Baring Gould Sabine Baring-Gould: A Brief Biography


January 1834, Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould was born in Dix’s Field outside Exeter, Devon, but most of his life’s story is associated with his family parish of Lew Trenchard, nine miles north of Tavistock, where in later life he was squarson and parson of the parish church for 43 years.  His was a long and full life, and his many interests and talents combined with some family affluence makes Baring-Gould as unusual and entertaining a character as any in Dartmoor Idylls.  His father, Captain Edward Baring-Gould, attempted to settle down with his mother, Charlotte Bond, at Lew Trenchard but quickly got bored with rural life, bought a carriage, and packed up to live in a state of “genteel vagabondage”; as a result, from ages of three till sixteen when his family finally returned to Devon, Baring-Gould the younger had spent less than three years in England.  This restlessness did not permit him to have much proper schooling, though he was very bright (by the time he was fifteen he could speak five languages fluently); however, it doubtless fostered his love of adventures and promoted many of his hobbies, especially his interest in antiquities. 


Once settled in England, he attended Cambridge, after which he took on several paid and volunteer teaching positions, where his quirks and affinity for the natural were manifest in keeping an Icelandic pony called Bottlebrush  on school grounds and a pet bat, which often clung to his shoulder while the taught.  ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, the Anglican hymn for which he is still remembered, was likely written while he held a position at Horbury Brig.  While at Holbury, 34 year old Baring-Gould met and married Grace Taylor, a sixteen year uneducated old mill girl, after an astonishing courtship during which he sent her away to be educated before tying the knot!  They went on to live very happily together and produce fifteen children, though one must wonder how he kept track of them all– another story goes that at a children’s party one evening a child bumped into his leg and, upon picking her up, he asked “And whose little girl are you?”, at which the child burst into tears and said “I’m yours Daddy!”.


Prior to his time teaching, a stay in Tavistock in 1851 had deeply affected him, leading him to physical and literary explorations of Dartmoor.  Baring-Gould was fascinated by traditional folk melodies– as a young man he spent many evenings in local pubs around Dartmoor listening to the songs of moormen– as well as by the ancient ruins across the Moors, and the biology, geology, and anthropology which formed its whole.  In addition to Dartmoor-specific Idylls, one of the works of which he was most proud was his Songs of the West (1889–91), a collection of these folk songs from around Devon and Cornwall. Baring Gould is of course by no means the only writer, native and otherwise, who found in this lonely and unique portion of the South West captivating.  Dating as far back as the early 1600s with William Browne of Tavistock, authors such as Eden Phillpotts and Arthur Conan Doyle have been inspired by the stark landscapes and rich traditions of the Moors.  Interesting to note is that though Conan Doyle and Baring-Gould likely never met, he makes an appearance in a contemporary Sherlock Holmes novel The Moor, by Laurie R. King and his grandson, William Baring-Gould, was a Holmes scholar.


In all, Baring-Gould wrote at least 150 works, ranging from collections of folk songs and tales, geological and anthropological guides to various regions of both England and the continent, many full length Victorian novels and several collections of myths, superstitions, ghost stories and other “curious events”.   Thirty–odd unpublished manuscripts of his still, the Killerton manuscripts, remain kept in the Devon Record Office in Exeter.  Thus far, however, only three of his works have been uploaded onto Project Gutenberg: The Book of Were Wolves []–one of his fantasy-ghost story collections, Castles and Cave Dwellings of Europe [], and In Troubadour Land, a Ramble through Provence and Languedoc []. 


For more complete Biographical information, Bickford Dickinson’s book Sabine Baring- Gould: Squarson, Writer and Folklorist, 1834–1924 (David & Charles: Newton Abbot, 1970) is a well rounded account with pictures and illustrations, from which I got most of my information.  Also, as Dickinson himself suggests, there is a short and to the point section on Baring-Gould in The English Parson, by William Addison (1947) and another full biography, Onward, Christian Soldier, by William Purcell (1957).

© Copyright Anna Hale 2007


a clergyman who holds the position of squire in his parish