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date: 30 June 2022

Barnes, Williamfree


Barnes, Williamfree

  • Chris Wrigley

William Barnes (1801–1886)

by George Stuckey, c. 1870

Barnes, William (1801–1886), poet and philologist, was born on 22 February 1801, in a cob and thatch cottage, Rushay Farm, on Bagber Common, near Sturminster Newton, Dorset, the sixth of seven children of John Barnes (bap. 1762, d. 1846), and his wife, Grace, née Scott (bap. 1760, d. 1816). His father was of a farming family much reduced in circumstances, and was himself increasingly dependent on wage labour. His mother had been brought up with three sisters by her young widowed mother and in May 1789 marked with a cross the marriage register at Lydlinch church (later the subject of one of William's notable poems). His siblings were John, William, Charles, James, Anne, and Henry, he being given the same name as an older brother who died young (1791–1800).

William Barnes's education began in the village dame-school and continued at a boys' school in what is now Lane Fox Terrace, Sturminster Newton until he was thirteen. Through his abilities, especially his handwriting, Barnes was selected by Thomas Dashwood to join his solicitor's practice as an engrossing clerk in 1814. As a schoolboy and after he spent much time, perhaps living there for a time, at Pentridge Farm with his father's sister Ann and her husband Charles Rabbetts (or Roberts), the originals of his much loved aunt and uncle in several of his early poems.

How happy uncle us'd to beO' zummer time, when aunt an' heO' Zunday evenens, eärm in eärm,Did walk about their tiny farm,While birds did zing an' gnats did zwarm,Drough grass a'most above their knees,An' roun' by hedges an' by treesWi' leafy boughs a-swayen.

Uncle an' Aunt, Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect, 1844Indeed, much of his rural poetry looked back to the good times of his youth, when agriculture was prosperous. The Rabbetts were adversely affected by the enclosure of the Bagber commons and even more so by the agricultural recession after the Napoleonic wars, Barnes being much affected by their distress on losing their farm.

Barnes himself was driven by a determination to better himself and even to reverse the family's pattern of decline. Thomas Hardy later observed of him, 'A more notable example of self-help has seldom been recorded' (The Rev-William Barnes, B.D., The Athenaeum, 16 Oct 1886, 501–2). It was very revealing that in 1847, in an affluent period of his life, Barnes derived great pleasure from buying two fields at Bagber, which he rented to a farmer. In owning land again he kept faith with his forefathers.

In 1818, after the death of Dashwood and his aunt and uncle's loss of their farm, Barnes moved to Dorchester where he worked for another solicitor, Thomas Coombs. He shared lodgings over Hazard's pastry shop in High West Street with William Gilbert Carey. Carey later informed Barnes in 1823 that his former teacher in Mere had died, leaving a vacancy, an opportunity which Barnes took up. In Dorchester, Barnes worked hard on self-improvement, engaging in music, engraving, learning languages, writing poetry, and classical reading. In 1822 he published Orra: a Lapland Tale, a poem illustrated by his own engravings.

Barnes's life was transformed in 1818 when he saw a girl alight from a stagecoach at the King's Arms Hotel. She was Julia Miles (1805–1852), then thirteen (not sixteen as suggested by his daughter's biography), the daughter of James Camfield Miles, a supervisor of the excise. Barnes's desire to prove he would be a suitable husband for her led him to embark on his career as a schoolmaster. She was the focus of much of his finest poetry, from a small collection, Poetical Pieces, which he had printed in 1820, to the verse written after her death. 'The Wife A-Lost' begins

Since I noo mwore do zee your feäce,Up steäirs or down below,I'll zit me in the lwonesome pleäce,Where flat-bough'd beech do grow;Below the beeches' bough, my love,Where you did never come,An' I don't look to meet ye now,As I do look at hwome.

Hwomely Rhymes, 1858

Barnes taught in Mere from 1823 to 1835 with mixed financial success. Between 1823 and 1825 he taught on his own in the old schoolroom in the Market House, achieving a precarious livelihood. After his marriage on 9 July 1827, with Julia's organizing ability behind it, their relocated school at Chantry House flourished. There the school was mixed sex and partly boarding, with Julia teaching the girls and managing the domestic side. Barnes himself, already a polymath, expanded his teaching beyond reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, geography, Latin, music, and drawing to a range of classical, modern European, and oriental languages. In these years he wrote on a broad range of topics for the Dorset County Chronicle, the Gentleman's Magazine, and Hone's Yearbook. He also published two mathematical booklets in 1834 and 1835, encouraged by his acquaintanceship with Major-General Henry Shrapnel, one of several scholarly gentlemen from whom he learned much. From early in 1834 he began writing the poems which were published as Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect (1844). In addition to developing the school and his scholarly and craft endeavours, he and Julia enjoyed music and their garden and began a family with Laura Liebe (1829–1918), Julia Eliza (1832–1915), and Julius (1834–1837).

At his wife's prompting, Barnes moved to Dorchester in 1835 to achieve greater success and social standing as a schoolmaster. He established a boys' school in Durngate, for boarders and day pupils. The prospectus for the school declared that Barnes would prepare pupils for commercial, mathematical, or learned professions, naval or military colleges, or universities, and, in listing his expertise, he included mention of his 'papers on classical and general learning which he published in periodicals and otherwise'. After two years in which he worked strenuously to master sufficient of his broad curriculum to teach and inspire the interest of his pupils, the school was relocated at Norman's House, South Street. From 1837, with Julia and her mother efficiently running the domestic side of the school, the family prospered. Barnes entered for a part-time degree of bachelor of divinity at St John's College, Cambridge, requiring a minimum of ten years' enrolment. He resumed his writing for the Gentleman's Magazine and published several educational booklets. He and Julia expanded their musical and other social interests and their family grew with the births of Lucy (1837–1902) [see Baxter, Lucy], Isabel (b. 1838), William Miles (1840–1916), and Egbert (1843–1877).

The mid-1840s brought Barnes success wider than solely as a schoolmaster. Poems in the Dorset Dialect (1844) was well received, reaching a fifth edition by 1866. It was followed by Poems, Partly of Rural Life (in National English) in 1846, Hwomely Rhymes: a Second Collection of Dorset Poems in 1850, Third Collection of Poems in Dorset Dialect in 1863, and Poems of Rural Life in Common English in 1868. On 28 February 1847 Barnes was ordained at Salisbury Cathedral with responsibility for the donative living of Whitcombe, offered to Barnes by Colonel Dawson Damer of Came House. Also, in October 1845, Barnes became one of the first joint secretaries (1845–58) of the Dorset County Museum which was formed in anticipation of the impact of the projected South-Western Railway on Dorchester and the surrounding area. This office reflected his standing by this time among the local scholarly society. This period was the apex of Barnes's life, not least because of the reputation as a poet that his 1844 collection secured him.

In the summer of 1847 Barnes entered his last phase as a schoolmaster. He relocated his school in the house of the late Mr Hawkins at 40 South Street, which he purchased for £700. His hopes for the new venture were dashed by the death from breast cancer of his wife, Julia, on 21 June 1852, compounded a year later by the death of her mother, the effective domestic manager of the school. His school declined while praise for his poetry increased. In April 1861 Palmerston's government awarded him a civil-list pension of £70 a year. Barnes was rescued financially in 1862 when Captain Seymour Dawson Damer offered him the living of Winterborne Came. Barnes closed down his school just when renewed success might have come, as a pupil, T. W. Hooper Tolbort, topped the list of the Indian Civil Service examination—but by this time Barnes was pleased to become rector with an income of £200 per annum.

In his last phase as a schoolteacher Barnes continued to write and to lecture. He wrote articles for Macmillan's Magazine and Fraser's Magazine as well as for the Retrospective Review and The Reader. Some of these essays and several of his small books, such as Notes on Ancient Britain and the Britons (1858), Views of Labour and Gold (1859), and Early England and the Saxon English (1869) stemmed from lectures. He had given lectures to the Weymouth and Sturminster Newton literary and scientific institutes (in November 1851 and January 1852) before Julia's death. As Trevor Hearl's research has shown, from the time of the foundation of the Dorchester Working Men's Mutual Improvement Society in late 1855 he gave nearly 200 lectures or readings to similar bodies over twenty-five years, most of which were either on history or of poetry. From 1856 to 1870 he gave between eight and twenty lectures each year between October and March. These were often extremely effective and well-attended occasions (for which he was paid only travel expenses). He retired from lecturing in 1880.

While rector of Winterborne Came, Barnes continued to research into philology. In 1854 he had published A Philological Grammar, with the subtitle indicating that it compared English with 'more than sixty languages'. Thereafter, he published TIW, or, A View of the Roots and Stems of the English as a Teutonic Tongue (1862), A Grammar and Glossary of the Dorset Dialect (1863), An Outline of English Speech-Craft (1878), and An Outline of Rede-Craft (Logic) with English Wording (1880). Barnes's philological work was marked by encyclopaedic reading and a rather eccentric and lonely campaign to de-Latinize and to Saxonize the English language. Barnes's philology, as Valerie Shepherd has argued, was rooted in notions of linguistic purity, and to return to purity involved discovering the language's roots. This belief reinforced his interest in the Dorset dialect which, though unfashionable among some well-to-do, he felt had its own roots in an Anglo-Saxon dialect. However, his efforts to substitute words such as 'breath-sounds' for 'vowels' predictably were as ill-fated as Cnut's alleged attempts to turn back the tide.

The philological books were not the only ones to combine heroic feats of learning with a mix of common sense and some eccentricity. This was very much the case with Views of Labour and Gold which, as Alan Chedzoy has observed, displays an approach whereby clear definitions of economic concepts are deemed to explain economic matters and where analysis gives way to a rag-bag of information and views. Barnes's prose writings were often infused with Christian kindness, critical views of capitalism and industrialization, and much harking back to earlier rural golden ages and to Saxon and earlier times.

As a rector Barnes exhibited piety and benevolence as well as an eccentric, old-fashioned style of dress. He was assiduous in carrying out his duties, and secured the help of two of his daughters in visiting parishioners. His health crumbled from January 1884 and he died in the rectory on 7 October 1886. Thomas Hardy, who attended Barnes's funeral on 11 October 1886, at the Winterborne Came churchyard, commemorated it with a notable poem, 'The Last Signal'.

Barnes was a very kindly man, highly considerate of others and in later life deemed 'the perfection of old-world courtesy'. He was scholarly to a fault: much of his mid-life financial success was due to his wife and mother-in-law. After their deaths he cultivated an image of a scholar of a bygone age, in his buckled shoes and knee-breeches, eccentric capes, and hats. He came near to being a 'jack of all trades and master of none'. Yet, at his best as a schoolteacher he commanded his pupils' interest and admiration. He was also the writer of much enduring verse.

Much of Barnes's finest verse is that written in dialect, which he wrote after and before writing poetry in standard English. The dialect verse more often has music and colour, a good portion of the verse in standard English appearing flat in comparison. His best verse, whether or not in dialect, combined considerable technical skill with an eye for images which acutely revealed much about the countryside and its people. For the Victorians, in a rapidly urbanizing and industrializing society, Barnes's skilful and attractive rustic verse had a particularly powerful appeal.

During his lifetime, Barnes's poetry received national recognition. His admirers included Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Edmund Gosse, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Francis Palgrave, Coventry Patmore, Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, and Alfred Tennyson as well as Thomas Hardy. For Hardy, Barnes provided the stimulus of a local skilled practitioner of poetry, and Hardy learned much from Barnes. 'His ingenious internal rhymes, his subtle juxtaposition of kindred lippings and vowel-sounds, show a fastidiousness in word-selection' (preface to Select Poems). Hardy demonstrated his ability to emulate and go beyond Barnes in his poem on Barnes's funeral, 'The Last Signal: a Memory of William Barnes'. In Barnes's later years many literary figures made a pilgrimage to Came rectory to visit him. Since his death there has been substantial interest in his work, with selections of his poetry edited by such literary figures as Thomas Hardy, Geoffrey Grigson, Robert Nye, and Andrew Motion. Barnes is known to generations by his poem 'Linden Lea', set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Interest in his poetry was given firm foundations in 1962 with the superb, scholarly two-volume edition of his poems edited by Dr Bernard Jones and published by the Southern Illinois University Press. Like Hardy he is honoured in Dorchester with a statue, and there have been two William Barnes societies, the second flourishing from 1983. By the end of the twentieth century, Barnes had apparently secured a place among the widely accepted poets of English literature.


  • L. Baxter, The life of William Barnes, poet and philologist (1887)
  • G. Dugdale, William Barnes of Dorset (1953)
  • T. W. Hearl, William Barnes the schoolmaster (1966)
  • A. Chedzoy, William Barnes: a life of the Dorset poet (1985)
  • The poems of William Barnes, ed. B. Jones, 2 vols. (1962)
  • T. W. Hearl, ‘William Barnes' family circle’, Proceedings of the William Barnes Society, 1 (1983–8)
  • D. Ashdown, ‘Researching William Barnes’, Proceedings of the William Barnes Society, 1 (1983–8)
  • I. Jones, ‘Some notes on William Barnes' family in Sturminster Newton’, Proceedings of the William Barnes Society, 1 (1983–8)
  • T. Hearl, ‘William Barnes and working men's institutes’, Proceedings of the William Barnes Society, 2 (1989–92)
  • C. Wrigley, ed., William Barnes: the Dorset poet (1984)
  • C. Wrigley, ‘William Barnes and the social problem’, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society, 99 (1977)
  • P. Keane, ‘Prophet in the wilderness: Rev. William Barnes as an adult educator’, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society, 100 (1978)
  • C. Lindgren, ‘Images of William Barnes’, William Barnes 1801–1886: a handbook, ed. B. Jones (1986)
  • A. Chedzoy, ‘William Barnes: antiquarian’, Notes and Queries for Somerset and Dorset, 32 (1986–90), 479–82
  • W. T. Levy, William Barnes: the man and the poems (1960)
  • E. M. Forster, ‘William Barnes’, Two cheers for democracy (1951)
  • Select poems of William Barnes, ed. T. Hardy (1908)
  • Selected poems of William Barnes, ed. G. Grigson (1950)
  • P. Larkin, ‘The poetry of William Barnes’, Required writing (1983)
  • V. Shepherd, The poems of William Barnes (1998)
  • Dorset County Museum, Dorchester, William Barnes MSS
  • L. Keen, William Barnes: the Somerset engravings (1989)
  • F. Austin and B. Jones, The language and craft of William Barnes, English poet and philologist (1801–1886) (2002)
  • F. Austin and B. Jones, ‘William Barnes and the schools in Sturminster Newton’, William Barnes of Dorset (2001), 20–28


  • Dorset County Museum, Dorchester, autobiography, drawings, letters, and papers
  • Hunt. L., letters
  • St John Cam., autobiographical notes
  • BL, letters to Macmillan & Co., Add MSS 55253–55255


  • attrib. Barnes, watercolour drawing, 1815, Dorset County Museum, Dorchester
  • J. Thorne, oils, 1845, Dorset County Museum, Dorchester
  • G. Stuckey, oils, 1870, NPG [see illus.]
  • J. Leslie, two watercolour drawings, 1884, Dorset County Museum, Dorchester
  • C. E. Barnes, oils (as an old man), Dorset County Museum, Dorchester
  • W. Barnes, self-portrait, oils, Dorset County Museum, Dorchester
  • E. R. Mullins, statue, St Peter's Church, Dorchester; model, Dorset County Museum, Dorchester
  • oils, Dorset County Museum, Dorchester
  • photograph (as an old man), Dorset County Museum, Dorchester
  • watercolour drawing (as a young man), Dorset County Museum, Dorchester

Wealth at Death

£922 10s. 5d.: probate, 19 Nov 1886, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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National Portrait Gallery, London
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Huntington Library, San Marino, California
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British Library, London
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St John's College, Cambridge