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Yorkshire Oddities

At the time of writing Yorkshire Oddities, Sabine Baring-Gould a Cambridge educated Devonian had spent seven years — almost all of his working life— in the West Riding. Now, safely in Kent, where he was to spend the next ten years, he was at liberty to describe its eccentric and remarkable characters. These he termed Oddities, and to qualify they had to have been either born in England’s greatest county or to have lived there. One Oddity he neglected to include was the remarkable novelist, lyricist, and folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould. If John Wroe, James Nayler, and Jonathan Martin qualified, then so did he. How else can one explain a young curate who simultaneously wrote both “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Book of Were-Wolves”?

Many of the Oddities were well-known, at the time, now historical figures with a somewhat tenuous association to Yorkshire. These include John Wroe (1782 – 1863), founder of the Christian Israelite Church, and James Nayler (1618 – 1660), a founding Quaker tried and branded for blasphemy. Neither of these two is particularly associated with Yorkshire, except as their birthplace. On the other hand, Jonathan Martin (1782 – 1838) born in Northumberland is included. He was the brother of popular artist John Martin and crackpot inventor William Martin. However, his claim to notoriety was the almost total destruction of York Minster by fire in 1829.

Other famous and infamous 18th and early 19th century celebrities featured by Baring-Gould had a stronger local association. The highwayman Snowden Dunhill (1766 – 1838) was born in the East Riding, and was active in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire before being transported to Australia. John Metcalf (1717 – 1810) was born in Knaresborough, and returned after serving in the army suppressing the Jacobite rebellion. He is best known as a civil engineer who built the eastern sections of the first two trans-Pennine roads since Roman times. He was also blind from the age of six. Finally, James Hirst (1738 -1829), spent his entire life in Yorkshire, except for an audience with George III. He was famous for being himself.

Contemporary readers would have needed no introduction to these more famous oddities, as well as others like the extremely entitled Nancy Nicholson, who appears to have many descendants on 21st century social media. Baring-Gould’s sources for their stories, referenced in the original editions, were biographies published in the late 18th and early 19th centuries including locally printed chapbooks, and newspaper reports, mainly from the now defunct Leeds Mercury.

For the lives of the lesser known Oddities, who all lived in his corner of the West Riding, such as the Yorkshire Butcher, David Turton and Old John Mealy-Face, Baring-Gould collected his own material often directly from original sources, but supplemented it with reports from the Mercury and other local newspapers. Where he is often ironic, if not cynical in his treatment of the famous and infamous Oddities, with these characters he is more sympathetic; especially when the characters are allowed to speak for themselves, in an approximation to their native dialect. Nevertheless, there is still an element of dark humour in most of the characters and their tales.

Consider the tale of the Yorkshire Butcher. When the doctor recommends to James that he takes up smoking (times have changed) to ease his gout, his wife replies that “it’s possible it might. But thou seest, doctor, chimleys is made so narrow nowadays that one cannot hang un up i’ t’ reek (smoke) as one did wi’ one’s bacon i’ bygone days.” But, the last word is not with the wife. When she believed herself to be dying, and was worried about the future of her children, her husband’s response is “Never thee trouble thy head about that … go on wi’ thy deein’. I’ll mind t’ bairns.”

In the life of an Oddity, there are necessarily many incidents and often events which could be described as strange. Hence the full title of the book, Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents, and Strange Events, should cover every page. Nevertheless the only strange event is entirely fictional. The Boggart of Helen-Pot is an original ghost story which incorporates factual descriptions of the landscape around the Three Peaks and local folklore. Although the 26 year-old Baring-Gould stated that Helen Pot is also known as Hull Pot, his description fits better to nearby Hurtle Pot, which is home to a boggart.

This leaves only the first essay, concerning the ghosts of Trinity Church in York, which does not, at first sight, fit into the scheme of Oddities, Incidents or Strange Events. There is neither clear incident nor singular event, but instead it discusses the regular sightings of ghostly figures in the window and the local legends surrounding them. The ghosts are not specific people whose character and foibles are portrayed, and neither is there a continuous narrative. Instead, what is presented is a collection of letters on the subject, written both to Baring-Gould and to newspapers. Therefore, it remains unclear whether the ghosts are the Oddities — or the letter writers.

Sabine Baring-Gould

Sabine Baring-Gould (1834 – 1924) is arguably best known for The Book of Were-Wolves (1865), although his most widely known work is probably the hymn Onward, Christian Soldiers, written in the same year. At the time he was Curate of Horbury in the West Riding of Yorkshire. As well as being a reknowned folklorist, particularly as a collector of folk songs, and lyricist, he was an antiquarian, a hagiographer and biographer, a poet, and a novelist.

Baring-Gould was born in St Sidwell, Devon on 28th January 1834 into an aristocratic family, being heir to the manor of Lew Trenchard. In 1868, at the age of 34 he married Grace Taylor, a mill girl 18 years his junior, in a small private ceremony in Wakefield.

In 1871 the couple left Yorkshire for Essex, where Baring-Gould served as Rector of East Mersea for ten years. Having inherited the family estates on the death of his father in 1872, when the living of the parish of Lew Trenchard became vacant in 1881 he appointed himself as Rector. He remained in Devon until his death on 2nd January 1924, and was buried alongside Grace, his wife of 48 years who died eight years earlier.

Author Illustation: Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, Rector of East Mersea (detail) , Charles Head, 1911, Colchester & Ipswich Museums.

Cover Illustation: A Landmark (detail), L. S. Lowry, 1936