Exeter Civic Society

Exeter Civic Society

Blue plaque to Sabine Baring-Gould unveiled

The latest of Exeter Civic Society’s blue plaques, to Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), was unveiled on his birthplace in Exeter, now the premises of Gilbert Stephens, solicitors, at 16 Southernhay East on Friday 20 March.

Covid-19 meant that the event was severely curtailed but it was decided to go ahead with the unveiling itself so as to fulfil the wishes of the donors who had generously funded the production of the plaque. A celebratory event in Southernhay Church Hall which would have done fuller justice to this remarkable man with a recital of folk songs by Wren Music and a display of books, manuscripts and broadside ballads from the Devon Heritage Centre had to be postponed until life returns to normal.

In the event there were only a dozen members present, all keeping their distance. Sabine-Baring-Gould’s great grand-daughter Merriol Almond, who lives the United States was due to visit Exeter with her family to unveil the plaque but flights were cancelled so it was decided that our President Hazel Harvey, who was a friend of Merriol from university days would carry this out. She was about to do so when a passer-by enquired what was happening. She had noticed the plaque earlier, before the curtain had been fixed, and was curious because she was Sabine Baring-Gould’s great grand-daughter, giving details of how she was descended – details which nobody was able to note down but which were later verified although her name could not be ascertained. Hazel  was pleased to hand over to her her the honour of pulling off the curtain so that the plaque could after all be unveiled by a  great grand-daughter of the person commemorated. Her surprise and delight is clear from the photograph of the unveiling.

Sabine Baring-Gould considered his greatest achievement to be his pioneering collecting of folk songs of Devon and Cornwall which he began in 1888. Many of these were published between 1889 and 1895 but manuscripts in Exeter and Plymouth libraries and archives preserve many more. More than twenty organisations and individuals who are involved in maintaining his heritage were to be represented and these are listed in a programme which is available on the website of the Devon bibliography. They include Wren Music, who have long been inspired by his work and have digitised his manuscripts and the Kent Kingdon Bequest, a charity for Exeter’s heritage, which was to use the occasion to present substantial grants to Wren Music and the Devon Heritage Centre to help in their work in safeguarding this important part of Devon’s literary and musical heritage.

Sabine Baring-Gould was born in Chichester Place, Southernhay on 28 January 1834. After ordination in 1864 he served as curate at Horbury, Yorkshire where married Grace Taylor, daughter of a mill-hand in 1868. Between 1869 and 1891 they had 15 children which means that there must be a considerable number of great grand-daughters around, so that slightly lessens the odds of one of them passing by on 20 March. After a period as rector of East Mersea from 1871 to 1881, he became rector of Lewtrenchard in 1881 and he died there on 2 January 1924. He was a great traveller and prolific writer on a wide range of subjects – biographies, folklore, travel books, theology, novels and hymns, including Onward, Christian soldiers. He was also active as an archaeologist on Dartmoor. There is more information on Baring-Gould and his work in collecting folk songs in the programme of the postponed event.