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William Barnes, the Dorset Poet

By Sir Frederick Treves,  Bart,CB, G.C.V.O, FRCS, LL.D.
Sergeant -Surgeon   to   H.M.   the   King.

Imagine a drowsy, lovable, old-fashioned street belonging to the days of the stage coach and the sedan chair, a street from one of Jane Austen’s stories, a causeway through a world-forgotten town that a writer of a century ago described as “the most antique looking little town she had ever seen." Such was South Street, Dorchester, in the early 1860s, when the land was at peace and the world unmindful of the coming roar and riot of the twentieth century.

It was a street of private houses of a respectability so pronounced and a contentment so complete as to be almost oppressive. There was but one humble shop in the street, through the small panel window of which a man in horn spectacles could be seen making boots, honest serviceable boots, sewn with thread, well treated with cobbler's wax. The houses were old and of all sizes and shapes. Although they formed a gracious medley of red brick and grey stone, of fine doorways and of tiled roofs tanned and crumpled by the

sun, they each preserved a confident individuality.  There was one house behind high gates that had a carriage drive, very wonderful to see; while at another place a garden broke in upon the street, shading the footpath with its trees and filling the roadway with the perfume of sweet briar.    On the lawns of this pleasant place peacocks could be seen, a spectacle that gave great dignity to the spot and great delight to the boys who stared through the railings. In an old map of Dorchester, of the date 1771, this garden is shown to be a part of the extensive pleasure grounds owned by Mr. William Templeman.

The great cornfields in those days came down, in a vast sweep, to the very end of South Street, even to Beggar's Knap, to that little wooded knoll that stood over against the Chestnut Walks. The  cawing  of many  rooks echoed through South Street on the wet, windy days of seed-time, while when the harvest was near the petals of red poppies might be wafted along the footway. About the middle of the street is the old Grammar School, with its quaint little oriel window. It had been rebuilt in 1618, the year in which Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded, and had been piously left untouched from that day onwards; so that out of that actual monastic doorway boys had rushed to the market-place to cheer the accession of Charles I. Next to the school was an alms house, known as Napper's Mite, and   bearing the date 1615. It had, as now, an echoing cloister beloved by the boys, certain cringing tenements and a paved way through a garden in which could be seen hollyhocks and sunflowers, a shuffling old man or two and a hive of bees.

The ladies who walked down South Street about the time in question, to enjoy the air of the Fordington Fields, affected crinolines and poke bonnets with flowing veils called falls. The less sedate wore what the jester of the day termed pork pie hats. Ringlets as well as chignons were in the fashion of the period, as were also Paisley shawls and spencers, paletots and parasols edged with a heavy fringe.

The gentleman wore tall hats, a military-like surtout and side whiskers. They showed a generous taste in stocks and cravats. They were nicely expert at bowing and at returning salutations, since lessons in deportment formed a prominent feature in the education of the young. Indeed there in South Street a famous academy of dancing and deportment, where the quadrille – a measure of great solemnity – was taught by the professor to the music of an instrument called a kit.

The street was very quiet, except when a farmer’s wain would pass into the town, with all the clangour and conscious importance of a royal equipage. It was a waggon, bright with many colours, with yellow and red and blue, and was drawn by a team of great horses that shone like silk and that bore above their necks a row of bells in a leather canopy.    At the head walked the carter with his heavy whip, borne like a wand of office, a ruddy man in a smock frock with a felt hat on his head shaped like a basin. Above the din of the bells he called to the horses in pure Dorset, in a language as ancient as classic Greek.

The Picturesque Figure  of  Barnes

In the South Street of this time a remarkable figure would be met with, any day of the year - the figure of an elderly gentleman singularly in keeping with the picturesque street. He was remarkable in that he wore breeches and stockings, shoes with bright buckles, a curious cap, and over his shoulders a thick plaid shawl and very usually a bag.    His hair and his beard were white, his eyes and his gait those of the dreamer.    This was William Barnes, the Dorset poet, a genius whom few recognised at that time, a man who lived m the past and the future rather than in the present, an immortal who vas known then merely as "old Barnes of the school in South Street.”  There is although the folk of Dorchester ignored him while he lived, they honoured him when he had passed beyond the sound of their applause.  He himself foretold this tardy act of grace; for when he was struggling through what he calls “a long unprosperous time” he made this utterance: “They praise me some day when I am dead, while all I want now is leave to live. I asked for bread and they gave me a stone.”

His peculiar dress had in it no feature of display, for he was the simplest and most modest of men. He wore what pleased him, holding appearances to be of no account.  His biographer describes an occasion “when he walked down Dorchester High Street and out to Came with a poker, shovel and tongs slung on his back, above the customary bag.” These were purchases he made in the town, and he was anxious to save the traderspeople the trouble of delivering them.

Mr. Dashwood's House, Sturminster Newton, where William Barnes was clerk

This remarkable man was self-educated and hampered in life with many disadvantages. He overcame them all. He published poems when he was 19, while before he died his printed works numbered 90.  He was an advanced philologist, an astute mathematician and an authority on social science and political economy.  As an antiquarian his fame spread far beyond the confines of his familiar county.  He was astounding reader of every subject under the sun.  He was a skilled engraver and, between the ages of 21 and 40, illustrated many books with his own wood blocks. He made his own chessmen at a lathe; he played equally well on the organ, the piano, the violin and the flute. He was familiar with Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Hindustani, Persian, Arabic and Welsh. He wrote sonnets in Italian and made the entries in his diary in that tongue. He wrote on practical science and on perspective and, about the same time, produced a farce called, "The Honest Thief," which was acted at Mere, and a comedy which was placed on the stage at Wincanton. He produced a commercial dictionary as well as sundry comic songs. He published an Anglo-Saxon delectus and invented swimming shoes.

Above all - and it is by this that the world remembers him - he sang of Dorset, of its people and their homes, of their plain lives and of the things that moved their hearts.    His verses are as simple as the themes with which they deal.    They preserve for all time a picture of rural England as it was at the beginning of the 19th century, and, above all, they save from oblivion the fast vanishing language of the Dorset folk.    The Dorset dialect is "a pure, ancient language," rich and expressive, and as free from artificiality as the speech of a child.    Barnes regarded it as "a broad and bold shape of the English language.” “If,” said he, speaking of the early days of King Alfred – of which our Dorset is remnant – would have been the Court language of to-day.”

William Barnes was born in 1801 at Rushay Farm, by Pentridge, some miles north of Sturminater Newton.  The house in which he was born was pulled down some time before 1854.  It stood in a green and luxuriant country within sight of the Dorset hills, in a meadow land bounded on the one side by the Stour and on the other by the Lydden river. Barnes’ father was a tenant farmer not too well to do.  He moved, shortly after his son William was born, to Bagber, a scattered hamlet near by the old home.  Here young Barnes spent the most impressionable period of his life. 

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Sturminster Newton, near which William Barnes was born in 1801

His mother was a Miss Grace Scott of Fifehead Neville, which place lies a few miles south of Bagber.  Fifehead Neville is a little inconsequent, absent minded village by the brook Divelish.  It would seem to have overlooked and forgotten in the fevered advance of modern times.  Its small, demure church has hidden itself away among the trees about the manor house, so that even diffident bell-cot on the west gable is lost to view. Across the brook near the Mill is an ancient bridge over the rail of which lasses and lads have leaned and made love, year after year, since at least the days of Henry VIII.

William Barnes received his education at the endowed school of Sturminster Newton, where he was a daily pupil, walking to and fro from Bagber across the fields. Of this school, which stands in one of the picturesque lanes of the little town, there is still some trace.  It long ago ceased to be a school and was then incorporated with a private house adjoin a carpenter’s shop.  The modern building and the old one form a curious architectural jumble, comparable to a piece of old brocade patched with cordurory, since with a dismally featureless building are associated three ancient mullioned windows of great dignity and presence.

William Barnes Becomes a Clerk

Barnes left school in 1815, when he was 14, and at that age his education so far as schools and colleges were concerned, came to an end. Sturminster newton could accomplished little in the direction of that fine scholarship and wide erudition which made illustrious the later career of the farmers’s son.  In the school with the mullioned windows the boy’s feet were set upon the path of knowledge, but the journey into the dark realms of learning he accomplished alone , without help and without guidance.

At 14 he became a clerk in the office of Mr. Dashwood, a solicitor at Sturminster Newton. Mr. Dashwoods’s house  remains just as it was 100 years ago, a grey house of infinite charm, overgrown with veins and beautiful in its hale old age. An ancient man assured me that the little door shown in the photograph led to the office in which Barnes worked.

After three years in this most picturesque of offices, Barnes moved to Dorchester, to take the post of clerk to Mr. Coombs, a well-known solicitor of the time. Here, at the age of 21, he published his first book, illustrated by his own woodcuts.

The next year frinds him at Mere, whither he had gone on a venture to lake over a private school. He at first lived in lodgings, but in 1827, when he married, he took the old Chantry House which lies hard by the church. His wife was a Miss Julia Miles, the daughter of an excise officer, and his attachment to this lady forms one of the most charming features in his life.

He Returns to Dorchester

Mere is a curious little Wiltshire town, near to Gillingham, and on the Dorset border. The Chantry House is described in Mrs. Baxter's biography of her father as "a roomy old Tudor building, with large oak-wainscotted rooms, where wide stone-mullioned windows were entwined with greenery. It had a large garden and lawn, at the bottom of which ran a flowing stream, here widened into a pond overshadowed with trees." The house, so far as its external features are concerned, has probably altered in no particular since the poet lived there with his beloved Julia, together with his turbulent boy boarders and-it is to be feared-his no small burden of financial troubles. At the bottom of the Chantry garden is the pond to which Barnes often refers, and here also was his favourite nook, his place of dreams, his rustic temple of the Muses.

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The Chantry House, Mere, where
William Barnes kept school

In 1835 William Barnes returned to Dorchester, to open a boarding-school in Durngate Street, better known at that time as "Wood and Stone Lane." Two years later he moved his school to South Street, and in 1847 we find it established in another house in the same street. It was in this latter house that I began my school life.

In this same year, 1847, the schoolmaster was ordained and presented with the curacy of Whitcomb some three miles from Dorchester. He resigned this charge in 1852, in which year his wife died, to his never-ending sorrow.

In 1862 - when he was 61 years of age - he was offered the rectory of Came – so when the    next summer was closed, and Barnes moved to his last home, the little rectory of Winterbourne came and Whitcombe.

Here in 1886 – at the age of 85 – he died, after having enjoyed at Came some twenty-four years of perfect comfort and peace.  Professor Palgrave visited hime at Came the year before his life closed, and thus described his appearance: “He was most gracious and kind He sat crouched in an armchair, clothed in a red upper dress lined with fur, a darker red cap on his white hair. His face is singularly fine and delicate in its lines, like one carved in marble, the eyes bright, a long white beard over his chest, his hands white and fine. I have never seen old age look more beautiful and dignified.”

The old grey church of Whitcombe and its little cosy settlement of thatched houses stand by the great highway. From the cottage windows may be seen low cloud of white dust that marks the motors tearing down from London to the south just as in years gone by a gentle cloud marked the passing of the mail coach from Southhampton. The world, on its hustling progress, has swept and has forgotten Whitcombe.  The place can hardly altered in the last two hundred years except to grow smaller. A century and a half ago Whitcombe was composed of a church, a farmhouse and elevencottages.  Such is tit now except that the cottages are even fewer in number.  There were strangely-named people in Whitcombe in old times, as witnesses the tomb where lie buried Melchisedeck Gillet and his wife Christiana.  It was during the time of the Great Fire of London and visitation of the Plague that these two lived at Whitcombe.

The Garden City of the Dead

As for the exquisite small church of Winterbourne Came it is even more remote from the roar of wheels and the tramp of men, since it is buried in the garden.  Indeed, the churchyard is bounded by an ancient walled garden on the one side and by park on the other.  It is as it was when William Barnes was rector. There is the pulpit, bearing the date 1624, from which he preaced, time – which looks across the garden city of the dead.  In the corner of the silent spot, near to the church tower, this worthy son of Dorset lies buried. Over his grave is a Celtic cross in the shadow of a yew tree.  It would have been fitting if upon the stone had been engraved almost the last words he uttered: “Lighten our eyes, O Lord, that we sleep not in death.”

The rectory at Came is far away from the church, a solitary house by the roadside, as homely as a cottage, but with a garden worth of a manor.  In Mrs. Baxter’s Biography the rectory is described as “a thatched cottage with wide eaves and wider verandah, on whose rustic pillars roses, clematis and honeysuckle entwine.”

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Came Rectory

I went to Barnes’ school in 1860, when I was 7 years old. The school room was a temporary structure of stories, built at the back of the house in what would have been the garden.  The pupils entered it by means of an outside, wooden stair, accessible from what was then called Back South Street.

About once a week Barnes opened the school by a lecture on some subject of practical interest. On the day of my first appearance at school there was such a lecture.  It was on Logic. I sat on a form with other boys and was required to write from dictation the following sentence: “Logic is the right use of exact reasoning.” This is the first important contribution to the sum of human knowledge that I ever received. For a boy of 7 it was undoubtedly “strong meat.” It was , I am hardly ashamed to say, wholly unintelligible. The lecture that followed only served to add mystery to the text. I formed the idea that logic wwas some medicine; physic – as administered in those days to the young – being my conception of something unpleasant and incomprehensible that was supposed to do the taker good.

It is curious that this sentence never faded from my memory. It was for years a kind of cryptic utterance, full of mystery, a sort of Abracadabra, a thing that was purely cabbalistic, that had some powerful inner meaning unknown to the multitude. I found myself muttering it with some reverence and awe.  I tried it upon other boys of about my age and found that it affected them solemnly.  If any boastful boy endevoured to impress me with his learning I replied, “Logic is the right use of extract reasoning,” Some boys, the more profane and heedless, kicked me for my precious saying, while others were apparently moved by an utterance that resembled the formula of an incantation such as may have been used by magicians in the Arabian Nights.

My Memories of Barnes

My vague recollection of William Barnes is an old clergyman of great courtliness, ever gentle and benevolent, who bore with supreme simplicity the burden of a learning which was almost superhuman.  He seemed to belong to a world very far removed from humble confines of South Street, while to my immature mind he was the least real inhabitant of the plain town of Dorchester.

He was certainly popular with the boys, but of his qualifications as a teacher I have no means of Judging.  He was extremely absent-minded.

There was reason for this preoccupation, since it was about the year 1860 that his financial position was the most precarious.  In the following year he received a pension of £70 from the Civil List. So deep was the master in thought on one occasion that nearly every boy in the school crept out, one by one, into the playground, leaving the room empty, but for a few immaculate scholars who resisted a great and dramatic temptation.  I remember once that some forbidden fruit of which I was possed rolled across the schoolroom floor, and that I crawled after it in the wake of the dreaming master. He turned suddenly in his walk and stumbled over me, to my intense alarm.  When he had regained his balance he apologized very earnestly and resumed his walk, unconscious that the object he had fallen over was a scholar.

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Came Church - In the extreme corner by the tower is the cross marking the grave of William Barnes

The desk for the boys occupied a continuous line along the outer wall of the school in front of the windows.  Each desk has hinged flap that formed the lid for a receptacle for books.  It dawned upon some evil-minded boy that by boring two holes through all the partitions that separated the various desks and by passing a continuous cord through the holes a note, tied to the string, might be dragged from any one desk to another. Almost as soon as the work was completed the plot was discovered, and I with my fellow-conspirators felt that a catastrophe was impending. It was a mean proceeding, this infliction of further worry upon a kind-hearted master, who had already trouble enough. To our surprise and relief, the good old man was so interested in the working of our communication cable that he put us to utter shame by demanding a demonstration of the apparatus which had wrought such destruction to his property. After the display the string was confiscated without a word, and our punishment came upon us from our own consciences. Other schoolmasters would have made a dreadful and bitter example of the occasion, but William Barnes knew boys better than most.




First published in The Dorset Year Book 1915

See also
Dorset Dialect
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