Literary Lives: The Infants Grammar

Literary Lives: The Infants' Grammar by Alan Chedzoy at the Dorset County Museum

Thursday 14th September 2017

Life of William Barnes

Rush-Hay Farm, Bagber as it appears today, the original farm cottage has long since gone
Rush-Hay Farm, Bagber as it appears today, the original farm cottage has long since gone

William Barnes Was Born In The Blackmore Vale On February 22nd 1801 At Rush-Hay, A Small Farmling At Bagber Near Sturminster Newton. He Was The Fifth Child, Of A Least Six Children Born To Grace And John Barnes

Though Williams 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’. John Barnes livelihood was barely above subsistence level and the family lived in a poor thatched cottage. Yet, in spite of lowly circumstances and his mother’s death in 1816, William had experienced a happy childhood spent in his own home and in frequent visits to his cousins at Pentridge Farm nearby.

Barnes was an extremely intelligent child and had a passion for books and learning. He loved the Vale and it was his use of the language, his awareness and retention of the sights and sounds of the working class people of this area which inspired his dialect poetry. It was also in his youth in Bagber that he began to learn French, Latin and Greek languages.

He attended a dame’s school and the Endowed Parish School in Sturminster Newton, until he was thirteen. His splendid handwriting gained him his first employment as a copy-clerk for Thomas Dashwood, the local solicitors.

A self-portrait of William Barnes as a boy
A self-portrait
of William Barnes as a boy. Image Courtesy of
Dorset County Museum ©

Four years later in 1818 he became an engrossing clerk with the firm of Thomas Coombs & Son Solicitors, in Dorchester. He now lived and worked in a prosperous town. He taught himself engraving, played the organ, flute and violin and continued his study of languages.

It was in the High Street, Dorchester that Barnes fell in love with Julia Miles as she stepped down from a Magnet stagecoach in the cobbled yard of the Kings Arms Hotel. Barnes was eighteen and Julia fourteen. Julia’s parents opposed him as a suitor, on the grounds of poverty. Mr and Mrs Camfield Miles even curtailed chaperoned meetings.

William Barnes, painted in 1850 Dorset County Museum ©
William Barnes, painted in 1850. Image Courtesy of
Dorset County Museum ©

It was then Barnes decided to embark on a new career-teaching. After keeping a school at Mere for several years, he obtained approval from her father to marry Julia. The ceremony took place at the parish church of Holy Trinity, Nailsea, Bristol 1827. After nine years of courtship, his beloved Julia had become his wife; the woman who was to be a source of intense happiness and a devoted support to him as long as she lived.

From then until 1835 they kept Chantry House in Mere as a day and boarding school for girls and boys. Barnes career and social life prospered. He 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 The Barnes family, including three children, moved back to his own county of Dorset to set up a school. The first was in a house in Durngate Street, Dorchester. Later they moved to a house next door to Napper’s Mite in South Street. In 1847 they settled 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 and his friends, amongst them, Thomas Hardy.

‘Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect’ by William Barnes
‘Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect’
by William Barnes

Barnes first collection of ‘Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect’ was published in 1844. His interest in archaeology and geology and being instrumental in preventing the railway companies from destroying Poundbury and Maumbury Rings, led him to become co/founder of Dorset County Museum in 1845.

In 1846 his ‘Poems of Rural Life in National English’ was published and a philological grammar in 1854, having mastered not only the classics but 60 other languages.

1847 William Barnes was ordained Curate of Whitcombe, near Dorchester. It was not until 1862, 10 years after his Julia’s death, that he gave up his school and accepted the living of Winterborne Came. Reverend Barnes had great religious and physical stamina and walked miles to take church services whatever the weather. In February 1881 he walked 15 miles on snow-covered roads to take two services, a wedding, a funeral, and an office for the sick all on one day.

Came Rectory, Winterborne Came
Came Rectory, Winterborne Came

Barnes visited all his parishioners in his scattered parish on a regular basis. He was a familiar sight with his leather bag slung over his shoulder and cassock, wearing a shovel hat, blanket shawl, knee-breeches, large buckles on his shoes and a hedgerow stick. The needs of education was always on his mind. He opened a night school at Came Rectory and organised a Sunday school and choir.

Throughout the twenty-four years he lived at Came Rectory he was visited by eminent men of letters, Edmond Goss, Coventry Patmore, Francis Palgrave, Lord Tennyson and his young neighbour Thomas Hardy.

Laura Barnes, the eldest daughter, took charge of the family from when Julia Barnes, her mother, died-1852. She never married but looked after her father for the rest of his life. William Barnes called for Laura and dictated to her his last poem: The Geate a-Vallen to in 1885. He died 7th October 1886 and was buried at Came churchyard. In 1918 Laura, at the age of eighty-eight, died and was buried in Came churchyard next, to her father.

William Barnes Grave, St Peters Church, Winterborne Came
William Barnes Grave, St Peters Church,
Winterborne Came

In February 1886, some ninety Dorset notables met to discuss how they might honour the memory of Barnes. Many ideas were put forward, but the outcome was a statue to be erected. Three years later, Roscoe Mullins’s bronze figure depicting Barnes as an old, bearded man was unveiled by the Bishop of Salisbury outside St Peter’s Church, Dorchester, where he had once been the people’s warden.

Mullins also produced a second model which was rejected. This depicted Barnes as a vigorous octogenarian countryman, clad in his informal parson’s attire. This is how the Dorchester folk would have remembered him; an independent character, sure in his Christian faith, prepared to help his fellow man particularly, the downtrodden; a very kindly man who shunned attention, had simple tastes and was full of tenderness and devotion.

It was his profound affection for the labouring poor that inspired him to become one of the most original artists of his time.

Life of William Barnes


A selection of related works by and about William Barnes

Public Lectures and Readings

Public Lectures and Readings

Barnes’s Lectures and Poetry Readings at Working Men’s, Scientific and Literary Institutes, Schools and Adult Classes from 1851 to 1880

William Barnes Collection

William Barnes Collection

The William Barnes Collection and Archive at the Dorset County Museum

A spider's web

Follow us

Forthcoming events

Literary Lives: The Infants Grammar Literary Lives: The Infants' Grammar by Alan Chedzoy at the Dorset County Museum Thursday 14th September 2017
Celebrating William Barnes with Tim Laycock and Friends Music and Poetry reading in the garden of Thomas Hardy's Max Gate Saturday 16th September 2017
Morning Service of Remembrance Morning church service to commemorate William Barnes death. Sunday 8th October 2017
Willam Barnes Society Annual General Meeting Followed by performances by John Blackmore entitled West Country Sound and Song Tuesday 10th October 2017

Latest news

Tea, Scones and Poetry William Barnes Society Poetry Readings and Cream Tea at Pine Lodge Farm Tea Rooms, Bockhampton, Dorchester. Sunday 16th July 2017
William Barnes Society 2017 Annual Summer Lunch The society annual Summer lunch took place on Saturday 24th June at Cerne Abbas Village Hall, Dorset. Tuesday 27th June 2017
An evening to celebrate the Life and Works of William Barnes As part of Sherborne Literary Festival, a celebration of William Barnes by members of the William Barnes Society at Raleigh Hall, Sherborne, Dorset. Friday 9th June 2017
Annual Service of Remembrance of Dorset Poet A service in honour of the Dorset dialect poet William Barnes was held at St Peter’s Church at Winterborne Came near Dorchester. Sunday 23rd April 2017


WESSEX WORTHIES: William BarnesWESSEX WORTHIES: William Barnes WESSEX WORTHIES: William Barnes by J. J. Foster

The Bride Night Fire

The Bride Night FireThe Bride Night Fire Alan Chedzoy reads 23 Dorset Poems by William Barnes and Thomas Hardy, with songs performed by the Yetties
Mobile version served by CIMS - Cirrus Web Design's Internet Management System