Again I am focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten.
The country parsons of England can be an unconventional lot and perhaps none more so than hagiographer, antiquarian, novelist and eclectic scholar, Sabine Baring-Gould who is responsible for the lyrics of Onward Christian Soldiers, inspired My Fair Lady (possibly) and the early life of James Bond and wrote the first serious academic study of lycanthropy folklore.
Born in 1834, he was the eldest son of Edward Baring-Gould, Deputy Lieutenant of Devon, lord of the manor of Lew Trenchard in Devon and formerly a lieutenant in the Madras Light Cavalry. But despite his landed gentry status, Baring-Gould senior bored of rural life and took his family away to live in a state of ‘genteel vagabondage’ in Europe.
As a result, Baring-Gould the younger spent less than three years in England before his family returned to Devon when he was sixteen, and it was perhaps this early restlessness that sparked his life-long curiosity and interest in antiquities.
Despite his lack of proper schooling, Baring-Gould was a bright lad and could speak five languages fluently. He attended Cambridge University and then became a teacher where his affinity for the natural world manifested itself in his keeping an Icelandic pony called Bottlebrush on school grounds and a pet bat, which often clung to his shoulder while the taught.
In 1864, Baring-Gould became curate at Horbury in Yorkshire and it was while there that he wrote the words for Onward Christian Soldiers which he claimed to have dashed off in no more than 10 minutes as an occasional piece for a procession of school children. The music was added by Arthur Sullivan in 1871 and the most famous of his hymns.
It was also in Horbury that Baring-Gould met and fell in love with Grace Taylor, an uneducated mill girl and just 14 years old when they met. His vicar arranged for Grace to spend two years with relatives in York to learn middle-class manners and the couple were married in Wakefield in 1868. And it was this gentrification of Grace that is said to have inspired Baring-Gould’s friend George Bernard Shaw to write Pygmalion, which was later made into the musical, My Fair Lady. *
Their marriage lasted 48 years until her death in 1916 and they had 15 children, all but one of whom survived to adulthood. One 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, I’m yours!’
When his his father died in 1872, Baring-Gould inherited the family estates of Lew Trenchard in Devon. This included the gift of the living of Lew Trenchard parish and when became vacant in 1881, he was able to appoint himself to it, becoming parson as well as squire.
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 novels and several collections of myths, superstitions, ghost stories and other ‘curious events’ that you would not normally associate with a man of the church.
But perhaps the most unexpected of these is The Book of Were-Wolves which he wrote in 1865. It is Baring-Gould’s account of the widespread concept found in European folklore which developed during the medieval period.
Baring-Gould died in 1924 and is buried next to his wife in Lew Tranchard, but his story has lived on. His grandson, William Baring-Gould is a noted Sherlock Holmes scholar and wrote a fictional biography of the great detective, basing his early years on those of his grandfather.
* I don’t set too much store by this assertion. George Bernard Shaw is also said to have based Pygmalion on the relationship between Victorian artist, Frederic Leighton, and one of his models, Ada Pullen, and this seems a more likely explanation.