William Barnes: The Dorset Poet

Portrait of William Barnes, Dorset County Museum

Portrait of William Barnes, Dorset County Museum

I, the son of John and Grace Barnes, was born at Rush-hay, a little farmling at Bagbere in the Parish of Sturminster Newton, in the Vale of Black-more . . . so wrote William Barnes, who was born on this day, 22nd February in 1801.

Though William’s grandfather had been a prosperous yeoman, his father was recorded in a census of Sturminster Newton taken on 10th March, 1801 (now in the Dorset History Centre) as ‘Labourer in Husbandry’. Yet in spite of lowly circumstances and his mother’s death when he was fifteen, young William had a happy childhood spent in his own home and in frequent visits to his father’s sisters at Pentridge Farm nearby. After schooling at a dame’s school and at Sturminster Newton, he was taken on as a clerk in a solicitor’s office in Sturminster, and in 1818 became engrossing clerk with the firm of Thos. Coombs & Son in Dorchester. It was in the High Street, soon after, that he first saw and fell in love with Julia Miles.

Encouraged and helped by friends of his youth, William Barnes had already developed gifts for music, literature, art and the classics, but her parents opposed him as a suitor, on the grounds of poverty. This eventually decided him to embark on a new career, and after he had kept a school at Mere for several years, he was at last, in 1827, able to marry Julia, the woman who was to be a source of intense happiness and a devoted support to him as long as she lived. At Mere he continued to keep school, practised his already developed talent for woodcuts and copper-plate engravings, brought out his first book on philology, for use in schools, studied the Welsh language, and in 1833-4 published seven eclogues in the Dorset dialect.

In 1835 he returned to his own county, settling first in a house in Durngate Street, Dorchester, later moving to another next door to Napper’s Mite in South Street, and in 1847 settling in the house on the west side of the same street which bears a tablet commemorating his 15 years’ residence there. His life was full, with his school, his children, his friends (amongst them, Thomas Hardy), his publication of ‘Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect’ in 1844, his interest in archaeology and geology which led him to become a member of the Council of the Dorset County Museum after its inauguration in 1845. He published a philological grammar in 1854, having mastered not only the classics but 60 other languages.

William Barnes Statue, St. Peter's Church, Dorchester

William Barnes Statue, St. Peter’s Church, Dorchester

In 1847 William Barnes was ordained deacon and instituted to the tiny parish of Whitcombe and its beautiful church, not far from Dorchester; but it was not until 1862, 10 years after his wife’s death, that he gave up his school and was presented to the living of Winterborne Came, the neighbouring parish. In the charming rectory which still stands on the Dorchester-Broadmayne road he lived with his daughters, and it was here that, according to Lucy, who was to write his Life under the pen-name of ‘Leader Scott’, he adopted the ‘cassock and wide-brimmed hat, knee-breeches and large buckles on his shapely shoes’ which became his characteristic garb, as well known today as in his own, since the fine statue by Roscoe Mullins was placed outside St. Peter’s Church in Dorchester.

William Barnes' Shoes, leather with buckle clasp, 'antique' style hand-made, 19th Century. Wearing these with knee breeches and cloak, he was a familiar figure in Dorchester until 1883.

Displayed in the Dorset County Museum, are William Barnes’ ‘shapely shoes’., leather with buckle clasp, ‘antique’ style hand-made, 19th Century. Wearing these with knee breeches and cloak, he was a familiar figure in Dorchester until 1883. © DCM

From the rectory, William Barnes, now old but vigorous still, went trudging out in every kind of weather to help his scattered parishioners. Indoors he had his family, his friends, and his interests. He lies in the churchyard of Winterborne Came, his grave is marked by a Celtic cross. Long before his death in 1886 he was famous in the outside world, but it was not his fame (hardly realized by most of his neighbours) but his poems, which he read aloud in the authentic dialect of his youth, moving his audiences to laughter and tears, which endeared him to his fellow men of Dorset, reflecting as they did the deep love of countryside, country ways and country people which characterized this learned yet essentially simple and genuine man.

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2 thoughts on “William Barnes: The Dorset Poet

  1. Pingback: A British Earthwork by Rev. William Barnes | Dorset County Museum

  2. Pingback: With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, why not head down to Dorset County Museum and discover Dorset’s own answer to Romeo and Juliet. | Dorset County Museum

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