Barnes in Love
Alan Chedzoy charts the often-rocky nine-year courtship of Julia Miles by William Barnes
Published in October ’10
One March morning in 1818, a Magnet coach pulled up ‘with a great dash and clatter of steaming horses’, outside the King’s Arms in Dorchester. A portly lady with two young girls got down. The younger miss had blue eyes and wavy brown hair, and was wearing a sky blue ‘spencer’ or jacket. By chance a lawyer’s clerk was passing at that moment. When he saw the girl he muttered to himself: ‘That shall be my wife.’ ‘That’ was Julia Miles, daughter of James Camford Miles, an excise officer recently appointed to Dorset. The youth looking on was seventeen year-old William Barnes.
There then began a little comedy of ‘accidental’ meetings on street corners and in shop doorways, of stolen glances, hat raisings, timid bows and blushing acknowledgements. Barnes’s admiration quickly became apparent to the girl; she in turn signalled that his attentions both flattered and pleased her. Soon their encounters became more serious – all beating hearts and lingering looks – but it was very innocent.
When Julia’s parents got wind of this little romance, however, they forbade all meetings. Her father’s ostensible objection was that she was too young; she was still only fourteen or fifteen. But Barnes believed otherwise. He was convinced that Miles’s real reasons were snobbery and avarice, for Barnes had been born the son of a ‘labourer in husbandry’ in the Blackmore Vale. Furthermore, he had no money, nor was he ever likely to earn very much as a lawyer’s clerk.
Miles’s objections were not unreasonable. He had two daughters and eight sons to provide for; his boys seem to have been an idle lot, doing little work apart from helping their father round up smugglers along the coast. What Miles hoped for Julia was that she would marry a man who might support her in some style.
In order to avoid the custom officer’s notice, the young lovers now took to passing notes on the sly. One reads: ‘Miss Miles: There being no possibility of my having an oral communication with you, I have presumed to trouble you with a Letter, to request that you will grant me the happiness of conducting you and your Sister to the concert tomorrow Evening. Intreating your pardon on my presumption, I remain Yours devotedly William Barnes.’
Julia’s attachment was soon a topic of sentimental gossip for her circle of young ladies. However, for the lovers the situation became increasingly frustrating. What could be done to persuade Miles to come round? Barnes had an idea. He had always been given to write verses. If he published a book of poems, this would prove that he was no mere inky copyist but a natural ‘gentleman’, one with a faithful heart and a delicate sensibility. So in 1820, G Clark of Dorchester brought out a booklet of ten of Barnes’s compositions, entitled Poetical Pieces.
Among the items was a piece entitled ‘Destiny’, which included the following verse:
Her fortunate stars had to Julia given,
Of lovers a numerous train,
Who for twelve months, or more, had incessantly striven
To win her fair hand–but in vain.
They were all youths of merit, although they were poor,
And to one she’d nigh given her heart,
But her father he lik’d the pecuniary ore
Insomuch that in one of his passions he swore,
That Julia should ne’er again enter his door,
If to him she her hand should impart.
Naïvely, Barnes had not anticipated the result. For, almost without realising it, he had publicly identified James Miles as a miser, one intent upon ‘pecuniary ore’, ie. money. Because of this, Miles now became the laughing stock of Dorchester. He was incensed. Whereas before he had simply been ‘not at home’ when Barnes called, now he took to cutting him in the street.
As the years went by, Miles showed no sign of relenting. And although, when Julia was nearly seventeen, he could no longer argue that she was too young to be married, nor that Barnes was a mere trifler with his daughter’s affections, he still took the view that the young man’s poverty was an insuperable barrier. To counter this, Barnes considered changing to a more profitable occupation. He took up wood-engraving and provided illustrations for a guide book entitled Walks Round Dorchester. There were even moves to make him a professional engraver, but all these efforts came to nothing. By 1822, the lovers had been courting for four years and were still no nearer to getting married. Barnes feared that Julia would break off with him.
It was his friend William Gilbert Carey who suggested a solution. Carey was a fellow clerk at Coombs, the Dorchester solicitors, and also his flatmate above Mr Hazard’s pastry shop (now the site of ‘The Horse with the Red Umbrella’). Carey suggested that Barnes should throw up his job and go to Mere, to take over the school of his old master, Mr Robertson, now deceased. After all, Barnes was a natural scholar, and had already taught himself Latin and Greek.
Barnes understood that there were great risks. The school might fail. He might become destitute. With him at a distance, Julia might forget him, or at least choose a wealthier suitor. Yet it was she who finally persuaded him to go. To calm his fears she even agreed to a secret betrothal, although this guaranteed nothing, of course. She also declared an intention to train as a teacher, in order to fit herself for their keeping a boarding establishment for both boys and girls. Her assurances decided him. In the New Year of 1823, he left Dorchester for Mere, probably travelling on a fish cart because stagecoaches were expensive.
Mere lay on the northern edge of the Blackmore Vale, just over the border into Wiltshire, about twelve miles from Barnes’s home town of Sturminster Newton. One look round must have made his heart sink. It was a drab place, just three streets of small grey houses, and three pubs. As for the late Mr Robertson’s school, it had ceased to exist.
Now began the most testing time of his life; he was only twenty-two and thrown entirely on his own resources. Obliged to canvass for custom, he tramped from door to door, all the while braving indifference, knowing smirks and curt rebuffs. It was a bad time. Both agriculture and the local linen industry were in decline. There was little money about for education.
But he stuck at it. A few pupils came in, and he taught them in the Old Cross Loft, above the market house in the town centre. It was three months, in early April 1823 before Julia heard from him: ‘My Dear Girl: It is not without resistance to the feelings of my heart that I have refrained so long from writing to you, but I was unwilling to deceive you with false hope, much less would I vex, with ill-founded doubts, a heart of sensibility as I believe yours to be….
‘At present I have every reason to hope for success, in my new profession. I have ten pupils which I am satisfied with, as a beginning…I know of 10 or 12 boys whose friends intend to send them to me in the next quarter, and I have little doubt of having a reasonable school in time….’
How his fortunes progressed from this point may be traced in a collection of old love letters still kept in the Dorset County Museum. For four more grinding years he led his lonely life as the schoolmaster of Mere, while keeping up a correspondence with Julia in Dorchester. Eventually, Miles accepted him as a prospective son-in-law, and Barnes would make his way there on the fish cart to spend the school holidays with them.
At last, the chance came for the lovers, when Chantry House in Mere became available for rent. Hard by St Michael’s Church, it was large enough to accommodate a boarding school to support a man and wife. It had a garden that sloped down to a waterfall and pond. And it was here (in Wiltshire!) that the first of Barnes’s Dorset dialect poems was written. He was to call the place ‘Linden Lea’.
Some years later he noted: ‘In 1827 I took Chantry House at Mere, and on a happy day – happy as the first of a most happy wedded life – I brought into it my most loveworthy and ever-beloved wife, Julia Miles, and then took boarders.’ His solitary exile had lasted four years and seven months. They had been courting for nine years.
[Alan Chedzoy’s book, The People’s Poet: William Barnes of Dorset, is published by the History Press at £13.49. ISBN 978 0 7524 5538 9.]
All illustrations from the Dorset County Museum