Was church world of the 18th century really that different to that of today?

PUBLISHED: 17:53 23 July 2019 | UPDATED: 14:08 24 July 2019

James Marston says there are plenty of similarities between life in the church now and 250 years ago

James Marston says there are plenty of similarities between life in the church now and 250 years ago


A charity shop find has given James Marston a lovely snapshot into the world of the clergy some 250 years ago. He discovers it’s really not that different to today

On October 12, 1770, Parson James Woodforde had five friends around.

He wrote: "We were very merry. I gave them for dinner a dish of fine tench which I caught out of my brother's pond in Pond Close this morning, ham, and three fowls boiled, a plumb pudding; a couple of ducks roasted, a roasted neck of pork, a plumb tart and an apple tart, pears, apples and nuts after dinner; white wine and red, beer and cyder.

"Coffee and tea in the evening at six o'clock. hashed fowl and duck and eggs and potatoes etc for supper. We did not dine till four o'clock - nor supped till ten." I don't suppose they ate everything but quite a spread wasn't it? Though I'm not sure I like the sound of hashed fowl - whatever it is.

Parson Woodforde is well known for his largely uneventful life in the Norfolk parish of Weston Longville because he kept a diary - later published simply as the Diary of a Country Parson 1758-1802. And he provides a unique insight into 18th century life.

I found my copy in a charity shop and have been starting to delve into it in recent days. While Parson Woodforde clearly enjoys his food - and I wonder if I too perhaps fit into the category of corpulent clergyman - I've been interested, as a new curate in a rural context on the Suffolk coast, to see how things have changed and how they might have stayed the same.

December 1764: "Fifteen poor people dined here as usual being Xmas day. We had for dinner today large rump of beef thirty pounds roasted, and three plum puddings. Fine beef it was."

April 1768: "I went over this night after eleven o'clock and privately baptised a this day a child and very dangerously ill. Never did I any ecclesiastical duty with more pleasure as it gave such great satisfaction to its parents, and that they were so good and charitably disposed to have it done."

April 1768: "The poor little infant which I baptised last night departed this world this afternoon. Two days old

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December 1768: "Bad in my throat all night. I could not go to read prayers this morning, though it was St Stephen, which I hope will be forgiven. My sister Jane visited me this morning, and she being deaf and I not able to speak, was good company…"

October 1769: "I read prayers, churched a woman, and read the act of parliament against profane swearing as directed by law."

November 1769: "No singing in church this morning, the singers not being at church, they being highly affronted with meat what I had lately done."

July 1770: "I read prayers and preached. Whilst I was preaching one Thomas Speed came into the church quite drunk and crazy and made a noise in the church, called the singers a pack of whorebirds and gave me a nod or two in the pulpit."

February 1770: "I buried poor old Thomas Barnes this afternoon, who had been a long time killing himself by liquor, aged 48. A great many attended him to his grave. He was, I believe, no man's enemy, but to himself a great one."

November 1776: "Pray God my people and all others in the small pox may do well, several houses have got the small pox at present in Weston. O Lord send thy Blessing of health on them all."

I haven't finished the diaries but it is already clear to me that Parson Woodforde is a social chap, he likes the details of life, the characters, and the goings on of his community. He also has a mind towards the poor and needy and seems quite generous to people - though I note he sacked his maid - who at first appeared to be a "mighty strapping wench" for having no idea of how to do her job.

It seems to me life in an 18th century village - admittedly minus motor cars and internet and modern conveniences - in some essence remains much the same as today. People have their troubles and celebrations, concerns and problems, as well as fun and laughter. Perhaps it's a useful lesson to remember - perhaps our modern lives, so busy, so difficult, so concerned with self-concern, aren't as different or as complicated or as demanding or as special or as we might think.

In the meantime what on earth is the churching of a woman? I had to look it up. It is a rite that offers thanksgiving following the birth of a child. I think it has fallen out of use, I wonder if anyone remembers it?

Do write to James at

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