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History

19th century map of Lewtrenchard

Parish of Lewtrenchard

The Baring-Gould family are descended from an ancient Devon family called Gould that were mostly based in Staverton, South Devon until the 1620’s when some moved to Lewtrenchard a small parish in West Devon. Lewtrenchard is nestled in woods and named after the river Lew (meaning clear or sparkling in Celtic) that descends off Dartmoor towards the Tamar and the Norman family of “Trenchard” (meaning wood cutter) that owned the area in the 12th century. The Gould’s heir at the end of the 18th century married into the Exeter family of Baring. Part of the Baring family were merchants, who became important bankers, such as allowing the US government to purchase Louisiana (including all land west of the Appalachians ie the Mississippi basin) from the French and roughly double their geographical area in 1803. (NB This was when Britain was still at war with the French).

St Peter’s Church Lewtrenchard

As the Squires of Lewtrenchard the Baring-Goulds chose the church of St Peter’s incumbents and traditionally the parson of Lewtrenchard was a family member, who lived at nearby Coombetrenchard. The Squire meanwhile probably lived at Lew House, a Elizabethan Manor house that is now a luxury hotel.

Lew House
Lewtrenchard Manor in recent times, now a hotel
St Peter’s Church, Lewtrenchard viewed from the Forgotten Garden of Lewtrenchard
Sabine Baring-Gould age 5

Early Life

Sabine’s father “Edward” was a military man who after a riding accident in India returned to the sleepy parish with dreams of travelling and when fit enough he took his family away from the area on long trips to Germany and France. This meant that Sabine, the eldest son, had little formal education and grew up with a great grasp of language and self-belief. Even as a young teenager he was able to excavate a Roman villa in Pau, France and wrote of what he had discovered for peer reviewed archaeological journals.

University followed at Clare College, Cambridge where he developed his High Church religious beliefs. Little is recorded of this period, but one assumes that he became even more independent and seemingly against his father’s desire for him to become an engineer began to take up the cloth.

The Calling

Sabine Baring-Gould age 16

At about the age of 17 years it is believed that he recognised his 3 aims in life of –

  • supporting St Peter’s church, Lewtrenchard
  • improving the family house and estate of Lewtrenchard
  • supporting the parishioners of Lewtrenchard

Sabine’s father disinherited him and only reinstated him after Sabine had had decades in teaching at Hurstpierpoint school, Sussex (“a school for the middle classes to teach them in church principles”) and other “missionary-type” work in the fast-growing industrial areas of Yorkshire. It was whilst at Horbury near Wakefield that he wrote the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” for the Sunday school and where his future wife, Grace was an attendee.

Onward, Christian Soldiers by written by Sabine Baring-Gould, music composed by Arthur Sullivan

Sabine is believed to have given this young mill girl an education of sorts to allow her to become his wife at 18 years (he was by then 34 years). There is a myth that this period gave rise to the George Bernard Shaw story of “Pygmalion”. They had a long married life together producing 15 children with all, but Beatrice surviving to adulthood.

Grace Baring-Gould

From Horbury Sabine’s family moved for him to become Curate at Dalton near Thirsk and then to Mersea in Essex, where one of his best novels, “Mehalah” is set. The story is interesting because the theme of a strong-willed woman is recurrent in his novels.

Edward Baring-Gould 1850

The Return to Lewtrenchard of the Squarson

As Sabine’s father, Edward, became frailer from old age and his second son, William (known as Willy in diaries) became ill there was a reacceptance of Sabine and when Edward died in the 1870’s it allowed Sabine to start on his life’s aims. His Uncle Charles the incumbent parson of Lewtrenchard died in 1881 and Sabine appointed himself as parson so he could return fulltime to Lewtrenchard from Essex.

At Lewtrenchard he spent many years in various activities connected with his estate, his parishioners and his church. Much of his writings were to allow him to fund a better home and church. The house was enlarged and even today bears the marks of future work that was never completed at his passing in 1924, which was more than 40 years after his “home-coming”. 

The church was re-decorated from the garish blue and gold pine pews back to “ancient” and newly carved oak with interesting locally carved bench-ends plus a pulpit and very elaborate screen by the Pinwill sisters. As for the parishioners they were in awe of him and his writings and investments in the area – many buildings in the parish still show signs of his architectural skills – broadly in the “Arts and Crafts” style eg The Blue Lion public house (The Blue Lion being the coat of arms of the Baring-Goulds), The Ramps, The Wye and The Old Rectory.

Writings

The full writings of Sabine will never be fully known because it was so extensive. However the collection of folk songs led to “Songs and Ballads of the West” 1889 – 1891 written with the help of Henry Fleetwood Sheppard and the musical collaborator Frederick Bussell. A second edition of songs was printed in 1895 named “A Garland of Country Songs”. When a new edition was to be printed his collaborator had died so Cecil Sharp was invited to collaborate and a few further song books followed. Interestingly the recording of songs onto paper was in as full a version as could be imagined for the time. However the versions printed for public and often school children’s use were edited for the more conservative Victorian era. Songs such as “Widecombe Fair” were recorded in various places and had names appropriate for the area eg “Sticklepath Fair”.

Other writings on religious topics such as The Saints, on Dartmoor excavations and as novels were written throughout his long life and are innumerable.

Sabine is buried next to Grace at Lewtrenchard church in simple graves, bearing the inscription Dimidium Animae Meae (“Half my Soul”).

Sabine Baring-Gould in later life

References worth reading (see links page) – SABINE BARING-GOULD The Man who told a thousand stories (a review of the man and his works) by Rebecca Tope 2017

As I Walked Out (the search for folk songs of Devon and Cornwall) by Martin Graebe 2017

Click here for Never Completely Submerged (the diary of Sabine Baring-Gould transcribed and set in context) by Ron Wawman 2009.

Many of Sabine Baring-Gould’s more important novels are still in print thanks to Rebecca Tope’s Praxis Books. Click here to see more.