Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) was born into a West
Country family who had held the manor and patronage of Lew
Trenchard in Devon for many generations. Known now chiefly as the
author of the hymn "Onward, Christian soldiers", he was in his time
a widely read author on church history, theology, folklore,
archaeology, and hymns. His Lives of the Saints ran to 15
volumes, and he wrote 40 novels. Nevertheless, he regarded his
principal work as that of priest and pastor, culminating in 43
years of service as Rector of Lew Trenchard. He died on 2 January
SOME people found Sabine Baring-Gould aloof. He carried his
great height with a patrician's bearing. He avoided society,
disliked clergy gatherings, and had a low opinion of bishops.
Of the troublesome Archbishop of York, William Thomson, he
wrote: "He possessed an autocratic temper, such as was naturally
bred in a man rapidly advanced from a breeches-maker's shop in a
small provincial town." Confident of his heritage and vocation,
Baring-Gould looked for no advancement beyond his rectory.
When serving as a curate in Horbury in Yorkshire, he was asked
to establish a mission in the Brig, the roughest part of the
parish. He found a cottage to rent, turning the ground floor into a
weekday night school for adults, and the upstairs into a
On Sunday afternoons, there was catechism for the children, and
choir practice. On Sunday evening, there was evensong, led by
Baring-Gould, immensely tall in his black cassock and standing on
the fender in the upper room, the mantelpiece behind him carrying
cross and candles. It was for the children of this congregation
that he wrote "Onward, Christian soldiers", to be sung at the Whit
"You must tell us a story afore you go!" the children would
plead, holding him back after the service. He had a great gift for
storytelling. Before ordination, he had spent some years on the
staff of Hurstpierpoint College in Sussex. Former pupils recalled
his pony, Bottlethrush, which he had brought back from Iceland, and
the tame bat that lodged in his room. But, above all, they
recollected "those yarns he used to spin".
His parishioners in Horbury Brig were colliers, bargemen,
miners, and mill-hands. He had them in mind when he wrote in his
autobiographical novel Through Flood and Flame: "You have
not far to look before you find souls so lovely . . . that you will
be convinced it is not in the conservatories of the rich alone that
God delights to grow his lilies."
He fell in love with a 16-year-old mill worker, Grace Taylor,
whom he married two years later, against the wishes of both
families. "A woman's love burns slowly, with great warmth and
light, but steadily," he wrote in Through Flood and Flame.
"A man's love rages hot and furious, and consumes fuel and
furnace." When Grace died, 50 years later, he had engraved on her
tomb "Dimidium animae meae" ("half my soul").
She bore him 15 children. Baring-Gould sometimes lost count.
"And whose little girl are you, my dear?" he asked during a party,
when the rectory was full of other people's children. "I'm yours,
In Lew Trenchard, early in the morning, his coachman would bring
round the trap, and the Rector would set off on his rounds,
visiting the cottages, and in winter taking bowls of hyacinth bulbs
with the promise to return when they were in bloom.
He fixed bells to the pony's harness when driving round his
estate to give his men warning, as he did not wish to find them
idling. "He thought it was best so," said his churchwarden, Charlie
Davy. "Everybody loved him."
In a letter to this same churchwarden, Baring-Gould, aged 86,
wrote: "When I came here as rector 40 years ago, I had two objects
in view, to teach the people of Lew to love God, and to be true to
His Catholic Church. I feel deeply how little I have effected
through my own shortcomings. But I trust that at the Last Day . . .
you and some others here will be able to speak a word for me. So,
dear Charlie, you see I lean on you as my advocate at the
Few of his parishioners would have agreed with his low
The Revd Adrian Leak was, until his recent retirement,
Priest-in-Charge of Withyham, in the diocese of