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Monday, 2 December 2019

Review - Sabine Baring-Gould: Yorkshire Oddities (and other works)

Illustration by D. Murray Smith from Baring-Gould's Book of Ghosts   Illustration by D. Murray Smith from Baring-Gould's Book of Ghosts
The Dead Sister and The Used Up Characters (illustrations by D. Murray Smith)

Sabine Baring-Gould:
Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events (3*)
A Book of Ghosts (3*)
Curiosities of Olden Times (2*)

No, Sabine Baring-Gould was not one of the three wise men (with Baring-Frankincense and Baring-Myrrh) but was no less spiritual. And Yorkshire Oddities is not a dig at certain other bloggers despite what some might think; it was one of his books.

The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) is often remembered as author of the strident hymn Onward Christian Soldiers, written as young curate at Horbury Bridge, Yorkshire, in the eighteen-sixties, later set to the equally strident tune, St. Gertrude, by Sir Arthur Sullivan. Baring-Gould also collected myths and legends, folk songs and sermons, and wrote enormous amounts of other stuff. In his day he was considered one of England’s best novelists. He found time to father fifteen children as well. I bet he wasn’t much help with the housework.

I was hoping for a free Kindle version of Yorkshire Oddities but the cheapest on the Kindle store was £2.29, so I downloaded his Curiosities of Olden Times and A Book of Ghosts instead. Well, I am from Yorkshire. Later, I did find a free copy of Yorkshire Oddities on that wonderful resource The Open Library. I have therefore spent several weeks with the writings of an out-of-fashion Victorian clergyman.

A Book of Ghosts by Sabine Baring-Gould. Title page. Curiosities of Olden Times by Sabine Baring-Gould. Title page. Yorkshire Oddities by Sabine Baring-Gould. Title page.

The ghost stories are readable and entertaining. They bring the occasional shiver from anthropological relics that go bump in the night and a very scary railway compartment. There is a dead finger that inhabits the narrator’s body bit by bit in the hope of taking it over, a dead sister who lives the life of a living one, and a caution for writers not to base characters on real people because it uses up their souls leaving lifeless shells that follow you around. Not too scary, in fact it might better be described as playful, but not bad if you want something free for Kindle and can put up with the odd moralistic rant. David Murray Smith’s illustrations in some editions capture the gentle mood quite well.

Curiosities of Olden Times and Yorkshire Oddities are collections of the weird, strange and eccentric, in both fact and fiction. Among the olden curiosities we find descriptions of gruesome medieval punishments and are warned not to sit in church porches between the hours of 11.00 p.m. and 01.00 a.m. on St. Mark’s Eve (24th April) unless we wish to see the ghosts of those due to die in the coming year passing into the church. However, much of Curiosities... is concerned with religious myths and legends discussed in a lengthy academic way, which can be rather tedious.

But it was Yorkshire Oddities that started this quest. In effect, it is a kind of social history of the county. It offers brief biographies of oddities such as Blind Jack of Knaresborough (1717-1810) who learnt to navigate the entire county alone on a horse and built around 180 miles of turnpike road, and Peter Barker, the blind joiner (1808-1873), who taught himself to make or mend just about anything. There are accounts of heinous murders including the drowning of an unwanted husband by his wife, her lover and an accomplice at Dawney Bridge near Easingwold in 1623 where the bodies of the executed murderers were hung in chains on what later became known as Gibbet Hill.

I was greatly amused by Baring-Gould’s rendition of the Yorkshire accent. He had plenty of practice because his wife, Grace Taylor, was an ordinary girl from Ripponden, but I doubt he would have spoken of her as he reports an unnamed butcher speaking of his wife:
Shoo’s made a rare good wife. But shoo’s her mawgrums a’ times. But what women ain’t got ‘em ? They’ve all on ‘em maggots i’ their heads or tempers. Tha sees, sir, when a bone were took out o’ t’ side o’ Adam, to mak a wife for ‘m, ‘t were hot weather, an’ a blue-bottle settled on t’ rib. When shoo’s i’ her tantrums ses I to her, ‘Ma dear,’ ses I, ‘I wish thy great-great-grand ancestress hed chanced ta be made i’ winter.’ [p224, fifth edition]
“mawgrums” is one of several words that appear in the book and hardly anywhere else. Another is the name of a hill near Heptonstall called “Tomtitiman”.

But to return to Yorkshire accents, Baring-Gould writes:
[The locals] speak two languages – English and Yorkshire … every village has its own peculiarity of intonation, its own specialities in words. A Horbury man could be distinguished from a man of Dewsbury, and a Thornhill man from one of Batley. The railways have blended these peculiar dialects into one, and taken off the old peculiar edge of provincialism, so that now it is only to be found in its most pronounced and perfect development among the aged. [p110-111, fifth edition]
This was written in 1874 but I always felt you could still detect local differences amongst my grandparents’ generation in my neck of the woods up to a century later. Depending which way you walked, you could hear West Riding tykes, Linkisheere yellowbellies and East Riding woldies all within a ten-mile radius.

I was therefore especially interested in the stories of three ‘Yorkshire Oddities’ from this area:
Nancy Nicholson “the termagant” lived at Drax, Newland and Asselby between 1785 and 1854. She nagged and complained so much as to ruin the lives of her husband, relatives and almost everyone she came into contact with.

Snowden Dunhill (c1766-1838) from Spaldington near Howden, was a notorious thief: the Rob Roy of the East Riding. He was eventually transported to Van Dieman’s Land where he dictated his life story which found its way back to Howden and was printed and published.

Jemmy Hirst of Rawcliffe (1738-1829) became so famous for his eccentricities that King George III invited him to visit his Court in London. He rode a bull and wore eccentric clothing including an outrageously broad hat, although anyone tempted to joke or play a trick at his expense invariably came off worst. He became wealthy dealing in agricultural produce and built himself an enormous wickerwork carriage drawn by Andalusian horses, causing a sensation at Pontefract and Doncaster races. A true Yorkshire oddity but somehow he sounds like Jimmy Savile.
I knew these villages as a child but had never heard of any of these characters until more recently when we all began to take more interest in local history: e.g. there is now a pub at Rawcliffe named after Jemmy Hirst. Among their stories are glimpses of lost landscapes and ways of life: the woods around Rawcliffe, otter hunting in the marshlands, the steam packet that sailed from Langrick (Long Drax) to York, and the emergence of the railways.

There is a lot to fascinate but much to skip over. As in Curiosities..., some chapters are overly long with too much verbatim source material. A good editor would not have been amiss.

17 comments:

  1. Thank you for such an interesting post. My father in law, who came from Sheffield, once told of a young girl from their school who went to stay with relatives about 25 miles away for the summer holidays (this would have been 1920s). He said they couldn't understand her accent when she returned to school!

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    1. Thanks for finding it interesting. I guess Baring-Gould is talking about more local differences as the 4 places he mentions are very close together, whereas what I remember and you refer to are over wider areas. I also wonder whether bicycles as well as trains helped iron out the differences.

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  2. I also come from Yorkshire and have a book from The Dalesman called Yorkshire Customs, Traditions and Folk Lore of Old Yorkshire written by Arthur Crowther. It is many years since I read it, but on quickly going through it after reading your post I see a mention of James Hirst who lived in Rawcliffe and it mentions his visit to George III. The book also mentions quite a few other Yorkshire characters. Maybe this is a prompt for me to re-read the book. I had forgotten I had it.

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    1. There seem to have been several writers on these kinds of topics in different parts of the country. They were probably superseded by gossipy magazines and newspapers. What I like about the Baring-Gould book is the accents: I just have to read them out loud. You get that in the Dalesman as well of course.

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  3. I love encountering this sort of local book, often a little pamphlet, published (at least over here) by a library or university grant. I used to have several published by local "tramps", who knew every inch of the country, the caves, the Indian Mounds.
    Back in reference to Baring-Gould, I am pleased to read your mention of gruesome medieval punishments; I would avoid reading that part at all costs. I remember stumbling on the description of an impaling. I didn't sleep well for a long time.
    I had no trouble with the Yorkshire accent in the little story. I wonder why?

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    1. He doesn't go into too much detail about the gruesome and at the end says he could tell us about Middle Eastern punishments but that they are far too disturbing to write about. He seems to transcribe the Yorkshire so that it remains readable - I suspect the second word he quotes would have been "med" not "made". In other words he was helpful to his readers.

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  4. Well, this is a whole new side of him of which I was unaware! I only recognize his name as the lyricist for "Onward Christian Soldiers" so you have educated me today, thanks!

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    1. It's astonishing how much he wrote.

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    2. p.s. another hymn he wrote is "Now The Day Is Over". I find that the more I discover about him the more I like him. He must have been one of the first people to have a standing desk.

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  5. Lovely to read about this man. I have only come across him in books he has written about Cornwall and Wales, he was a fervent recorder of all things historic and of course prehistoric such as cromlechs. The vicars of Victorian Britain only seemed to have had one working day, the rest were often taken up by digging up a barrow or two.

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    1. He inherited an estate in Devon and a parish went with it, so it seems more likely it was one day a week as a vicar and six days writing and researching. He wrote an enormous amount about the West Country.

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  6. As I love browsing the kindle store for free ebooks, I often come across books written in the 1850s or a bit later, and I rather like the writing style and language of the time, even though it can - as you say - be a bit tedious in places, or overly sentimental in others.
    I'll have a look for Baring-Gould's ghost book, it sounds like the kind of thing I like reading on my train trips to and from work.

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    1. PS: In German, Sabine is a female name.

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    2. I would definitely recommend the ghost book. Also the penultimate chapter in Yorkshire Oddities - Brother Jucundus - is a warm and funny story, wonderful. The name Sabine was a grandmother's family name.

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  7. I have definitely come across the name Sabine Baring-Gould before - not just at Horbury Bridge but also in the village of East Mersea on Mersea Island in Essex where he was the vicar for ten years. If he was alive today I am sure that he would supplement his "Yorkshire Oddities" with a new chapter devoted entirely to you.

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    1. Thank you for the compliment. Baring-Gould was sent to Mersea to keep him quiet because the elite did not like his political views. I see you went in 2015. Did they try to keep you there for ten years too?

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    2. Yes. They wanted me to be the mayor of Mersea and to annexe the low-lying island on behalf of The Yorkshire Republic.

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