ID: LCM_SBG / EElaine Barker

TitleSabine Baring Gould The Essex Connection: Mehalah and Richard Cable
AbstractSabine Baring Gould The Essex Connection: Mehalah and Richard Cable

My current area of research is looking into writers of fiction who used the local area on and around Mersea Island in Essex, as the setting for their novels.

Perhaps the most famous is that written by The Reverend Sabine Baring Gould (1834 -1924) entitled Mehalah, a dramatic, dark and tragic tale which is set in Mersea, Ray Island and Salcott. Published in 1880 while Baring Gould was the rector of East Mersea, it is the best known of his novels, featuring, as a background to the story, the marshes and people of Mersea; even the family names reflect those that are still found on the island today such as De Witt, Mussett, Pullen, French, and Pooley.

Baring Gould became the rector of East Mersea in Essex in 1871 at the age of 37 and spent ten years there with his children and wife Grace; six of their fifteen children were born in Essex. His travels abroad and commitments to the family estate in Devon meant he was often not at East Mersea, relying on his curate and friend, Rev. J.M. Gatrill, to administer the parish. In fact, the biographer, Rebecca Tope, comments the total time he spent there amounts to shockingly little and during that period he was working flat out on the Lives of the Saints.

In the year following his arrival at East Mersea, Baring Gould inherited the 3,000 acre family estate, the Manor of Lewtrenchard in Devon, upon the death of his father. When the 'living' there became free in 1881, he appointed himself minister and left Essex to become both squire and parson of his family seat.

Mehalah was one of over thirty novels he published but his bibliography consists of well over 1,000 publications. He was an antiquarian, a folklorist and collector of folk songs; he wrote some of our most famous hymns, Onward Christian Soldiers and Now the Day is Over. His Lives of Saints extended to 16 volumes; he wrote two memoirs, studies and stories of myths, legends, ghosts and werewolves and collections of talks and sermons. It is his two novels based in and near Mersea Island that concern us here, Mehalah and Richard Cable.

The girl's name Mehalah was already current locally in Baring Gould's time although more usually spelt Mahalah or Mahala. Indeed, there was a real Mahala, the daughter of the local ferryman at East Mersea Stone whom Gould knew well. Such was the response to Baring Gould's novel over the intervening years people named their daughters, their houses and their boats after his heroine and there was even a sea-food restaurant named Mehalah's at East Mersea until recent years. As for Mehalah's nemesis, Elijah Rebow, the name Rebow, although not now extant in these parts, was the name of an eminent and wealthy family of Flemish origins who owned land in and around Colchester in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. There is a magnificent memorial to the family in the entrance to St. Mary-at-the-Walls, now Colchester Arts Centre.

For the local historian, Baring Gould's references to the locality including The Rose at Peldon, The Rising Sun Inn at Salcott and Peldon Church's leaning tower are invaluable - the latter scotching once and for all the belief that the tower leans because of the 1884 earthquake - the book was published in 1880. Some of Mersea's landmarks mentioned are the Strood, The Hard, The City, Barrow Hill and Waldegraves Farm. His descriptions of the Essex landscapes, sea and salt-water marsh and seabirds are wonderfully atmospheric and detailed and paint a picture of the locality; they are regarded as a true depiction of the area 150 years ago.

Baring Gould had clearly researched folk tales associated with the area and refers to the Legend of Barn Hall and the 'Devil's Beam' [ELS_101 ].

Elijah Rebow relates a ghostly story about two brothers fighting for the same woman, connected with the ancient barrow on Mersea; Baring Gould was to admit later that his suggestion that they were Danish was entirely his own invention (the local legend seems to be they were Roman to tie in with the Roman origins of the barrow on Mersea).

One tale he alludes to is one not just particular to this area, the legend of the Seven Whistlers. The Seven Whistlers were generally believed to be a group of mysterious birds, possibly curlews, on the wing at night, whose unearthly calls were considered a portent of impending disaster; in Mehalah's case she fears it means death. (Interestingly Margery Allingham in her novel Mystery Mile, set on a thinly disguised Mersea Island, also alludes to the Seven Whistlers.)

Baring Gould gives little precise indication of the era his story is set in - national events are generally not commented upon - but he does indicate that Britain had already declared war on France which would set it in the period of the French and Napoleonic Wars at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries.

Such close and, it is believed, faithful observations of the Mersea, Peldon and Salcott area from the 1870s has led many to try to identify the locations of all the places in the book. The two questions perhaps most often asked are, 'was there ever a house on Ray Island?' (Mehalah's home) and 'where was the house, Red Hall in Salcott, where Elijah Rebow lived?'

Baring Gould's opening pages of the novel describe the house rented on Ray Island by Mehalah and her mother

At the close of the last century there stood on the Ray a small farmhouse built of tarred wreckage timber, and roofed with red pantiles

Ray Island

So, although within living memory there hasn't been a house on Ray Island, was there one in the past?

David Nicholls, for 40 years a warden of Ray Island, tells me that over that period he found bits of pottery and brick and a midden heap on the island and in 2010 the owners, the National Trust, commissioned a survey of the island.

The archaeological evidence confirms there was a building there until some time in the 18th century. The archaeologists have identified a "building platform", and a nearby midden heap contained pottery fragments dating to the 18th century and earlier

The earlier activity was confirmed by dating pieces of brick David had found; the Bulmer Brick Works dated them to some time in the fifteenth century.

Locally-produced and crudely-made bricks discovered around the site have been dated to around 1450. Also scattered around the area are fragments of terracotta pantiles. A time scale for a building on the Ray spans from the mid-15th century to some time in the 18th century. [Ray Island and the legacy of Mehalah - David Nicholls ]

Ray Island was surveyed in 1817 as part of the West Mersea Hall estate but by then there was no house although memories may have persisted to Baring Gould's time that there had indeed been a building there.

In search of 'Red Hall' at Salcott, it has been suggested it was based on Old Hall on the Old Hall marshes of Salcott and Tollesbury. 'Old Hall' and 'Old Hall Wharf' are marked on the Chapman and Andre map of 1777 and the name 'Old Hall Marshes' is still used today.

There is a building now called Old Hall Marsh Farm on Old Hall Lane in Tolleshunt D'Arcy whose owners claim to be the inspiration for Rebow's home. Their website tells us their house

dates back to the 17th century and for most of its history has served as a public house, originally known as the Crooked Billet and then The Ship Ahoy (or The 'Hoy')

Its adjoining marshes are owned by the RSPB and are managed by them as a bird reserve. Could it possibly be the inspiration for 'Red Hall'; it would have been a pub when Baring Gould lived in this area? For me it does not resemble the description given by Baring Gould and it seems to have only been known as Old Hall in recent times.

In the midst of the pasture there stood a tall redbrick rose from the flat like a tower. The basement consisted of cellars above ground, and there were arched entrances to these from the two ends. They were lighted by two small round windows about four feet from the ground. A flight of brick stairs built over an arch led from a paved platform to the door of the house, which stood some six feet above the level of the marsh. The house was built completely of brick. The windows were of moulded brick mullions and dripstone and the roof was of tile. Round the house was a yard paved with brick and a moat filled with rushes and weed. There were a few low outhouses, stable, cowsheds, bakehouse forming a yard at the back and into that descended the stair from the kitchen door over the flying arch like that in front. The principle impression produced by the aspect of Red Hall on the visitor was its solitariness. [Mehalah: Sabine Baring Gould]

Another candidate for 'Red Hall' is suggested by author James Wentworth Day, who used to shoot wild fowl on the Old Hall Marshes.

The Red Hall, where Elijah kept his mad elder brother in chains and Mehalah lived for a few weeks of married wretchedness, is almost certainly a romantic glorification of the Old Hall, the red - brick cottage, one end half-ruinous, in which my gamekeeper, William Fell, lived for many years. It was destroyed by a bomb during the last war. It stood on the seaward side of Salcott, near Bulls Bars Creek, which runs into Salcott Channel at the western end of Old Hall Marshes, At the end of the last war, when I rented the shooting on 1,800 acres of the Guisnes Court estate, which included Old Hall Marshes, an enchanting place of wild duck in the dawn, rabbits in the tussocks and teal whistling above the reed - beds, we stumbled on the last ruins of the Old Hall, a mere few bricks in the bleached grasses.
[The Sea-Country of Mehalah James Wentworth Day ]

Does the description of this cottage tally with Baring Gould's description of Red Hall? The fact remains that there are several sites on the marshes where all that remains of old buildings are small piles of bricks.

I was hopeful the archaeologists may be able to shed some light on the whereabouts of 'Red Hall' but the report by Louise Barker for English Heritage written in 2000 following a survey of Old Hall Marshes concluded

Old Hall appears on the Chapman and André map of 1777 in the same location as the present Old Hall Marsh Farm, with Old Hall Wharf a little to the south. If there was a manor house, as the name implies, then its location is not known.
The popular stories of Mehalah and The Mistress of Broad Marsh [Alfred Ludgater *] perhaps have given Old Hall something more of a mystery and grandeur than it actually had.

* Dane Creek Hall/Dancourt in Alfred Ludgater's Essex Novel The Mistress of Broad Marsh is believed to represent Old Hall and in the novel is a Tudor mansion house destroyed by fire.

To me the most convincing candidate for 'Red Hall' is suggested in an article by The Reverend Edmund Farrer reporting on his visit to Salcott in 1883 amidst the fascination and excitement generated by the publication of Mehalah three years earlier.

The Reverend Edmund Farrer (1848 -1935) held the curacy of Kelvedon and frequented this coastal area; he knew Baring Gould having attended a number of his services. Farrer was to become rector of Hinderclay in Suffolk and was an author and topographer. His account of finding 'Red Hall' has survived in the form of an East Anglian Daily Times newspaper article, thought to have been published in 1924. Farrer's full account and the 1883 drawing of 'Red Hall' can be found on [EADT_1924_JAN ] and it is worth comparing the description with that given by Baring Gould in the novel, quoted above.

It was on the 13th April, 1883, that we decided to land, if possible, on the sea-wall of Salcot creek, and, walking along it inland, find out the spot on which stood the "Red Hall". We started in our sea boots, and carried others with us to use when once safely on the wall, and a wise and necessary precaution it proved to be, as the mud was one foot in depth between the boat and the base of the wall. However, once on the top, about a mile and a half inland, we could clearly see, standing out against the sky-line, the red walls of old Rebow's home.... Leaving the wall, when nearly opposite the house, across just one meadow, it was reached, and a more extraordinary building I have never seen. It was composed entirely of red brick, and erected I should say late in the 16th century, and tradition says it was either the abode of smugglers or possibly of their partners in the trade, the receivers of the contraband goods. The bottom of each door is fully five feet from the ground, intended doubtless as a precaution against the high tides, which at certain seasons, before the erection of the sea walls, would swamp the marshes. The vaults beneath the rooms of the first floor are very commodious, and have curious circular windows - but there has been about it a great deal of alteration since the days when it was built, and I should not like to hazard an opinion as to the original purpose for which it was erected. A more suitable spot for the residence of such a demon as Elijah Rebow it would be impossible to conceive...

Another account Farrer refers to in this article is that of Frederick Dolman who it seems in an interview with, by then, an elderly Baring Gould, was told that Red Hall was based on a real derelict house.

Some years after I had written these notes, I read Mr. Frederick Dolman's account of Baring-Gould and "Mehalah".... He says: "Mehalah," Mr. Baring-Gould's most successful novel, was written as a result of a sleepless night. One day he went out on a coastguard boat. The party kept near the shore, and ate their lunch at a deserted old house on a dreary marsh since claimed by the sea. The utter loneliness of the place so impressed Mr. Gould, that night he found himself constructing a plot around it, and next morning he commenced work upon the story which brought him fame.

What Mr. Dolman says about "Red Hall" having been claimed by the sea I can correct, and to do this I must refer to my description of the spot written after a visit, made again, from "The Quarters" off Mersea Island. It was written on May 25th, 1890 - about seven years after the first reading of the novel. We again landed on the sea wall, and immediately looked out for the red brick building, with its Elizabethan chimney, which was nowhere to be seen, and the nearer we approached Salcot the more certain we were that as a building it had disappeared, but at length we could discover, with the aid of some field glasses, a heap of red brick, and this we afterwards found, was all that remained of a building which, without any historical record connected with it would always remain as an object of interest to the readers of "Mehalah." My friend sketched that little heap, and the sketch is, I presume, among his vast collection (bequeathed by him to the Society of Antiquaries) at Burlington House. I daresay, long ere now, every brick has gone, and no living person could locate the spot which was the supposed scene of old Rebow's wickedness and Mehalah's troubled life. E. Farrer: East Anglian Daily Times c 1924

I am inclined to believe Farrer's account, being by an eye-witness close to the time of the book's writing. He was also a reliable and methodical witness and he went on to become a noted antiquarian and author, many of his documents and travel notebooks are held in the Suffolk and Norfolk Record Offices.

*   *   *

If Mehalah is a feast of recognisable local topography, Baring Gould's other Essex novel, Richard Cable, published in 1888, is the opposite and there are few descriptive passages of the area! Here no local names are used although 'Hanford' where much of the early action is set is clearly located in this area of coastal Essex.

In the 1898 edition I have, Baring Gould's name is not mentioned at all, not even on the spine. The frontispiece reads

Richard Cable The Lightshipman
by the author of
'Mehalah', 'John Herring' 'Court Royal'

Richard Cable is the keeper of a light-ship moored off the coast of Essex. He, his mother and seven children (he is a widower) live in a cottage on the mainland in Hanford. The story begins on board the light-ship during a fierce storm when Richard rescues a young lady, Josephine Cornellis. Crucially for the development of the plot, she is of a different class to him and an heiress. The book then follows Richard and Josephine's fortunes examining family relationships, class, pride and forgiveness. The action in the second half of the book moves away from Essex and takes place in the West Country.

The description of Hanford Hall in Essex (modelled on West Mersea Hall?) could, of course, have applied to a number of the estuary villages along this coast.

When the tide was in, the view from the terraces and from the windows of the house was very beautiful, through peeps among the elms to sea, and across Hanford water to a coast beyond, also studded with trees. The water was generally enlivened by passing sails as Hanford was a colony of fishermen, either owning their own boats or going shares as a company in one smack. Barges came to Hanford with coal from Yorkshire and Newcastle; and barges left Hanford piled up on deck with straw, veritable floating stacks for London. At certain seasons, the sprat-fishery supplied the farmers with unctuous dressing for their fields; at such times, clouds of gulls fluttered over the land thus manured, and unless the fish were quickly ploughed in, rapidly reduced the supply spread over the surface. At such times, the inhabitants of Hanford, gifted with the sense of smell, were heartily glad when the plough did turn the glebe over the dead fish; but there was a worse smell than that of sprats to which the Hanfordians were periodically subjected, and that was when a shipload arrived of what was locally termed 'London muck', that is the scrapings of the London streets and the refuse of the London ashpits. When such a cargo arrived, it announced its presence to leeward for two or three miles; whereupon the farmers lifted up their noses, ordered out their wagons, and distributed the stench broadcast over the country. The gulls were unattracted by this dressing; consequently, the farmers were less precipitate in working it in. Sabine Baring Gould; Richard Cable

Baring Gould also refers to the ubiquitous mosquitoes, still today such a trial for locals and visitors alike

The marshes, backwaters, and ditches bred countless mosquitoes, which lay in wait for strangers, whom they tortured to madness; but they did not touch natives. On a warm summer evening, the gnats might be seen hovering in clouds over the elms and oaks, so dense and so black, that the stranger supposed the trees were on fire and smoking. The mosquitoes brought birds, and the trees resounded with the song of the nightingale, thrush and blackbird.

The interest in Baring Gould has never waned and there is a Sabine-Baring Gould Appreciation Society. His song-collecting in Devon and Cornwall and publications about myth and legends are particularly responsible for making Baring-Gould a major figure on the English folk scene.

As I write (2024) it is the 100th anniversary of Baring-Gould's death and two luminaries of the folk scene, Jim Causley and Miranda Sykes are touring their show Ghosts, Werewolves and Countryfolk - Songs and Stories of Sabine Baring-Gould with narrator John Palmer and it is coming to Colchester in October. Interestingly, the show will be performed at Colchester Arts Centre where the grand, larger-than-life sculpture of Sir Isaac Rebow looks down on the proceedings.

Although Baring Gould wrote that he found the inhabitants of Mersea "dull, reserved, shy and suspicious" it seems that in the 21st century Mersea Islanders have taken him to their hearts and consider him one of their own. His framed photograph still hangs in the Vestry of St. Edmunds Church, East Mersea.

Elaine Barker
Peldon History Project

Thanks to
David Nicholls
Carol Wyatt
John Hawes

Read More
Obituary of S. Baring-Gould January 1924

Rebecca Tope: Sabine Baring Gould: The man who told a thousand stories
Further Reminiscences: Sabine Baring Gould
Now the Day is Over, The Life and Times of Baring Gould: Harold Kirk-Smith
The Sea-Country of Mehalah James Wentworth Day undated Geographic Magazine BJ55_001
Baring Gould and Mehalah Reverend E Farrer article East Anglian Daily Times c 1924

Other local literary connections
Margery Allingham
John Goodwin alias Sidney David Gowing
Alfred Ludgater
Dora McChesney
E. Arnot Robertson
21st Century Writers

AuthorEElaine Barker
SourceMersea Museum