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Henry Beeching, Dean of Norwich: Professor, poet, priest by Peter Fanning

14 April 2023

Michael Wheeler reads a ground-breaking life of Henry Beeching

HENRY BEECHING was born in 1859, the year of On the Origin of Species, and died of heart failure in 1919. Coming to adulthood in the era of Mr Gladstone and Lord Salisbury, he flourished in Edwardian England and preached from the pulpit of Norwich Cathedral during the Great War.

Peter Fanning, a teacher, theatre director, journalist, and writer, empathises with a “Renaissance man” of an earlier era. While recognising that Beeching could also be regarded as a “nearly” man — “almost a bishop, a minor poet, a nearly leading critic” — Fanning admires him as a great communicator, a prolific writer, and a devout Anglican, whose blend of interests informed publications and sermons that attracted large audiences.

Beeching’s father was a bookseller and stationer whose success in business in central London allowed the family to move to Hampstead and Henry to be educated at the City of London School. There, he was treasurer of the school magazine and an active member of the Discussion Society. In 1878, he won an exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford, where writing and debating continued. Something of a wit, he was known for his epigrams. Indeed, he is generally regarded as the author of famous lines on the great Benjamin Jowett of Balliol:

First come I. My name is J—TT.
There’s no knowledge but I know it.
I am Master of this College.
What I don’t know isn’t knowledge.

An ageing Henry Beeching in gaiters, in a family photo that is reproduced in the bookBeeching’s contemporaries included the future Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, that “most superior person”, who kept in touch later in life, despite being another epigrammatical target. Two fellow poets, John Bowyer Nichols and John Mackail, collaborated with Beeching in the publication of slim volumes of verse. His tutor, A. C. Bradley, would have fuelled Beeching’s enthusiasm for Shakespeare, on whom both were to publish extensively. But there was no degree in English, and, in 1880, he took a second class in Classical Mods.

Not until 1911 did he become a BD and a DD, having taken a curacy at Mossley Hill, spent 15 years as Rector of Yattendon, served in London as Chaplain to Lincoln’s Inn and Professor of Pastoral Theology at King’s College, and then as a Canon of Westminster, and finally been Dean of Norwich (1911-19). The Yattendon years were marked by a close friendship with Robert Bridges, the future Poet Laureate, who served as “precentor” in the village church and co-edited The Yattendon Hymnal. Both men left the village at the turn of the century, when Beeching took a house in Tavistock Square, London, with his wife, three young daughters, and three servants.

His many publications include titles such as Pages from a Private Diary and Provincial Letters: one reviewer described him as a “most readable and salty causeur”. He edited Shakespeare, including the sonnets — a hot potato after the Wilde scandal — and produced miscellanies and poetry anthologies. “A treasure house of information and learning” seems a fair summary of much of his literary output.

In his Norwich sermon of 6 September 1914, “Armageddon”, Beeching set out a classic argument for a “just war”. Fanning describes the peroration as “a rallying cry for Kitchener” and concludes that “the gentle poet of In a Garden and devotee of Herbert seems to have been transformed into an avenging angel.”

We are offered no analysis of personality here, or indeed elsewhere, in a ground-breaking biography, which deals largely with externals.

Dr Wheeler is a former Lay Canon of Winchester Cathedral. His latest book is The Year that Shaped the Victorian Age: Loves, lives and letters of 1845 (Books, 31 March).


Henry Beeching, Dean of Norwich: Professor, poet, priest
Peter Fanning
Sacristy Press £25
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