ID: COR2_016 / David Nicholls

TitleRay Island and the legacy of Mehalah - part 1.

The first of two pieces by David Nicholls, Essex Wildlife Trust warden at Ray Island.

In 1970 the National Trust bought Ray Island. This was the Trust's first purchase of any property on the Essex coast, persuaded by a group of local people led by Alec Grant. This group wanted to prevent inappropriate and unwelcome development taking place, as the owner at the time, a Colchester businessman, had obtained outline permission for two bungalows on the Ray.

The island occupies a unique place in the local popular imagination. Local people and the boating fraternity have, since Victorian times, used the island as a public picnicking area in the warmer months. In winter, the wildfowlers shot ducks in the surrounding salt marshes, and many a local gunner has bagged a rabbit on the island. With the Ray developed under private ownership, all this would have ceased. This alone would not have persuaded the National Trust to buy the place. However, the main, and most romantic reason the public love this place is its association with "Mehalah", the dark and tragic novel written by the Reverend Sabine Baring Gould, the Rector at East Mersea from 1871 to 1881. This link with a highly-acclaimed novel by an eminent Victorian clergyman is what saved Ray Island for the general public to enjoy.

Baring Gould wrote "Mehalah" during his time at East Mersea. He wrote it as an historical novel set in Mersea and the surrounding area at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. From the first page Ray Island is central to the story, with the main female character, Mehalah, and her mother living there in a small farmhouse. When first published in 1880 it was well received and referred to as "the Wuthering Heights of the Essex salt marshes".

Although this was a work of fiction, Baring Gould's well-known habit of basing characters in his novels on real people has led to Mehalah being embedded in local folklore. Who was the real Mehalah? Was there ever a house on Ray Island? These are the two most frequently asked questions when discussing the Ray.

Separating truth from fiction has become difficult, and the purpose of these two articles is to try and shed some light on the story.

As the warden of Ray Island, I was asked in January 2010 to assist a small team of archaeologists commissioned by the National Trust to survey the island. This was purely a visual survey (no digging trenches, much to my disappointment!) but I was able to give the experts some findings such as bits of brick and pottery discovered over the past few years. Some interesting facts have emerged from this survey, and these formed the basis of my talk at Mersea Museum's recent AGM. Since then I have conducted some research of my own into the background of some of the people on whom Baring Gould based his characters.

Sabine Baring Gould at about 30 years old.

Sabine Baring Gould was an extraordinary man in his own right. Well known in the latter half of the 19th century for his prodigious output of books (both fiction and non-fiction) he was a complex, controlled man who possessed a degree of eccentricity. Although a devout and pious clergyman, he had a great deal of charm and a good sense of humour. An independent, versatile thinker with a love of myths, legends and folklore, coupled with an interest in the scientific developments of the time, he often expressed opinions that upset the traditions in the church establishment and society in general.

However, among those who knew him well and the congregations he administered, he was popular and well liked, with one unfortu te exception - the people of East Mersea.

Almost forgotten today, he is mainly remembered for writing the words of two hymns: "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "Now the Day is Over". This is a shame, for if anyone deserves greater recognition it is Sabine Baring Gould.

Before returning to the "Mehalah" theme, a brief synopsis of Baring Gould's life prior to his time in East Mersea might help explain why I hold this point of view.

Sabine Baring Gould was born in January 1834, the first child of Edward and Sophia Baring Gould. The family had a manor house and 3,000 acre estate in Lew Trenchard near Okehampton, Devon.

Edward Baring Gould was a retired cavalry officer who was fond of travelling. From 1837 onwards he took the family on extended tours of Europe, rarely staying in England for any length of time. The final tour ended in 1851 when the family returned to settle permanently in Devon.
Edward was a reserved, disciplined, precise man not known for showing any feelings. He tried hard to suppress Sabine's leanings towards the arts, wanting his son to enter the Army or become an engineer. Sophia, by contrast, was a kind, caring and sensitive woman, and a devout Christian. It is clear she was the main influence on her son's upbringing and future development.

In 1852 Sabine was admitted to Clare College, Cambridge, to study the classics. Here, following his mother's influence, he set up a Holy Club that administered to the poor. This caring attitude and degree of piety led many of his fellow students to regard him as mad. He was subjected to a great deal of vicious, malicious gossip in his first year at Cambridge.

Sabine gained his BA in 1857. Wanting independence from his family. he earned a living by teaching, mainly at Hurstpierpoint School in Sussex. His eccentricities and sense of humour made him a popular tutor. At one time he had a pet bat which used to hang upside down from his gown as he taught in class. This poor creature suffered an unfortunate fate when a school maid accidentally trod on it.

During this period of his life, Sabine taught himself Icelandic and went on a lengthy tour of Iceland. This extended his knowledge of myths and legends through his studies of the Eddas, the Norse Icelandic Sagas.

In 1864 Sabine was ordained in the Church of England. His first appointment was as a curate to the Reverend John Sharp, the vicar of Horbury near Wakefield, Yorkshire. On the instructions of the Rev. Sharp, Sabine set up a Mission and evening school in Horbuy Brig. Here, among the hundreds of mill workers, he became a popular and well-respected figure. A natural storyteller, he had the children of the mill workers begging him for stories at the end of classes in the evening school. It was here at Horbury that Sabine, now thirty years old, met and fell in love with Grace Taylor, a mill girl nearly half his age. Their relationship and intention to marry was opposed by both Grace and Sabine's families. It also upset the local middle class families who felt their daughters would have been a more suitable choice for such an eligible bachelor as Sabine Baring Gould.

The Rev. Sharp realised that Sabine's feelings for Grace were genuine. A formidable and practical man, he arranged for Grace to go and live with his relatives in York for two years to learn middle class ways and manners. In 1868 Sabine Baring Gould married Grace Taylor.

This is a basic picture of the man who, in 1871, arrived with his wife and growing family to spend the next ten years as the rector at East Mersea.

In the next article I will look at Sabine Baring Gould's time at East Mersea, and his opinion of the locals. I will also explore some of the background to the story of Mehalah.

Published as Museum Piece in Mersea Courier No. 506, 27 May 2011

Read Part 2

AuthorDavid Nicholls
Published27 May 2011
SourceMersea Museum