Sabine Baring-Gould

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Sabine Baring-Gould, English clergyman, folksong collector, novelist and writer. Born Exeter, 28 Jan 1834; died Lewtrenchard, Devon, 2 Jan 1924.

Essentially an autodidact, Baring-Gould managed to scrape through a degree at Cambridge, After several years as a teacher at St. Johns College, Hurstpierpoint Baring-Gould was ordained in 1864. On his father’s death in 1872 he inherited the family estates at Lewtrenchard, where he became rector in 1881, and served as a Justice of the Peace. He travelled widely and wrote extensively on both theological and more general topics.

He was the author of the words of many well-known hymns, Onward, Christian Soldiers being the best known example.

Baring-Gould was also a pioneer in the collection of English folksong: between 1888 and 1891 he published 110 songs, transcribed from performances by singers in Devon and Cornwall, as Songs and Ballads of the West. This collection was made jointly with the Rev. H.F. Sheppard, the Rector of Thurnscoe in Yorkshire and Dr. Frederick Bussell, later to become Vice-Principal at Brasenose College, Oxford. Baring-Gould and Sheppard collaborated also on A Garland of Country Song (1895) and English Minstrelsie (1895–6). For the 1905 revision of Songs of the West Cecil Sharp replaced Sheppard as Musical Editor,

Baring-Gould has been criticised for his bowdlerisation - indeed, in some cases, rewriting - of many of the songs that he collected. It is worth remembering that he was publishing with a mainstream publisher Methuen for a primarily middle class audience. Inclusion of some of the sexually explicit material was not an option.

As a collector of songs from the mouths of singers he was preceded in England only by John Broadwood whose Sussex Songs was published for private circulation in 1843. Baring-Gould and Sheppard's folk song publications preceded those of W.A. Barrett (1891), Frank Kidson (1891), John Stokoe (1892), and Lucy Broadwood & J.A. Fuller Maitland (1893). Between 1903 and 1907 Sharp visited baring-Gould on a number of occasions, at first to seek his advice on folk song collecting, and then to collaborate on the Revision of Songs of the West' and then on the production of English Folk Songs for Schools (1906).


A Short Note on a Long Life

100 years ago 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 Sheppards, 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 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 travelling 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 and 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 entered the church.

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. 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 marriage 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 travelling 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 actually paid for these other activities. The current estimate of publications, including books, hymns and magazine articles is at least 1200. 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 of the West".

He worked on the collection for 12 years and travelled hundreds of miles though Devon and Cornwall to visit the old singers in their homes, their pubs and in the fields. He was not, himself, a good musician and was helped in his work by two other men, Dr Fredrick Bussell and the Reverend H W 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. Baring Gould 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.

That 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 a number of new arrangements replacing those by Sheppard.

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 still remembered fondly in Lewtrenchard and West Devon. To Folk Revival singers in England he has left a legacy that will be a source of joy for centuries to come.

Martin Graebe

External links

'Songs of the West' Sabine Baring-Gould and the folk songs of South-West England - site maintained by Martin Graebe. This site has been completely rebuilt and will continue to be worked on to add further material in the coming months.

Essay on English Folk-Music - from volume VII of Baring-Gould's English Minstrelsie: a National Monument of English Song.

The website of the Sabine Baring-Gould Appreciation Society Contains a growing collection of articles about Baring-Gould from the Society's newsletter, reflecting the broader sweep of his life.


Brenda Colloms, ‘Gould, Sabine Baring- (1834–1924)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2005

Bernarr Rainbow: 'Baring-Gould, Sabine', Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy,


Baring-Gould was an astonishingly prolific writer. His bibliographer, Roger Bristow, currently places the number of publications that he had to his name at more than 1,240. For a short list of his folk music books go to [1]