William Barnes (1801-1886).

On the 25 January, the birthday of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, will be celebrated around the world.  For some years now there has been a growing feeling that an English poet should likewise be honoured.  But which English poet’s work similarly combines dialect verse with a strong sense of place?  One poet who might fill those shoes is the Dorset dialect poet William Barnes (1801-1886).

In his dialect poems William Barnes evokes the Dorset countryside through the language spoken by the labourers who lived, loved and died there.  Barnes’s poems paint a colourful and sympathetic picture of the people he grew up with in the village of Bagber near Sturminster Newton, and later taught at schools in Mere and Dorchester.  His first book of poems, Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect, was published in 1844, and was soon followed by Poems, Partly of Rural Life (1846), Hwomely Rhymes: a Second Collection of Dorset Poems (1850) and a Third Collection of Poems in Dorset Dialect (1863).

Largely self-educated, Barnes was a polymath who could speak many European and classical languages, as well as Welsh, Hindustani and Persian.  His interest in the history and development of the Dorset language saw in 1863 the Philological Society publish his Grammar and Glossary of the Dorset Dialect, and in his last two works, An Outline of English Speech-Craft (1878) and An Outline of Rede-Craft (Logic) with English Wording (1880), Barnes developed his theories about how the English Anglo-Saxon language would have developed had it not been for its Latinization following the Norman Conquest.

By 1880, William Barnes was rector of Winterborne Came and in his 80th year.  His dialect poetry had received national recognition and his admirers included Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson.  That year the Headmaster of Sherborne School, Edward Mallet Young (1839-1900), invited William Barnes to attend the School’s annual Commemoration and Speech Day on 23 June 1880.

A.N. Whitehead, Head of School.

Due to the good weather, Commem that year was very well attended.  The day began with a service in the Abbey at which the sermon was preached by the Dean of Llandaff, Dr C.J. Vaughan who had previously been headmaster of Harrow School.  After the final hymn, ‘Now thank we all our God’, the congregation and visitors adjourned to the newly built Big Schoolroom where the Head of School, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), who later in life was acknowledged as one of the ‘greatest living philosophers’, began the proceedings with a Latin address in which he set forth the most important events at the School in the past year.  This was followed by the prize giving, in between which were performed three ‘humorous’ scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

After the prize giving, lunch was provided for 270 visitors in a large marquee erected on the School House lawn, inside which three large tables were set out with an ‘elegant spread’ prepared and arranged by the Headmaster’s housekeeper Mrs Gregory, his butler Henry James Alder, and cook Mrs Eliza Harrison.  After lunch, toasts were proposed for the Queen, Church and State, Governing Body, Masters, Old Shirburnians, Dr Vaughan, the Headmaster, and the Ladies.

A toast was proposed to William Barnes and the County of Dorset by a former Head of School and then Scottish Liberal politician, Thomas Ryburn Buchanan (1846-1911).  In his toast Buchanan praised William Barnes ‘who had clearly established before the world that the language of this county has a fair right to rank on equal terms with that other dialect with which he (the speaker) was more particularly connected – broad Scotch.’

Barnes responded saying ‘he felt himself very unworthy of being associated with this toast.  He had not been so happy as to have been a boy of Sherborne School and he could only claim by his poems to be the representative of the lower half of Dorsetshire life – that half which walked in the lower ways of life, and which still spoke a form of our Saxon mother tongue.’  He went on to say that he ‘was a lover of Dorchester, and a lover of Dorsetshire, and he was glad to find in Sherborne not only a Dorsetshire school, but a school for the whole of England and one worthy of it.’  This was followed by loud applause.  Barnes then discussed his latest book, An Outline of Rede-Craft, and denied that it showed a hatred for Latin and Greek saying ‘he had studied them lovingly and studied them still’, adding that ‘he had no wish to see the advantage of Latin and Greek lore and the history of the old world cast aside, but he did wish to see Anglo-Saxon set for a degree into the University course.’

William Barnes died just six years later on 7 October 1886.  His funeral was held at Winterborne Came and is remembered by Thomas Hardy in his poem ‘The Last Signal: a Memory of William Barnes.’

Statue of William Barnes, St Peter’s church, Dorchester.

Like Hardy, William Barnes is today honoured in Dorchester with a statue. Other memorials to Barnes were suggested, including wayside crosses and cottages for the poor, but it was the Headmaster of Sherborne School, Edward Mallet Young, who, along with many others, believed that Barnes should be honoured by a statue.

At a meeting held to discuss how Barnes’ memory should honoured, Young stated, ‘What could  possibly be more striking than a statue representing the Poet as he lived and moved amongst us, with knee breeches, cloak, and staff, and those remarkable characteristics of dress and person which are so indelibly engraved on the memories of those who had the good fortune to know him?  However desirable then may be many of the proposals suggested, there can be no doubt that a statue of the Poet, erected in a prominent place in the county town where he spent so many years of his life, will best meet the wishes of the majority’.

Young’s argument was obviously well-received and on 4 February 1889 a bronze statue of William Barnes by Edwin Roscoe Mullins (1848-1907) was unveiled outside St Peter’s Church in High West Street, Dorchester.

And so, perhaps on 22 February 1801, William Barnes’s birthday, we should all join together and celebrate Barnes Night and recite, in our best Dorset accents, his poem ‘Praise o’ Do’set’:

‘We Do’set, though we mid be hwomely,
Be’nt asheäm’d to own our pleäce;
An’ we’ve zome women not uncomely;
Nor asheäm’d to show their feäce:
We’ve a meäd or two wo’th mowèn,
We’ve an ox or two wo’th showèn,
In the village,
At the tillage,
Come along an’ you shall vind
That Do’set men don’t sheäme their kind.
Friend an’ wife,
Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers,
Happy, happy, be their life!
Vor Do’set dear,
Then gi’e woone cheer;
D’ye hear? woone cheer!

If you in Do’set be a-roamèn,
An’ ha’ business at a farm,
Then woont ye zee your eäle a-foamèn!
Or your cider down to warm?
Woont ye have brown bread a-put ye,
An’ some vinny cheese a-cut ye?
Butter?—rolls o’t!
Cream?—why bowls o’t!
Woont ye have, in short, your vill,
A-gi’ed wi’ a right good will?
Friend an’ wife,
Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers,
Happy, happy, be their life!
Vor Do’set dear,
Then gi’e woone cheer;
D’ye hear? woone cheer!

An’ woont ye have vor ev’ry shillèn,
Shillèn’s wo’th at any shop,
Though Do’set chaps be up to zellèn,
An’ can meäke a tidy swop?
Use ‘em well, they’ll use you better;
In good turns they woont be debtor.
An’ so comely,
An’ so hwomely,
Be the maïdens, if your son
Took woone o’m, then you’d cry “Well done!”
Friend an’ wife,
Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers,
Happy, happy, be their life!
Vor Do’set dear,
Then gi’e woone cheer;
D’ye hear? woone cheer!

If you do zee our good men travel,
Down a-voot, or on their meäres,
Along the windèn leänes o’ gravel,
To the markets or the feäirs,—
Though their ho’ses cwoats be ragged,
Though the men be muddy-laggèd,
Be they roughish,
Be they gruffish,
They be sound, an’ they will stand
By what is right wi’ heart an’ hand.
Friend an’ wife,
Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers,
Happy, happy, be their life!
Vor Do’set dear,
Then gi’e woone cheer;
D’ye hear? woone cheer!’

This poem first appeared in William Barnes’ Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect (1844).

Rachel Hassall
School Archivist
24 January 2019

Further reading:
Lucy Baxter, The Life of William Barnes, Poet and Philologist (London, Macmillan & Col, 1887).
Trevor W. Hearl, William Barnes 1901-1886.  The Schoolmaster (Dorset, Longmans Ltd., 1966).
Llewelyn Powys, Thirteen Worthies (Bristol, Redcliffe Press Ltd., 1983).
Chris Wrigley, ‘William Barnes (1801–1886)’, Dictionary of National Biography (available online).

See also:
A history of Commemoration Day

For further information please contact the School Archivist.

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