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Winterborne Came

William Barnes as rector of Winterborne Came

William Barnes took up his duties as Rector of Winterborne Came in July 1862. His association with the parish went back much further, to early 1847, when the patron of the living offered him the donative (something less than a curacy) of the church at Whitcombe. Barnes was then the principal of a school in Dorchester and, for the past ten years, had been studying part-time for Holy Orders. At this time he was still only a deacon and, strictly speaking, was not eligible. However, the Bishop of Salisbury decided to regard the offer as Barnes's entitlement to Orders; accordingly, after a final examination, he was ordained a clergyman of the Church of England, and immediately commenced taking the Sunday morning services in the little church at Whitcombe.

From 1847 onwards, he suffered a series of misfortunes. During the ensuing ten years his school declined and finally failed, his wife died comparatively young, he had the financial burden of educating six children and his health deteriorated. Attempting to improve his fortunes, he applied for several posts, but was always rejected. In 1859 he was told that he would be offered the living at Came when a vacancy occurred, but three years had yet to pass before the outgoing incumbent presented him with the keys of Came Rectory.

Barnes was formally inducted as Rector of Came at Salisbury Cathedral on 1st November 1862. He still had at home two daughters, and he recruited them as unpaid "curates". Between them they regularly visited every parishioner. The former schoolmaster did not neglect education; he visited the parish school almost daily "to teach, preach or merely greet the children." A night-school was opened at the Rectory, and a Sunday school was maintained.

Barnes was one of many poets and scholars who in Victorian times were the incumbents of quiet country parishes. A recent biographer has written: "As a philologist, Barnes was as great a scholar as any of his fellow clerics but, in the impression he made as a priest, is more to be compared with John Keble, whose personal integrity so impressed those who met him that more than one came away from such a meeting a changed man. Barnes's scholarship never extended to theology but he was on terms of simple Christian affection with the cottagers of his parish whom he visited once a fortnight over many years. His greatest influence as a priest was not in what he said but in what he was." Many illustrious men visited him during his twenty-four years at Came, but some of them discovered that his pastoral commitments always took priority. A visitor to a large house in the parish professed herself afraid to meet anyone so learned, to which a child replied, "But no one was ever afraid of Mr. Barnes."

A little diary records the daily round: visiting the sick, writing sermons, gardening, reading and teaching. The simple routine seems to have engendered a rejuvenation. In his 80th year, on a February day, Barnes walked fifteen miles on snow-covered roads, and took two services, a wedding, a funeral and an office for the sick. He never allowed the weather to deter him from his clerical duties, and always asserted that a bit of cold and wet never hurt anyone.

However, from January 1884 onwards his strength began to fail and parish work became increasingly exhausting. On the 15th February 1885, he was driven to Whitcombe, where he took his last service, thus ending his active ministry in the church where he had begun it. In the early afternoon of 7th October 1886, he thanked God for all the trials and tribulations of his life, and a short while later died peacefully in his sleep.

So ended a remarkable and many-sided career. Barnes is perhaps best known as "The Dorset Poet", but he was also an educational pioneer, fluent in many languages, a mathematician, archaeologist, philologist and a versatile musician. His faith in Divine Providence seems never to have faltered. As Rector of Came, he "saw that his life's work had been guided by the 'Unseen Hand, and even found it significant that none of his applications for posts had ever succeeded." The philosophy of his life is succinctly expressed in two lines from one of his dialect poems 'Good Meäster Collins':

"---what God do zend
Is best vor all o's in the end."

As Rector of Winterborne Came, William Barnes served two churches. The parish church is dedicated to St. Peter, and parts of it date from the 14th Century. In mediaeval times there was a village nearby, but it has long since disappeared, and its site is uncertain. An association existed with the Abbey of St. Etienne at Caen in Normandy, from whence the village derived its name.

Came Rectory is about a mile from the church and lies beside the Dorchester-Broadmayne road. By walking about a mile along the road in the direction of Broadmayne, Barnes would have have arrived at the hamlet of Whitcombe, where a small church has existed since the 12th Century. It has no known dedication, possibly because it was used simply as an adjunct to Milton Abbey and, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, was served by one of the monks. It is to this church that, in the days of his curacy, Barnes walked from his Dorchester home every Sunday morning (a distance of about three miles).

Also in the parish is the site of another village, which apparently was deserted in the Middle Ages. It was called Winterborne Farringdon, and its locality is still marked by a fragment of the church, which stands solitary in a field. However, it was not neglected by William Barnes; he visited the site occasionally, and once commented that, while he preached in his other two churches, he visited Farringdon Ruin to pray and to meditate.

It was the Rector of another St. Peter's (in Dorchester High West Street) who advised his then parishioner William Barnes to study for ordination. Soon after his return to Dorchester in 1835, he took up work as a voluntary district visitor in the parish. His care of the poor so impressed the Rector that he considered Barnes to have a vocation. Accordingly, in 1837 he registered at St. John's College, Cambridge, as a "ten-years man" in order to study for a degree as a Bachelor of Divinity.


  • William Barnes - A Life of the Dorset Port by Alan Chedzoy
  • William Barnes the Schoolmaster by Trevor Hearl
See also
Dorset Dialect
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