A short biography of Sabine Baring-Gould.


A Short Note on a Long Life

In 1889 the first part of a wholly remarkable book was published. That book was Songs and Ballads of the West and had as it's subtitle "A collection made from the mouths of the people by the Rev. S. Baring-Gould, M.A., and the Rev. H. Fleetwood Sheppard, M.A.".   Sabine Baring-Gould was the Squire and Parson of the parish of Lewtrenchard in West Devon. He was also a scholar, antiquarian, collector and a prolific author of both fiction and non-fiction: a man who was, in many ways, out of step with the rest of his generation.

Baring Gould was born in Exeter in 1834 to a father whose career with the Cavalry Regiment of the East India Company had been cut short by a carriage accident. His childhood was unsettled since his father preferred to escape the boredom of England by traveling through Europe for the greater part of the year. This meant that Baring-Gould had little formal schooling but this did not prevent him from scraping through Cambridge, though he could never get to grips with the mathematics that would have been essential to achieving his father's expectation that he become an engineer. His unconventional views and behaviour were obvious even then, and he was a persistent critic of the establishment (particularly that of the church) throughout his life. His romantic nature drew him towards the ritual of the Anglican 'High Church' and to the Norse sagas. Having been forbidden by his father to enter the church he took up teaching for several years until, when he was thirty, his father finally relented and he was ordained.

He became a curate at Horbury in Yorkshire where he was given the task of founding a mission to the mill-workers and canal people in a neglected part of the town. His time here was marked by three key events. The writing of his most famous hymn, 'Onward, Christian Soldiers', The publication of his first collected folk song and his engagement to a teenage mill-girl with whom he had fallen deeply in love. The love endured and in the forty-eight years until Grace Baring-Gould died they had 15 children. 

His career took him, shortly before his marriage in 1868, to a parish of his own at Dalton in North Yorkshire and then to East Mersea In Essex. It wasn't until 1881 that Baring-Gould was able to settle in Devon where he became responsible for the welfare of the few hundred people that lived in his parish and his manor. This left him time to spare for traveling regularly as he had when he was a boy, for raising his large family, for renovating his house and his church, and for writing the astonishing number of books, pamphlets and magazine articles that paid for these other activities. The current estimate of publications, including books, hymns and magazine articles is in excess of 1200 - and rising. To most people who have heard his name it is as the writer of a favourite hymn - probably 'Onward Christian Soldiers', but of all the achievements of his 90 years on this Earth, he himself rated most highly that of collecting the folk songs which were published as Songs and Ballads of the West.

He started on the collection in 1888 and the bulk of the work was completed by 1896, after he had traveled hundreds of miles though Devon and Cornwall to visit the old singers in their homes, their pubs and in the fields. Though he was a proficient musician, he was not up to the specialist task of noting down tunes as he heard them - not, at least, without a piano. For this task he recruited two skilled musicians: Fredrick Bussell and Henry Fleetwood Sheppard. When time permitted, one or other would join Baring Gould on his visits and take down the melodies while Baring-Gould noted down the words. He could not, in his era, have published the songs as recovered since they were too 'robust' for Victorian ears. Rather than publish with blank spaces or dotted lines as some other collectors chose to do, Sabine took the course of modifying the words where necessary. He has been criticised for this over the years but it is hard, in reality, to see what other course of action was open to him.

It was originally intended that Songs and Ballads of the West would be published in three parts but, in fact, it ran to four. It was not, of course, the first book about folk songs, since there had been several collections of ballads published in the 17th and 18th century. It was not even the first book of songs collected directly from the singers since the Reverend John Broadwood had published his Sussex Songs privately in 1843. It was, however, the most ambitious collection made to that date and the book set the pattern for the first folk revival at the end of the last century. The conventions devised by Baring Gould were to become the standard practice and, in particular, his recognition that the songs were linked to individual singers who were usually identified in the text. This, coupled with the way he writes about his singers as friends, if not actually equals, is what is special about Baring-Gould.

The first edition was written with Fleetwood Sheppard as musical editor and the majority of arrangements in the book were Sheppard's creations, many of them very elaborate. Baring-Gould and Sheppard also produced a second collection, A Garland of Country Song in 1895. A new edition of Songs of the West, published in 1905, was very different to the first, since Cecil Sharp took over the musical editorship with more songs, with a number of new arrangements replacing those by Sheppard, and with some songs from the earlier editions omitted.

For a few years at the beginning of the century Sharp and Baring-Gould worked closely together and Sharp was a regular visitor to Lewtrenchard. As well as Songs of the West they produced English Folk Songs for Schools in 1907 and in the same year Sharp dedicated his English Folk Song - Some Conclusions to Baring-Gould. What exactly caused their friendship to fade is unclear but Baring-Gould's references to Sharp in later years became less flattering. He certainly believed that Sharp's arrangements were not generally as good as Sheppard's. It is also likely that he was unhappy that Sharp had gained the reputation as the man who 'saved' English Folk Song and that his own part in the first revival had been overlooked. 

Baring-Gould died in 1924 at Lewtrenchard, a few days short of his 90th birthday. He was buried in his own churchyard just across the road from his house. He is remembered fondly in Lewtrenchard and West Devon. To a new generations of singers in Devon and Cornwall he has left a legacy that will be a source of joy for many years to come.