How Baring-Gould Collected Folk Songs, The people that he collected from and some of the songs that he heard


Collecting Folk Songs in Devon and Cornwall

Sabine Baring-Gould was interested in folk-life from his childhood and he writes that, as a child, he wrote down the songs that the household staff sang. Later he recorded songs and folklore that he heard in Iceland, Yorkshire and Essex, but it was in 1888 that his real quest for songs began. He had been dining with his friend Daniel Radford in Tavistock. The men around the table were talking about the 'old songs' and how they didn't seem to hear them any more. Radford proposed to Baring-Gould that he should set about collecting them - a challenge that he accepted.

Baring-Gould started by going about his acquaintances and asking them whether they knew songs or knew of singers. He also wrote letters to the newspapers asking for songs. The response was only good, but he was sure he was not getting all that he could. He invited some of the singers he had heard about, like James Parson's and John Woodridge to come to the house and sing for him.

This was more productive, but he was restricted to people within walking distance. Though some heroes from Bridestowe and Lydford walked over to Lewtrenchard, he realised that he had to get out and meet the singers in their homes and in the pubs where the men sang. There was also another difficulty. He was finding it hard to note the melodies correctly, though he could pick them out on the piano. Clearly he could not rely on there being a piano wherever he was. He resolved the difficulty by enlisting the aid of two  capable musicians, Henry Fleetwood-Sheppard and Frederick Bussell, to go with him when he visited the old singers in their homes or at their work. Baring-Gould would then write down the words while Sheppard or Bussell 'pricked down' the tune. Baring-Gould describes one of these occasions as follows:

"One wild and stormy day, Mr Bussell and I visited Huccaby to interview old Sally Satterly, who knew a number of songs. Her father was a notable singer and his old daughter, now a grandmother, remembered some of his songs. But old Sally could not sit down and sing. We found that the sole way in which we could extract the ballads from her was by following her about as she did her usual work. Accordingly we went after her when she fed the pigs, or got sticks from the firewood rick or filled a pail from the spring, pencil and notebook in hand, dotting down words and melody. Finally she did sit to peel some potatoes, when Mr Bussell with a manuscript music-book in hand, seated himself on the copper. This position he maintained as she sang the ballad of "Lord Thomas and the Fair Eleanor", till her daughter applied fire under the cauldron and Mr Bussell was forced to skip from his perch."


Henry Fleetwood-Sheppard

 Baring-Gould wrote about Fleetwood-Sheppard shortly after his death in 1901


 "Henry Fleetwood Sheppard was a graduate of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and had been appointed Travelling Batchelor to the University. Through the whole of his clerical career he was closely associated with sacred music, especially with plain-song. of which he was an enthusiastic admirer. As precentor of the Doncaster Choral Union from 1864 to 1884, he became the pioneer of improved church music in that part of Yorkshire. In the year 1868 he was presented to the Rectory of Thurnscoe, which at that time was an agricultural village numbering about 180 inhabitants, where he remained until 1898, when he resigned his living on account of his advancing years which precluded his coping satisfactorily with the population swelled to 3366 souls, owing to the opening of coal mines in the parish. In 1888 … he was associated along with myself in the collection of Devon and Cornish folk songs.

When he resigned the incumbency of Thurnscoe, he retired to Oxford, where, in his declining years, he might, at his leisure, dip into those store houses of classical and musical literature in which his soul delighted. Three days before Christmas, 1901, a slight stroke of paralysis gave warning of possible serious mischief. A sudden and fatal collapse ensued on St John's day, without further warning. He was laid to rest at Oxford on New Year's Eve. An inscription in the Vestry wall at Thurnscoe, was cut by one who was in Mr Sheppard's choir for nearly forty years before his death. 'Pray for the peace of Henry Fleetwood Sheppard, Rector of this parish church 1868-1898, who went to rest Dec 27th, 1901, aged 77 years."

Baring-Gould also indicates that Sheppard's papers were destroyed by his family after his death and it is believed that this included much of the work done by Sheppard on tunes.

There is little that survives of correspondence between Sheppard and Baring-Gould. One letter that does survive is pasted into Baring-Gould's journal. It is hard to read but one can guess that it was a response to some self-doubt on Baring-Gould's part and reads:

Thurnscoe Rectory
Dec 7 1897

My Dear Baring-Gould

I quite feel with you about S of W. Whether the world will endorse your opinion that it is your magnum opus I cannot say. You have done so much and in so many ways. But it certainly has a special value …… when the time shall come for the whole question of English Folksong to be scientifically, comparatively and critically examined - then the worth of S of W will be felt.

I rather incline to prefer the Garland to S of West. I almost think that the level of the melodies is higher and that there is less doubtful material …… but this I do think , that the two books taken together are a really worthy contribution to the national folk music. (etc.)



Frederick Bussell

Frederick Bussell was the more colourful of Baring-Gould's two collaborators and spent more time out collecting with him than Fleetwood-Sheppard. Baring-Gould describes him as follows:


 "I had built a pretty cottage … on the Lime Quarry Ramps, and this I let to a Mrs. Bussell, whose son, FW Bussell, was at the time at Magdalen College, Oxford; but having passed a brilliant examination for his degree he was elected fellow of Brasenose, the fellows of Magdalen rather despising him for his eccentricities. When congratulated on his success he dryly remarked: 'Either the fellows of Magdalen or those of Brasenose have made a great mistake.'

Bussell was a dandy, wore very showy ties, and had hot-house flowers sent him from London of the same colour as his ties to wear in his button-hole. He sang falsetto, and was quite unconscious of the amusement he provoked when singing "Dinah-do." At a concert the audience was convulsed with laughter, and his mother would look about her with glances of fury at those who dared to feel amusement at "Freddy's" squawks. He had taken his Mus. Bac. and was an accomplished musician; but he said to me, "a good melody affords me no pleasure. What I love is a fugue or an intricate piece of harmony; it gives me as much gratification as working out a mathematical problem does a mathematician." He was of enormous advantage to me in collecting the folk-airs of Devon, and was ever good natured, obliging and ready to help in the matter."

Frederick Bussell was born in 1862 in Marlow, Buckinhamshire where his father was the Vicar. After gaining his degree at Magdalen College he was invited to become a fellow of Brasenose College in 1886. From the above we can infer that Baring-Gould knew Bussell as an undergraduate through his mother and that their acquaintance thus began some time before they started to collect songs together. Bussell became Vice-Principal of Brasenose in 1896, a post he held until 1913. His resignation came shortly after a marriage that, according to a letter written by John Buchan, who was an undergraduate at Brasenose at the time, surprised everyone. In 1917 Bussell left Brasenose and accepted the College living of Northolt in Middlesex. This living he resigned in 1925, being no longer able to survive financially in a parish where the expenses exceeded the income. After a short period as Rector in his own living at North Tuddenham in Norfolk he made over all his property to Brasenose in exchange for an annuity and retired to Worthing where he died in 1944

It is not, perhaps, a surprise that he was accounted as much of a 'character' in Oxford as he was in Devon. He had an unusual hobby, that was frowned on by the authorities of both Church and the University - he collected church livings. The resultant disgreements led, at one stage, to a period of exile in France. His papers show, however, that this was a modestly profitable enterprise. Having, for example, bought Exbourne Manor and it's living for £4,000 he sold it a few years later for £6,200.

The archive at Brasenose College holds a large collection of Bussell's papers, part of which was discovered in the attic of the coach house at North Tuddenham Rectory. Among these papers is a hand-written biography. Though he records his acquaintanceship with Baring-Gould in kindly terms his connection with the collection of folk song is dealt with in one sentence:

"We had very pleasant times together, collecting songs all over Devon and Cornwall, the credit of which was annexed by a Mr Cecil Sharpe who rearranged them to very tame settings indeed."