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22 October 2012

Oral and printed traditions

Oral and printed traditions :
Baring-Gould and his collection of popular literature

Note: This is an English version of a paper originally presented in French to the fifth international symposium: The book, Romania, Europe, held in Mamaia 24-26 September 2012. It formed part of the section “Des livres pour tous" which covered aspects of popular literature across Europe, including printed, manuscript and oral traditions.

When he looked back over his long and multifaceted life the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), squire and parson of Lew Trenchard in the remote western corner of Devon, thought that his collection of folk songs was “the principal achievement of my life". [1] Baring-Gould collected folksongs from over sixty men and women over a period of some fifteen years although mainly in the period 1888-1890. [2] It is only recently that the full extent of his contribution has been realised with the rediscovery of a number of manuscript collections of folk songs in Baring-Gould’s personal library. These have now been digitised by the Devon Traditions project and mounted on the website of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

From childhood Baring-Gould had been an inveterate collector of all kinds of objects. [3] This formed part of his life-long fascination with folklore, myths, legends and superstitions which began in the 1860s with his works on Icelandic sagas, including a visit to Iceland in 1862, and his Book of werewolves, published in 1865. Already while at Horbury in the 1860s he began to collect folksongs, carols and folk tales. [4] He inherited a collection of books when he returned to the manor house at Lew Trenchard in June 1880 which already included some popular literature, for example some forty Dublin imprints from the 1820s and 1830s, but he added to this extensively. [5] In 1894 the reporter Frederick Dolman made the long journey from London to Lew Trenchard to interview the writer. He commented on the library “rich in historical and antiquarian lore". [6] A year later another writer, for the periodical The young man, tells us:

Perhaps more surprising than the absence of novels, however, in the novelist-parson’s library, is the presence of a number of books of theatrical interest, giving the gossip of the green-room, memoirs of actors and singers of bygone times, etc. “I have been collecting such things", Mr Baring Gould says, as I turn over the leaves of one of these curious old books, “for my work on Minstrelsy, It is only in such out-of-the way books that I can find the biographical particulars I want respecting the composers and singers of some of the old songs. [7]
The survival of his library is little short of miraculous given the patchy history of Lewtrenchard Manor after the death of Sabine Baring-Gould in 1924. The house passed to his son Edward, who only lived there until the death of his wife in 1931 when he emigrated to the United States. The house was let and during the war was taken over by the Army. After a few years of neglect the house was opened as a hotel in 1949. The library was largely housed in what became the breakfast room. In the 1970s his descendant who lived in America was looking for more secure storage and much of the collection was moved to Killerton, recently donated to the National Trust by the Acland family. In 2011 the National Trust asked for a new home to be found for it and from 2013 it will finally be available to researchers in the University of Exeter.

The library at Lew Trenchard

Some of the song collections he referred were in his own library, for example:

* J.Collingwood Bruce and J.Stokoe Northumbrian minstrelsy (Newcastle, 1882).
* James Henry Dixon Ballads and songs of the peasantry of England (London, c1860)
* The Roxburghe ballads, edited by Charles Hindley (London, 1873-74)
* J.O Halliwell Rhymes and nursery tales (London, 1849).

There may be other items that have since wandered from his collections. Among titles that are frequently referred to but no longer represented in his collections are: Pills to purge melancholy collected by the Devonian Thomas D’Urfey – Baring-Gould normally refers to the 1720 edition, probably in a facsimile printed version of 1876.

Baring-Gould was extremely interested in the origin of the folksongs he collected. He used the British Museum to consult old music publications, frequently staying in lodgings at 6, Keppel Street, located off Gower Street and very convenient for the British Museum and its library. [8]

“I spend days in the British Museum examining the old and published music there, as well as the printed garlands of words, to discover if possible the origin of the tunes and the ballads circulating among our people. One of the librarians told me: “Sullivan is often here, doing much the same thing as you. But he is looking for musical ideas, whereas you are in quest of relationships of melodies and words." [9]
He felt that Sullivan did not go back far enough, only to the 18th century, not the 15th and 16th.

He also used other libraries to research the texts and melodies of folksongs. However he found London a remote and dreary place, although he had to visit it to meet publishers as well as to use libraries for research.10 10 Perhaps that is why he also built up a significant collection of broadside ballads, chapbooks and other examples of street literature. How he acquired these not revealed in his diaries and surviving correspondence but much of his collecting must have been in the period 1885-1890 judging from the high proportion of items by the publisher Such. He probably placed subscriptions with the London publishers to acquire what they had in stock. This is implied in a passage where he justifies the amendments made to sanitise some of the texts:

“We resolved, where the old words were good, or tolerable, to retain them intact. When bad, to re-write, adhering as closely as possible to the original. Where the songs were mere broadside ballads we have had no scruple in doing this, for we give reference to the pressmark in the British Museum, where the broadside may be found, or give the number of Mr. Such's series, so that anyone interested may purchase it for a halfpenny. When, however, the ballad or song seemed to be traditional, and not taken from a broadside, then we have printed it as truly as we could, and if we have supplied a hiatus, we frankly say so." [11]
The representation of many items from printers in the north of England may reflect an earlier period of collecting during the years he spent in Yorkshire in the 1860s.

The ten volumes of broadside ballads, mainly dating from the 19th century, which he presented to the British Museum at some date before 12 February 1898 (the date on the accession stamp) are the best known section of his collections. There are also two other volumes, mainly 18th century, in the British Library. Much also remained in Lew Trenchard and this has now been moved to the Devon Record Office. They include a further volume of broadsides and seven bound volumes of ballads and three volumes of chapbooks although there is much overlap in the contents of these two series. In addition a further volume of broadside ballads was offered for sale by C.R.Johnson in 1980 and acquired with two other ballad collections by the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. Another volume of broadside ballads that had previously belonged to Sabine Baring-Gould was sold at auction at Tavistock in July 1983 and was acquired by the John Rylands University Library in Manchester. While the bulk of the collection consists of ballads or songs, there are other examples of popular literature in the Devon collections, such as Mother Shipton's wheel of fortune (London: W.S.Fortey, c.1890) or Sweeny Todd or the barber of Fleet Street (Leeds: Johnson, c.1890). In all these collections contain about 4,000 items.

Baring-Gould made use of these collections not only in researching the folksongs but also in his field trips. Among the song-men that he visited was Samuel Fone of Black Down near Mary Tavy. Fone was bedridden and to help him pass the time and perhaps jog his memory Baring-Gould writes:

“I lent a thick folio of Broadside Ballads I had collected. His daughter said to me. “Oh dear, we wish you had not let him have that book. He sings all night long. As he turns a page and comes on words he knows, he shouts them with the tune, and mother and I can get no sleep." [12]
It is difficult to ascertain which particular broadsheets Baring-Gould used in his investigations. Sometimes however it is clear that items his own collections were used:

No. 104. The Everlasting Circle. A widely-known song in Devon for which versions were taken down from J. Woodrich and William Setter of Two Bridges; “but the best from Old Capul, i.e., William Nankivell, an aged quarryman, who for years lived under Roos Tor, on the River Walla above Merrivale Bridge, absolutely illiterate, but with a memory laden with old songs. This same song is sung by the Breton peasants […] A copy of it in broadside. The Tree in the Wood, printed by Pitts, of Seven Dials, in my possession". [13]

The results of these researches appeared in a number of publications. Songs of the West first appeared in 1890 with a second revised edition in 1895 which contained 100 songs with historical notes on most of them. A garland of country song: English folk songs with their traditional melodies was published by Methuen in 1895 and contained fifty songs. Some regional songs appear in English minstrelsie : a national monument of English song, collated and edited, with notes and historical introductions, by S. Baring-Gould ; the airs, in both notations, arranged by H. Fleetwood Sheppard, F. W. Bussell and W. H. Hopkinson (Edinburgh : T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1895-1897), published in eight parts.

More important are the manuscripts. The fair copy manuscript which Baring-Gould gave to Plymouth Public Library in 1914 contains 202 songs and he also donated thirteen rough copy working notebooks which contain words and melodies obtained on field trips. But the gem of his collections, what the interviewer Frederick Dolman described in 1894 as three handwritten volumes of old songs, was only rediscovered in the 1990s. [14] This personal copy manuscript which was moved to Killerton is now in the Devon Record Office. It contains 568 numbered folksongs and, at the end of the third volume, about 120 unnumbered songs, a grand total of some 688. For each song is given the melodies recorded for each singer together with the texts, followed by related texts obtained from collections of songs and individual broadside ballads. These last are often difficult to identify. Often in the manuscript or in printed notes he gives the name of the printer or the place of publication, sometimes also references to shelfmarks in the British Library.

He thought that many folk songs were corruptions of broadside ballads, but realised that they often had an earlier origin. “The printed ballads of Such, Fortey, Ryle, Catnash [sic] and other are not trustworthy." They received songs and ballads from itinerant singers orally and the texts were corrupted. The contributors were paid a few shillings and sent on their way and no attempt was made at any verification. Often the versions received from the song-men in the depths of Devon were more correct. “In a good number of cases I have found that the illiterate men sing a less corrupt form of a ballad that such as appears on broadsides. The younger men always sing from the broadside copies". [15] An example from Songs of the West of what Baring-Gould considered corrupt broadsheet texts:

93. The Streams of Nantsian. Taken down from Mathew Baker, a cripple, aged 72, who can neither read nor write, Lew Trenchard. Music noted down by Mr. Sheppard. Again from James Olver, Launceston, and from Matthew Ford, shoemaker, Menheniot, practically the same melody. This song is The Streams of lovely Nancy, of the broadsides. It was printed about 1830 by Keys of Devonport, with four verses, of which verse three had naught to do with the song. And in many broadside versions the short original, consisting of four verses only, is swelled out with scraps from other ballads, perfectly recognisable, and merely put in by the printer to fill up the available space."

James Olver, one of Baring-Gould's song-men

The published version of the folk songs includes notes on the historical background of individual songs and there is more detail in the three volume personal copy manuscript.

Some examples of his researches into individual folksongs:

1. By chance it was." The music and words were dictated by James Parsons, a hedger of Lew Down. He had learned from his father, known as the “Singing Machine, a very famous song-man, who, when turned on could go on and never stop" knowing over 200 ballads and songs. The words of this song Baring-Gould found in a collection of early ballad books in the British Library, entitled The Court of Apollo, the first three verses of the six almost word for word the same. This is dated to about 1770 by ESTC. It is also found in The songster's favourite, printed in Edinburgh about 1785 ESTC t188339 but this only gives three verses.

27. The Bonny Bunch of Roses. Baring-Gould took down a great number of versions, all with the same melody.

“In most of the versions the youth is Napoleon Bonaparte, and wonderful it is to see how the metre is disregarded in order to lug in this name. That history does not agree with what is said in the song matters as little as the discrepancy of the metre. The song is unmistakeably an anti-Jacobite production, adapted at the beginning of this [the 19th] century to Napoleon, when an additional verse was added relative to Moscow. In this later form it issued from Catnach's press, and from him it was copied by Harkness, of Preston ; Paul, of Spitalfields ; Pitts, of Seven Dials ; Williams, of Portsea, &c. In the broadsides of Williams, and of Hodges it is said, ‘To the tune of The Bunch of Roses, O!’ indicating an earlier form of the song."

The origin of the melodies was of equal interest to Baring-Gould. “The melodies are in many instances more precious than the words. Ballads that were printed in London, Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth, became common property throughout England but then, here in the West, these ballads imported from elsewhere, were set to tunes already traditional." [16] For example he found when giving recitals of folk-songs in Cornwall that performances of The dilly song were greeted with amusement. He subsequently found that the tune was used as a Methodist hymn. [17] “The Celtic tongue retrograded and finally expired in Cornwall. Then English ballads and songs found their way into Cornwall and were set to already familiar melodies." For example the melody of the Welsh drinking song "meddwdod mwyn" also sung in Cornwall, was later applied to a broadside drinking song, Fathom the Bowl which has, everywhere else, its own traditional air. Broadside ballads, and songs in "Warblers" and "Apollo's Cabinets" &c., got down into the West, unassociated with music. Then, again, the local composers went to work and set them to tunes of their own creation." Thus, Sweet Nightingale was a song by Bickerstaff, to which Dr. Arne wrote music in 1761, and it was sung in an opera in London. The words got into a song-book, The Syren, which found its way into Cornwall. Some village musician set it, “and it was sung by the miners in their adits and the labourers in the fields to the locally produced air, not to that by Dr. Arne." [18]

This interest in melodies makes it understandable that, beside the broadsides and chapbooks that give the texts of the songs and ballads, scores are also to be found in Baring-Gould’s library such as the sheets of engraved music, published without imprint but often with engraved sheet numbers in the mid-18th century, bound into a volume of broadsides from Lew Trenchard. [19]

The researches of Baring-Gould show that the oral and printed traditions existed side by side for three centuries with mutual reinforcement in all periods. Many of the melodies had been kept alive by village song-men, some of whom had an incredible repertoire. [20] We know of songs composed in the region during the 19th century such as Widecombe Fair or The Arscott hunt. But both traditions were in decline when Baring-Gould began his researches. He laments:

I wrote to a famous broadside house in the west the other day to ask if they still produced sheet-ballads, and the answer was, “We abandoned that line thirty years ago; and no one else took it up."

But if the printed tradition was dead in the region, the oral tradition was moribund. He remembered the Devon inns of his youth where groups would sing old songs. Now young people were only interested in music hall songs which came from London. He himself wrote an elegy “I reckon the days is departed" in 1889 to commemorate the death of James Parsons, the son of the “singing machine" and one of the last village song-men. Baring-Gould’s comments on the value of printed ballads in his researches shed interesting light on the reception of this type of popular literature in Devon and Cornwall and its relation to oral culture in the late 19th century - a period so critical for the survival of these two long traditions.


I am also indebted to a number of organisations and individuals in the preparation of this presentation: Merriol Almond the descendant of Sabine- Baring-Gould and owner of her ancestor’s collection ; Paul Wilson and Marilyn Tucker of Wren Music, responsible for the microfilming and digitisation of the manuscripts of Baring-Gould ; Martin Graebe, researcher into Baring-Gould and performer of his songs ; Steve Roud, librarian, who is responsible for several indexes of traditional songs held by the English Folk Dance and Song Society.


British Library. Two volumes of ballads dating from 1730? to 1830?, printed mainly in Newcastle-upon-Tyne by J White, or in London. Each ballad is cut up and mounted. With manuscript index. Collected by Revd Sabine Baring Gould. BL: L.R.31.b.19.

British Library. Nine volumes of ballads, printed mainly in London by J Catnach and J Pitts. Mostly dated 1800 to 1870, but with a few of earlier date and with a small number of prose broadsheets. Collected by Revd Sabine Baring Gould. With manuscript indexes. BL: L.R.271.a.2. The collection has been microfilmed (Mic.B.962/17-20), and access to the originals restricted.

British Library. Popular literature in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain. Part 2. The Sabine Baring-Gould and Crampton Collections from the British Library, London : a listing and guide to the Research Publications Collection, Reading : Research Publications , 1990. – ix,446p ; 21cm ISBN 0862571138.

National Library of Wales. Street literature, c.1800-1870. 3 vol. Includes volume of 490 items with the bookplate of Sabine Baring-Gould. NLW: PR 1710 A1.

Johnson, C.R. Street literature : a collection of 944 whiteletter broadside ballads etc. by C.R. Johnson and C.P. Thiedeman ; foreword by Leslie Sheppard. – Altrincham : C.R. Johnson Rare Book Collections , 1980. - iii, 108 p. : ill ; 30cm. Includes volume of 490 items with the bookplate of Sabine Baring-Gould, now in NationalLibrary of Wales.

John Rylands Library of the University of Manchester, R 150649, volume of broadsides formerly belonging to S Baring-Gould

Baring-Gould, Sabine, Songs & ballads of the West: a collection made from the mouths of the people / by the Rev. S. Baring Gould and Rev. H. Fleetwood Sheppard. – London : Methuen & Co. , [1891].

Biographical sources:

Baring-Gould, Sabine. Early reminiscences 1834-1864, London : John Lane Bodley Head, 1923, xiii,350p : ill ; 23cm.

Baring-Gould, Sabine, Further reminiscences, 1864-1894, London : John Lane, 1925, 291p : ill ; 21cm.

Baring-Gould, Sabine. “Never completely submerged" : the story of the squarson of Lew Trenchard as revealed in the diary of Sabine Baring-Gould, Guildford: Grosvenor House, 2009. 315p : ill, maps ISBN 9781907211034.

Dickinson, Bickford H.C., Sabine Baring-Gould : squarson, writer and folklorist, 1834-1924, Newton Abbot : David & Charles, 1970, 191p : ill ; 23cm, ISBN 0715348035.

Dolman, Frederick, “Novel-writing and novel-reading : a chat with the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould", Cassell's Magazine, Dec. 1894, pp 17-20 : ill ; 26cm.

Kirk-Smith, Harold, Now the day is over : the life and achievements of Sabine Baring-Gould, 1834-1924, Boston : Richard Kay, 1996, xii,287p : ill ; 22cm, ISBN 0902662600.

Lister, Keith, 'Half my life'. the story of Sabine Baring-Gould and Grace, Horbury : Charnwood Publications, 2002, 160p : ill,ports ; 26cm, ISBN 1903833280.

Purcell, William, Onward christian soldier : a life of Sabine Baring-Gould, parson squire, novelist, and antiquary 1834-1924, London : Longmans, Green & Co., 1957, xii,188p,plates : ill ; 23cm. BNB B57-05434.


1 Purcell, p.150.

2 Dickinson p. 125, Kirk-Smith p. 147, Purcell p. 140.

3 Kirk-Smith p. 35-36.

4 Kirk-Smith p. 145, Further reminiscences p. 3-4.

5 Dickinson p. 142.

6 Purcell, p. 10.

7 "The author of Onward, Christian soldiers: the Rev S Baring-Gould at home", Young man: a monthly journal and review, vol. 9, Sept 1895, p. 289- 94.

8 Never completely submerged p. 95, Kirk-Smith p. 153. There were some times problems in his researches. For example he was concerned to find the words of “The mole catcher" torn out of a copy of an early Garland of verses in the British Museum Library (Dickinson 134).

9 Further reminiscences, p. 214.

10 Dickinson, p. 141.

11 Songs of the West p. xliii.

12 Further reminiscences p. 200 ; Dickinson p. 130.

13 Other examples of his investigations:
No. 26. The hearty good fellow. Taken down, words and music, from Robert Hard, South Brent. The Roxburgh Ballads with similar titles are not the same but “I have, however, a broadside by Pitts, of last century, with it, entitled Adventures of a Penny.
No. 45. The rout is out. Words and melody taken down from John Woodrich. “I have a broadside by Bloomer, of Birmingham, circ. 1780, entitled Lancashire Lads, that is certainly a rude version of the same original."
No. 54. Plymouth Sound. Melody taken down from Roger Luxton, to a song of this name. The original words were not only very poor, but somewhat coarse. There are three songs that go by the title of Plymouth Sound. Broadsides by Keys of Devonport and Such. The air cannot be earlier than the beginning of this century." There is a broadside of this title in Baring-Gould’s collection (BL L.R.271.a.2, Vol.3, No.100, Roud 129).

14 Dolman p.20, Further reminiscences, p. 184 ; Purcell p. 10, 145-6.

15 Further reminiscences p. 185-6 ; Kirk-Smith p. 152, Songs of the West p. viii. Another example of a corrupt printed text: No.59. The Simple Ploughboy. “This charming ballad was taken down, words and air, from J. Masters, of Bradstone. Mr. Sheppard noted the melody. The broadside versions that were published by Fortey, Hodges, Taylor of Spitalfields, Ringham of Lincoln, and Pratt of Birmingham, are all very corrupt. The version of old Masters is given exactly as he sung it, and it is but one instance out of several of the superiority of the ballads as handed down traditionally in the country, to those picked up by the ballad- mongers employed in towns by the broadside publishers."

16 Songs of the West, p. viii.

17 Dickinson, p. 136 ; Songs of the West, p. xxxv.

18 Songs of the West p. xi; Further reminiscences, p. 186.

19 Titles include:
C. Smith, The Lapland lover. Gravelot inv, Bickham junr sculp, sheet no. 9
Fickle Jenny & Jockey, a dialogue, sheet no. 35
The rover. G.Bickham invt & sculp, sheet no. 36
George Frederick Handel, The beautiful charmer. Geo. Bickham junr. sculp, sheet no. 67
The noon-tide air, sheet no. 83
Moggy, sheet no. 89
Phebe. A pastoral. Set by Mr. Oswald, sheet no. 119
The modest question. Set by Mr Russell, sheet no. P.19
Fanny blooming fair, sheet no. P.38
Senisino, sheet no. P.39
The gear and the bragrie o't. B.Cole sculp., [unnumbered]

20 Further reminiscences, p. 187.

Copyright © Ian Maxted 2012
This page last updated 20 October 2012