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New revelations from the 19th-century diaries of a celebrated Dereham clergyman the Rev Benjamin Armstrong

PUBLISHED: 08:39 07 September 2012 | UPDATED: 09:28 07 September 2012

Flashback: The Rev Armstrong (back), as portrayed by Brian Patrick, in the All Preachers Great and Small productions staged by Keith Skipper and his Press Gang troupe.

Flashback: The Rev Armstrong (back), as portrayed by Brian Patrick, in the All Preachers Great and Small productions staged by Keith Skipper and his Press Gang troupe.

©Archant Photographic 2010

Read all about it! A secret scandal has been brought to light… and it involves the daughter of a Norfolk clergyman.

Want to know more? Well, then you’ll just have to go along to a talk tomorrow in Dereham, when all will be revealed; otherwise check out the latest selection of extracts from the copious diaries of the Rev Benjamin Armstrong, vicar of Dereham from 1850 to 1888. Suffice to say that the matter that would have undoubtedly have caused raised eyebrows among the reverend gent’s flock involved his middle daughter Lilly, an elopement and the seaside resort of Brighton...

Two volumes of the Rev Armstrong’s diary entries have been published before, having been edited during wartime blackouts by his grandson, Herbert, who was vicar of St Margaret’s with St Nicholas’s at King’s Lynn in the 1930s and 40s.

Now, Benjamin’s great-grandson, Christopher, has taken a fresh look at the 11 volumes of handwritten jottings. And, as he puts it, he has pulled one or two family skeletons out of the cupboard for a public airing.

Christopher, who lives near Holt and who, unlike his forebears, chose a financial services career rather than a calling in the cloth, says his father had omitted various diary entries from his selected extracts to avoid upsetting the sensibilities of those still alive to remember them, or their immediate descendants. The elopement affair was one such example, though he felt that sufficient time had passed for this to be made known at last.

He also promised that the latest book, Under the Parson’s Nose, would shed new light on rioting, shootings and arson in Victorian Dereham and district as well as Benjamin’s observations about the contemporary equivalents of today’s expenses fiddling and benefit fraud.

“It has been 18 months of hard work researching this, and I have certainly got to know my great-grandfather very well,” he said. “But I suppose what I have also learned is a lot of interesting trivia from his times.”

Examples of such trivia? Since the Rev Armstrong commented on national and international affairs as well as petty parochial matters, Christopher discovered that for health reasons a Pope was encouraged to take up billiards – though presumably not in the style of Prince Harry – and that an anteater imported into Britain from the Americas wouldn’t eat, er, British ants.

The Rev Armstrong is perhaps not as celebrated a diarist as James Woodforde, of Weston Longville – who died just 15 years before Benjamin was born. And unlike the Parson you won’t find abundant accounts in his diaries of his eating habits, though he does mention feasting on swan. But through the previous two books, the first of them published in 1949, his thoughts and “pleasingly strong intolerances” – as one learned reader describes them – have reached a wide public across Britain and overseas. Latterly, the popularity of the diaries was enhanced by the All Preachers Great and Small productions staged by members of Keith Skipper’s Press Gang, in which Brian Patrick assumed the role of the Dereham cleric.

And no wonder, when they contain such fascinating snippets of social history as the first time a bride, Miss Dingle, had been seen wearing a veil; baptising the infant son of the church’s 77-year-old organist; travelling by sleigh to Hoe to conduct services during snowy winters; and taking his daughter to a concert to hear Jenny Lind sing.

Under the Parson’s Nose is published by the Guist-based Larks Press and costs £11.50. It will be available for £10 at the talk, An Evening with Christopher Armstrong, which will take place at St Nicholas’s Church, Dereham, tomorrow (Friday) at 7.30pm. Tickets £5, including wine and canapés.

As you tread the path to the church door, you’ll pass the memorial cross to the Rev Armstrong and members of his family: he, his wife Ann and another daughter, Gertrude, who died in infancy, are among those commemorated on the weathered stonework.

Christopher plans a further talk at The Holt Bookshop next Wednesday at 6.30pm.

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