In my last blog I drew on the writings of The Revd Benjamin Armstrong, one time Vicar of East Dereham in Norfolk. Having discovered the publications of his diary excerpts I can’t put them down!
I now find there are three volumes: ‘A Norfolk Diary – Passages from the Diary of The Rev Benjamin John Armstrong, Vicar of East Dereham 1850 – 88’, published in 1949, edited by his grandson Herbert Armstrong; ‘Armstrong’s Norfolk Diary, further passages from the diary of the Reverend Benjamin John Armstrong’, published in 1963, edited by Herbert Armstrong ; and ‘Under the Parson’s Nose’, published in 2012, edited by his great grandson Christopher Armstrong. There are some entries which are common to more than one book, but one may give more detail of the entry than another.
As I said last time, there are many names mentioned in these publications. They would be particularly worth reading if you have nineteenth century ancestors in Norfolk who were clergy or landowners, since there are descriptions of many social engagements. But even if, like me, your ancestors were humble ag labs, the books give some valuable background information which would have had an impact on those ancestors, mentioning for example periods of drought and extreme cold, town festivities and tragedies and national and international events which our ancestors would undoubtedly have been aware of, such as the Crimean War, the death of Prince Albert and various rail disasters and shipwrecks. The number of deaths from smallpox in 1872, for example, must have been a worrying time.
I have been trying, since last time, to do some background research on some of the more ‘ordinary’ people mentioned, using the parish registers and sometimes the British Newspaper Archive to see what light they can shed.
Could John Flowers be one of your ancestors? 25th January 1854 “old John Flowers…is a pious and, in person, a beautiful old man, who, notwithstanding he lives 3 miles from the Parish Church, sits regularly every Sunday on the pulpit steps, in devout attention and occasionally in the sermon murmurs approbation”. 14th July 1856 “likely to die from mortification in his foot”. I found his burial entry on 7th September 1856, aged 83.
Another long-lived parishioner was Benjamin Tollady of Hoe, who was buried on 17th April 1859: “one of those righteous peasant patriarchs…the last of his days were spent in saying the Creed and The Lord’s Prayer…he could not read and had worked hard all through life until he lost an arm, amputation being necessary from a thorn prick from which mortification ensued”. The burial register gives his age as 97.
Other diary entries comment on unusual names. 1st April 1864 (not, as it turns out, an April Fool): “a poor woman whose child is about to be baptized will call her Withburga, after our local saint”. I found the baptism entry on 6th April – parents Robert and Perey Peake. St Withburga’s well was a notable feature in the churchyard, which Rev Armstrong took pains to have tidied up in the early years of his ministry in East Dereham.
On 25th December 1866 the Revd Armstrong conducted the wedding of one Mahershallalashbaz Tuck. “He accounted for the possession of so extraordinary a name thus: his father wished to call him by the shortest name in the Bible and for that purpose selected ‘Uz’, but the clergyman making some demur, the father said in pique, if he can’t have the shortest name, he shall have the longest.” It turns out from the marriage register that the bridegroom was an innkeeper – I should think pronouncing his name was a challenge for his customers when they’d had a merry evening!
On other occasions the Revd Armstrong comments on the disparity of ages in marriage couples. On 9th January 1877 he married his organist, John Upchurch Martin, to Eliza Smith. He was 66 and a widower and she was 28. On 19th September 1861 he married James Elvin, a widower aged 70, to Maria Moore aged 45. James was a coachmaker, and a bit of detective work in the censuses indicates that he did quite well for himself since in 1851 he was employing 21 men in his business.
The Revd Armstrong was certainly not afraid to say what he thought of someone, and his disapprobation of ‘dissenters’ is a regular feature. On 10th October 1871 he mentions the Andrews family whom he was pleased to have “rescued from dissent”. He was obviously encouraged when on 15th February 1878 Mr Tyas, the town’s Congregational Minister, came to see him about “leaving dissent and asking to be put in the way of becoming a clergyman of the Church of England”. On Easter Day in 1862 he conducted the wedding of two parishioners who I think had been cohabiting, this following a conversation he had had with the man in question only the month before when he expressed the opinion that he was “fast going to ruin in spiritual and temporal matters”. There was only one wedding recorded in the register on that day – that of David Gudlestone/Girdlestone, a hairdresser, and Elizabeth Spurrell.
Despite his apparently forthright manner, his pastoral care was, however, obviously appreciated by many. On 3rd November 1853 we read “was surprised to see a Chelsea Pensioner in the garden, in all the glories of cocked hat and scarlet coat. It turned out to be old Nicholas Peake, late a parishioner of Hoe. He had left the Hospital for a holiday and had brought me some flower roots as a present in acknowledgment of former kindness”. Ancestry has a reference to a Private Nicholas Peake, birth date about 1780 in Hoe, who enlisted in the 63rd Regiment of Infantry in 1808 and was discharged in 1825.
The Revd Armstrong suffered his own personal trials and tragedies over the years. His diary entries record the death of a baby daughter, his concerns over what he saw as the unwise marriage of another daughter, worries about a son in the army, a nephew in a mental hospital, the deaths of his parents and sister in quick succession. But through the years you also get a strong sense of the integrity and honesty of a man with a strong sense of vocation and a love of the people he served in East Dereham for over 30 years.