“Mr Cook of Leicester having planned an excursion to North Wales and Ireland, and undertaking to take any individual from Dereham to Dublin and back, first class, for 42s, I thought it a chance not be thrown away.” So reads the entry for 17 September 1855 in the diary excerpts of The Revd Benjamin Armstrong, one time Vicar of East Dereham in Norfolk.
It was while browsing the Norfolk shelves at the Society of Genealogists that I chanced upon this publication: ‘A Norfolk Diary – Passages from the Diary of The Rev Benjamin John Armstrong, Vicar of East Dereham 1850 – 88’. Flicking through the pages I could see at once that it would be fascinating reading, but it was near closing time and there was no name index, so reluctantly I put it back on the shelf whilst taking note of the title. This volume was published in 1949, edited by his grandson Herbert Armstrong.
Happily I was able to find a copy of the book through Amazon and have enjoyed reading it immensely. I also found that there was a second book of excerpts published in 2012 with the title ‘Under the Parson’s Nose’, this one edited by his great grandson Christopher Armstrong. For anyone with an interest in East Dereham in particular but also an interest in the social history of mid nineteenth century Norfolk, these books are invaluable and I would really commend them.
The character and views of the Revd Benjamin Armstrong really come through – his integrity, his concern for the poor, his enjoyment of travel, his love of his family, but also his firmly-held High Church position and abhorrence of poor preaching.
These are name-rich books, particularly worth reading if you have clergy ancestors in Norfolk or ones who moved in the higher echelons of society. There are descriptions of frequent dinner parties, garden parties, concerts etc as well as meetings of local clergy. There are plenty of descriptions of pastoral visits to the poor and needy, but frustratingly those indviduals are usually not named. What I would like to do is try to match some of the specific references to burials etc with entries in the parish registers to see what light they can shed.
It was, however, greatly ironic that I should read the 17 September 1855 entry on the very day that we heard the news that the Thomas Cook travel company had collapsed. I believe that the company had already been going for about 14 years when Revd Benjamin Armstrong and his father ventured to Dublin via Holyhead, visiting Bangor and Snowden on the way back. He is fairly scathing of what he saw in Dublin, despite declaring it to be a ‘fine city’.
Three years later Revd Benjamin Armstrong chose to join another Cook’s excursion, this time to Scotland, and was again accompanied by his father. They visited Edinburgh and Glasgow in September 1858 and greatly enjoyed the scenery on the drive from Callendar to Trossachs: “One feels, on such occasions, the desire to keep silence in order to enjoy the great luxury of contemplating the wonderful works of God”. Unfortunately the combination of a talkative driver and an annoying fellow passenger made silent contemplation impossible! Such are the risks of group tours, I guess, but risks which thousands have taken in order to enjoy organised travel around the world with Thomas Cook over the last 178 years.
The Revd Benjamin Armstrong certainly found travel informative: “One is better able to judge of people and things by coming in personal contact with them, than by all the descriptions in the world”.