to a leaking roof, it was decided to remove the contents of the library to a more secure location. There was an empty library at Killerton House, near Exeter, and an agreement was reached between the Baring-Gould family and the National Trust that the books from Lewtrenchard would be moved there. In 1992 an examination of the contents of the library revealed three manuscript volumes of songs. Subsequent study showed these to be Baring-Gould’s Personal Copy of the songs that he collected and the source from which he had transcribed the songs in the Plymouth Fair Copy. 

The need to make this material available for study was recognised and, in 1995, The Baring-Gould Heritage project was created with the object of raising funds to photograph and then publish on microfiche the whole of Baring-Gould's song collection from the manuscripts at Plymouth, Killerton and Harvard. It was also decided to include a large quantity of ballads and other popular literature from Baring-Gould's library. This microfiche edition was published in November 1998 and sets of these microfiches are being placed in the main public Libraries in Devon, at the Vaughan Williams Library, in the British Library and in the Houghton Library at Harvard. The microfiche edition is also available for sale and the surplus money raised will be used for conservation of the manuscripts. The project team included Merriol Almond, Baring-Gould's great grand-daughter and owner, on behalf of the family, of the manuscripts, Paul Wilson and Marilyn Tucker of Wren Trust, the Devon-based community arts organisation who undertook project management and fund-raising and Ian Maxted of Devon Libraries. Martin Graebe acted as project director and lead researcher.

Apart from the microfiches November also saw the launch of 'Dead Maid's Land' by WildGoose Studios (WGS 292) featuring previously unrecorded versions of traditional songs from the Baring-Gould manuscripts by a number of artists (reviewed in the last edition of Folkwrite). Wren Trust has published a collection of tunes collected by Baring-Gould from William Andrews, a fiddler from Sheepstor (The William Andrews Tunebook, Ed Chris Bartram and Paul Wilson, from Wren Trust, 1, St James Street, Okehampton, Devon, EX20 1DW). A collection of songs from the manuscript will be published by Wren Trust Spring 1999.