The Living Tradition
PO Box 1026

Tel 01563 571220

Articles Index
Back Issues

About Us
Writer's Guidelines
Site Map

Email Us

This site is Copyright (C) The Living Tradition Ltd. No part of this site may be used without the permission of The Living Tradition

The Living Tradition - Homepage




The Sabine Baring-Gould Song Collection
by Chris Foster


It is a truism, of course, that without the collectors and scholars of the past the traditional music of these islands would be very much the poorer. Names like Bishop Percy come to mind, Bunting and O'Neill for Ireland, Burns and Captain Simon Fraser, Cecil Sharp and Stan Hugill. These were just a few of the numerous dedicated amateurs, equipped often with nothing more than enthusiasm and a paper and pencil, who roamed the scattered hamlets or penetrated the gloom of Victorian workhouses in search of the old singers, or struggled through remote Highland glens during the worst of weathers. In England, parsons were much to the fore with the collecting - albeit often deploring some of the 'indelicate material' that they subsequently found amongst ordinary folk! One such reverend gentleman, to whom we owe a huge debt, is Sabine Baring-Gould.

Sabine Baring-Gould was born in Exeter in 1834. His childhood and education were untypical for an English boy of his social background in those days, getting little formal schooling because his father spent a good part of each year travelling in Europe, taking the young Sabine with him.

After graduating from Cambridge, Baring-Gould taught for a while before training, in his late twenties, to be an Anglican priest. He served his curacy at Horbury Bridge, a Yorkshire mill town and it was there, when he was 34, that he married Grace Taylor a 16 year old mill girl. Some people believe that their relationship gave George Bernard Shaw the idea for Pygmalion.

Throughout his life Baring-Gould had a reputation for eccentricity. It is well documented that while he was a school teacher at Hurstpierpoint in Sussex, he gave lessons with his pet bat perched on his shoulder. He certainly had enormous physical and mental energy. Alongside his work as parson, he was a scholar, antiquarian, folklorist and hymn writer: he wrote "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "Now the Day is Over". He was a prolific author of both fiction and non-fiction too, publishing over four hundred books and articles on topics as diverse as candle snuffers and Icelandic folklore (he taught himself Icelandic and translated Norse sagas into English).

In 1881 he inherited the parish and manor of Lewtrenchard in West Devon from an uncle and he settled and remained there as squire and parson until his death in 1924. It was during the 1880’s that he started the collection of traditional songs and music of Devon and Cornwall that he regarded as the most important achievement of his ninety year life. In those days before tape and mini disc recorders, taking down the songs was a laborious process. Not a good enough musician to write down tunes by ear without the aid of a piano, he enlisted the help of two capable musicians Henry Fleetwood-Shepherd and Frederick Bussell, one or other of whom would go with him when he visited singers in their homes or at their work. He himself would note the words while his colleague ‘pricked down’ the tune.

Unusually among the folk song collectors of the time, he tried to place the songs in their social and cultural context, and took a great interest in the people who sang for him. His note books contain many word pictures of them and these accounts give a unique insight into the lives of the working men and women of Devon in the late 19th century.

"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 notebook 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."

Not content with simply collecting the songs, he set out to popularise them. He organised tours to perform the songs in theatre shows throughout the region and in 1889 published the first edition of ‘Songs of the West’, subtitled ‘A Collection Made From The Mouths Of The People’. Other publications followed, including 'A Garland of Country Songs and English Folk Songs for Schools', published with Cecil Sharp in 1906.

In 1914 he deposited a manuscript containing 202 of his collected songs with Plymouth Municipal Library. For many years this was thought to be the full extent of his collection. But in 1992, while recording a concert to mark the centenary of the publication of ‘Songs of the West’, Paul Wilson and Marilyn Tucker of Wren Trust, a community folk arts company based in Devon and Baring-Gould scholar and singer Martin Graebe, rediscovered Baring-Gould’s ‘Personal Manuscript’. This contained over 650 songs and tunes as well as a unique collection of chapbooks and broadside ballads at Killerton House, near Exeter.

Following the discovery, Wren Trust along with the owners and custodians of the archive began a long term project to bring the whole collection back into the public domain. As a first step in 1998 the complete collection was published on microfiche and ‘Dead Maids Land’, a CD of songs from the collection, was released. Then in 1999 Wren Trust secured funding to set up The Baring-Gould Heritage Project as an on-going initiative in West Devon.


The Project has three main aims, the first of which is to bring the material in the Baring-Gould archives into the public domain, locally, nationally and internationally and to make links between the traditions of this corner of rural England and folk music traditions elsewhere, in particular places which have historic links with Devon and its long seafaring traditions. The second is to raise awareness of local folk and vernacular traditions among people who live in West Devon, using the legacy of Baring-Gould’s work as a platform for new locally distinctive community based music and arts projects. Finally, the remaining aim is to help raise awareness of the significance of Baring-Gould’s role in recording the folklore and cultural history of Devon and Cornwall and to bring it to the attention of visitors to the area.

Among other initiatives, Wren Trust and the Baring-Gould Heritage Project have so far supported local people in the production of dramatisations of two Baring-Gould novels, 'Red Spider' and 'Kitty Alone', organised projects to teach songs from the collection to children in local schools, published a book of fiddle tunes and helped to establish a ‘Michaelmas Walk’ around Lewtrenchard each September.

The main event in the Project's year is a Festival and Study Break each October. It is held in the intimate and friendly environment of local village venues in the heart of the Devon countryside, including Baring-Gould’s home at Lewtrenchard Manor. The emphasis throughout is to bring together top class performers of English traditional music, overseas musicians from places which have a connection with Devon or with Baring-Gould himself. It puts them alongside local performers, to perform and pass on songs from the collection, to write new songs, to develop musical skills - and above all, to have a lot of fun.

Links, further information and recordings: