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Sabine Baring-Gould: Not just a Christian soldier

by
12 April 2024

Norman Wallwork celebrates the life and prodigious output of Sabine Baring-Gould, who died 100 years ago

Alamy

The Revd Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), in 1893

The Revd Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), in 1893

SABINE BARING-GOULD — collector and publisher of folk songs, novelist, pamphleteer, folklorist, geologist, topographer, antiquarian, Catholic Anglican pioneer, church historian, hymn-writer, and squarson — had but modest regard for his most-remembered hymn. He recalled inaccurately that, as a curate, he had “knocked off” “Onward, Christian soldiers” “in about ten minutes” for the Horbury Brig Whitsuntide children’s procession of 1865, whereas he had actually sent the hymn to the Church Times a year earlier.

The son of a country squire and retired army officer, Baring-Gould was born in Southernhay, Exeter, on 28 January 1834. He was descended from the Devon Gold (or Gould) family, and from the Exeter Barings, including the celebrated bankers and merchants. Much of Sabine’s (“Say-bin’s”) childhood was spent touring Europe; so his early education was spasmodic. After Clare College, Cambridge, he became a schoolmaster: first, in the Tractarian parish of Pimlico, London, with the famous Fr Charles Lowder; then, at Lancing and at Hurstpierpoint, both Woodard foundations, described by Baring-Gould as “schools for the middle classes to educate them in church principles”.

He was deaconed in 1864 and priested the following year, becoming assistant curate in Horbury, West Yorkshire, and then priest of an adjacent parish extension at Horbury Brig. Here, he met and fell in love with 14-year-old Grace Taylor, the daughter of a mill-hand. The story of the engineering of Grace’s social transformation may have been thinly disguised in Baring-Gould’s first full-length novel, Through Flood and Flame. The marriage lasted until Grace’s death, 48 years later, and produced 15 children.

In 1871, Baring-Gould moved to be Rector of East Mersea, in Essex. The next year, on the death of his father, he inherited the 3000-acre Devon family estates of Lew Trenchard. Nine years later, on the death of the incumbent (his great-uncle), Baring-Gould appointed himself to the living of the parish, and remodelled his squarson’s home, Lew Trenchard Manor.

Once ensconced in his Devon living, Baring-Gould began collecting the lyrics and music of local folk songs, appealing through local newspapers for the earliest traceable words and music, and becoming the pioneer of the large-scale collections. Dozens of version of hundreds of songs flowed in, including, in 1888, the words and music of “Tom Pearse, Tom Pearse” — the first of many versions of “Widdecombe Fair”.

With the eccentric and gifted Oxford don Frederick Bussell, Baring-Gould travelled on song-collecting expeditions to the furthest corners of Dartmoor, and on into Cornwall, the fruits of which were published in Songs and Ballads of the West (1889-91), whose musical editor was Henry Fleetwood Sheppard. He also collaborated with other collectors of folk songs, including Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

His prolific literary output included more than 1000 articles, and books on subjects ranging from a biography of Parson Hawker of Morwenstow to The Book of Werewolves: Being an account of a terrible superstition, which drew Bram Stoker to consult Baring-Gould when he was writing Dracula.

 

DURING his lifetime, Baring-Gould’s biggest sellers were his novels, almost all of which were first published in serial form, in journals. An exception was his first novel, The Chorister: A tale of King’s College Chapel in the Civil War, published in 1856, while he was still at Cambridge. Perhaps his finest novel, Mehalah: A story of the (Essex) salt marshes — described by Swinburne as a work of “singular and admirable power” — was written after the death of Baring-Gould’s two-year-old daughter, Beatrice: “In the bitterness of my spirit I wrote Mehalah very quickly in a month, without a pause, and poured out in it my wrath and bile. Then I was better.”

After the publication of Mehalah, Baring-Gould swiftly became a household name. Most of his novels were set in Devon or Cornwall, including the Gothic tale Margery of Quether, featuring a strange, supernatural, and ageless female vampire who emerges from the damp and darkness of the tiny church on Brent Tor. His 1892 novel, In the Roar of the Sea: A tale of the Cornish coast, featuring Cruel Coppinger and the ever popular Cornish smugglers, out-printed all his other novels.

John Betjeman, who was a devotee, observed that Baring-Gould’s world “was one where things were not as they should have been or should be”. Baring-Gould’s biographer, Rebecca Tope, suggests that many of his novels were aimed at women, revealing heroines “habitually pure, intelligent, and brave, trapped and frustrated by their situations, burdened with a dependent relative, threatened by a lustful man who has power over the heroine’s family”.

Baring-Gould was also actively involved in recording the treasures, history, and natural history of Cornwall and Devon in general, and of Dartmoor in particular. For 46 years, he was a proactive member of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art, and, with his friend Robert Burnard, organised the first scientific archaeological excavations of hut circles on Dartmoor. A significant number of the prehistoric stone rows and stone circles on Dartmoor are visible today thanks to the work of Baring-Gould and the Dartmoor Exploration Committee.

From his undergraduate days, Baring-Gould had understood and promoted the Church of England as the authentic successor of Celtic Christianity and the true custodian of the pre-Reformation Catholic tradition. As a young schoolmaster, he had conversed with John Keble himself, and had come under the spell of John Mason Neale. St Peter’s, Lew Trenchard, became a sound rural Catholic parish, teaching and putting into action Tractarian faith and practice.

In addition to his magnum opus, the 15-volume Lives of the Saints (the first 1000 copies sold out two days before publication), Baring-Gould edited The Sacristy, wrote for The Churchman’s Companion, and composed original mission hymns published in the Church Times. The Golden Gate: A manual of church doctrine and devotions instructed and nourished the devout Catholic Anglican.

He produced a major study on eucharistic origins and development, wrote warmly of Catholic renewal in The Church Revival (1914), and condescendingly of Wesley, Whitefield, and Methodism in The Evangelical Revival (1920). But he did not have undue regard for his fellow clergy, either, observing that, “for the most part the clergy of the Diocese of Exeter can be divided into those who have gone out of their minds and those who have no minds to go out of.”

 

BARING-GOULD composed and published more than 100 hymns, a fraction of which survive in the church’s repertoire. Almost his earliest attempt, “Now the day is over”, would eventually be sung at his graveside by the children of his parish. In January 1884, three native boys from the Anglican mission in Uganda — the first of 45 Anglican and Catholic 19th-century martyrs — sang, as they were mutilated and consigned to the flames, “Killa siku tunsifu” (Baring-Gould’s hymn, “Daily, daily sing the praises”).

On the fateful evening of 14 April 1912, in the second-class dining saloon, about 100 of the Titanic’s passengers attended a hymn service, which included Baring-Gould’s “On the resurrection morning” and “Now the day is over”. Shortly afterwards, the ship collided with an iceberg.

He was a pioneer of Latin hymn translations, and produced several translations or paraphrases from The Danish Hymnal, including “Through the night of doubt and sorrow”. And, using tunes from the Basque tradition arranged by Edgar Pettman, he bequeathed two enduring carols. The first was his paraphrase, “The Angel Gabriel”; the other, “Sing lullaby!” which anticipates the Lord’s Passion and resurrection. By Christmas 1924, this carol was sung in 19 cathedrals and 2000 churches; it was also sung, by a tiny group of devoted singers, in the corridor outside Baring-Gould’s bedroom eight days before his death, which came on 2 January 1924:

 

Hush, do not stir the Infant King.

Dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning.

Conquering Death, its bondage breaking:

Sing lullaby!

 

The Revd Norman Wallwork is a Supernumerary Methodist Minister and a Prebendary Emeritus of Wells Cathedral.

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