“ALL human life is there”: so ran the byline of a now defunct and salacious national Sunday newspaper. In a more demure sense, that phrase would describe Susanna Wade Martins’s excellent essay issuing from the 11 volumes of Benjamin Armstrong’s diary.
In these pages, we encounter elopement, child and adult mortality within the family, varyingly successful careers, and then, on the wider scene, the birth of trade unions and political wrangles. Armstrong was the Vicar of (East) Dereham, in Norfolk, from 1850 until 1888, a period of great change. This is more than a biography: it is an interesting contribution to the social history of Victorian Norfolk, and, indeed, to the changes in rural life more widely within 19th-century England.
Armstrong was, as the author notes, “a man of his time”: he was conscious of his place within the social strata, and imbued with the snobbishness that so often accompanied this. But he was also a classical example of what has become known as the “professionalisation of the clergy”: a middle-class clerical cadre emerged with a determination to improve worship, pastoral care, and the buildings of the Established Church.
Armstrong was a High Churchman, and, over his 38 years as parish priest, he brought about a more Catholic style of worship, and worked hard to transform the church building accordingly: he believed that he was recovering something of its pre-Reformation state. He was a stout defender of the Church of England and no friend of Dissent, although he worked with Dissenters for the common good.
Armstrong was well aware of the devastating effects of poverty, but was unable to empathise with the poor even when ministering to them. He played an important part, however, in improving social conditions. As a member of the “local board”, he had drains, sewers, roads, and piped water all within his purview; he was amazed, too, by the impact of the coming of the railways.
This book is an excellent read, and offers intriguing insights into the dynamics of a family, the local and personal impact of international crises, and remarkable changes in social life: a winner, then, not just for Christmas, but for all the year.
The Rt Revd Stephen Platten is a former Bishop of Wakefield.
A Vicar in Victorian Norfolk: The life and times of Benjamin Armstrong (1827-1890)
Susanna Wade Martins
The Boydell Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50