The Custom of St Valentine’s Day

A Victorian Valentine Card from the Dorset County Museum Collection © DCM 2014

A Victorian Valentine Card from the Dorset County Museum Collection © DCM 2014

The 14th February is better known as ‘St Valentine’s Day’ and it is without question the most popular day of the year for romance. Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the customs and traditions of St Valentine’s Day in Dorset in his book ‘Dorsetshire Folklore’ published in 1922:-

“Amongst my Dorset notes for this day I find one from the Illustrated London News in February, 1880, which states that on St. Valentine’s day the maids suspend in the kitchen a nosegay of early flowers tied up with a “true-lover’s knot” of blue ribbon. It is not stated, however, what was the object or purpose of this act; though it is not difficult, I think, to believe that it indicated some manifestation or expression connected with the young women’s attitude towards those subjects to which the lover’s Saint’s day is dedicated.

Somewhat akin to this, perhaps, is the belief that it is unlucky if a male is not the first visitor that comes to the house on St. Valentine’s Day.

Formerly in Dorsetshire, as elsewhere, large numbers of ” valentines ” were exchanged between young people, a practice to which this day gave special licence ; some of these, especially those sent in ridicule, being both vulgar and wanting in good taste. A great improvement has, however, set in in late years with regard to this; and now the custom is mostly confined in regard to ” valentines ” to the exchange or sending of presents of a more useful or valuable nature.

Hone, in his Every-Day Book, vol. i, p. 118, records a custom which prevailed many years since in the West of England, and may well, therefore, be known in Dorsetshire, although I am not myself personally acquainted with it: —

“Three single young men went out together before daylight on St. Valentine’s Day, with a clapnet to catch an old owl and two sparrows in a neighbouring barn. If they were successful and could bring the birds to the inn without injury before the females of the house had risen they were rewarded by the hostess with three pots of purl in honour of St. Valentine, and enjoyed the privilege of demanding at any house in the neighbourhood a similar boon. This was done, it is said, as an emblem that the owl, being the bird of wisdom, could influence the feathered race to enter the net of love as mates on that day, whereon both single lads and maidens should be reminded that happiness could alone be secured by an early union.”

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

Cupid drawn by William BarnesIf you were asked to name great romance stories, you would not be alone in recalling tales of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. However, on our own Dorset doorstep, one of the most epic love stories took place which not so many people may be aware of. This is the real-life love story between William and Julia Barnes.

The story began one morning in March 1818 where a chance encounter led William Barnes to first set eyes on a young Julia Miles as she stepped down from her stagecoach outside the King’s Arms Hotel in Dorchester. At which point he was described as being smitten immediately and even ‘involuntarily muttering to himself “that shall be my wife” (Chedzoy, 2010: 27). Their courtship was one worthy of any Shakespeare play or Hollywood movie script. Their love was forbidden by Julia’s disapproving father so the couple were forced to express their feelings in a series of intense love letters.

Shown below are two authentic examples of the handwritten letters from William to Julia.

William Banes Love letter

This letter c. 1820, points out the difficulty for the couple to have a conversation face-to-face. However, this obstacle does not stop the love-struck William from attempting to entice Julia into ‘granting him the happiness’ of attending a concert with him.

William Banes Love letter

This letter divulges William’s attempts to arrange an ‘accidental’ meeting with Julia. This highlight the need to keep their courtship a secret because it was strictly forbidden. It is this forbidden love and the couple’s determination to follow what their hearts desired which is so reminiscent of Shakespeare’s famous ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story. William and Julia both use phrases such as, ‘Yours devotedly’ and ‘Yours faithfully’ to end nearly all of their communications, showing the deepness of the star-crossed lovers’ feelings for one another.

This exchange of letters and series of ‘accidental’ meetings continued over an incredible nine years. (A time span not many modern men would have the patience to withstand nowadays!) Until, they finally married in 1827. So whatever romantic plans you have for your Valentine this February, be sure to remember true love can last much longer than one lifetime.

These love letters make up a small part of the extensive collection held by Dorset County Museum on the life of William Barnes. The Barnes’ gallery is due to undergo an extensive redevelopment where Barnes’ love life, poetry and achievements are to take a more prominent place. The refurbished gallery is expected to be opened in August 2015. For more on the lives and love story of William and Julia Barnes please visit Dorset County Museum.

To find out more information about Dorset County Museum’s Barnes collection or to plan your next trip to the museum, please visit www.dorsetcountymuseum.org

Gabriella Crouch

Further reading:

  • Chedzoy, A. (2011), The People’s Poet: William Barnes of Dorset. The History Press: Gloucestershire.
  • Lindgreen, C. H. (ed.) (1986), The Love Poems and Letters of William Barnes and Julia Miles. Dorset Record Society: Dorset.

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