Amazing life and travels of Bishop Sheepshanks

PUBLISHED: 10:22 22 January 2018 | UPDATED: 10:22 22 January 2018

John Sheepshanks when he was a young cleric in 1860, and in later life.

John Sheepshanks when he was a young cleric in 1860, and in later life.


From the outer reaches of the Wild West to the execution grounds of China and from tropical jungles to frozen Siberia, John Sheepshanks was a man who travelled the world before heading for Norwich Cathedral. Derek James remembers an extraordinary man.

We have had some amazing men who have served as the Bishop of Norwich over the centuries but few travelled as far and wide as father-of-17 John Sheepshanks who led a life like no other.

And his thought-provoking writings about his journeys in far-away places in his 1909 journal A Bishop in the Rough and another book, My Life in Mongolia & Siberia, make for compelling reading in the 21st century makes as we continue to treat parts of our world and our fellow human beings with little respect.

For example:

“...this earth is undergoing far more rapid changes than at any former period... the railroad and motor-car now penetrating into countries absolutely untravelled... The Indians of North America are but few in number compared with what they were fifty years ago.”

In another extract he wrote: “The splendid wild beasts are diminishing and before long will be extinct. Rare birds are mercilessly shot.

“If a scarce animal or bird is seen in our own country, it may be spared by one exceptionally merciful; but it cannot run the gauntlet of all the sportsmen (!), and we soon hear of it as having fallen a prey to that insensate selfish love of killing which is one of the characteristics of our race and age.”

And then John wrote of his time in Russia saying: “Parties of exiles on their way to the prisons... manacled one to another, soldiers around them as an escort on either hand, vehicles to the rear filled with sickly and little children... never to return westwards.”

He reflected on his time in China writing: “We passed through the execution grounds, where criminals, and in yet vaster numbers rebels, have suffered the penalties of the inexorable Chinese laws.

“Here in this little spot of ground, not more than a good-sized courtyard, thousands and tens of thousands of men have been hurried out of the world by a violent death.”

So just who was this man who came to Norwich as Lord Bishop in 1893?

John was born in London in 1834. He went to Cambridge University before entering the church. Then in 1859 he travelled to British Columbia during the gold rush where roads and railways opened the country to ‘civilisation’.

Conditions were tough: “I cannot easily comb my hair, for it is frozen together,” he wrote.

John set up a church in a log cabin which was later rebuilt as a cathedral. He travelled across America on the rode on Wells Fargo stage-coaches across the Wild West before returning home and then setting off for Canada, Jamaica, Hawaii, China, Mongolia, Siberia and Russia.

He loved the locals, leant their languages, and wanted to know their customs and beliefs. He was a man of immense curiosity.

John returned to this country. A high-church liberal he came to Norwich as Lord Bishop in 1893. Married to Margaret, they had 17 children, and 13 survived infancy.

His adventures continued... this time in Norfolk and Suffolk as he travelled on the trains, always third-class to mix with and meet his people. And in the parishes not served by the railways he would go by coach but always preferring to sit up beside the driver and not on his own inside.

He retired in 1909 and went to live at Bracondale. John died in 1912 and is buried in Norwich Cathedral cloisters. What a man - loved and respected in Norfolk, Suffolk... and across the world.

His story is among those told in the new book Bracondale: A Village within the City, published by the local history group and in the shops now.

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