Great Grandfather’s Footsteps

Added about a year ago by Peter Fanning

GUEST BLOG: Peter Fanning introduces us to to the life and legacy of his great grandfather Henry Beeching, Dean of Norwich.

‘When I was 17, my father was so stupid, I didn't want to be seen with him. When I was 24, I was amazed at how much the old man had learned in just 7 years.’

Mark Twain’s famous words might well have been my thoughts, if thoughts I had, of my own great grandfather during my early years. In her autobiography, my mother described him as ‘APeter Fanning greeny-yellowy cleric of uncertain health.’

An ancient family photograph of Henry Beeching, Dean of Norwich, dressed as a craggily, gaitered figure leaning on an urn, did little to disturb the myth.

Uncertain health he may have had – but a ‘Greenery Yallery Grosvenor Gallery foot-in-the-grave man’ Henry Beeching certainly was not.

Indeed, as I eventually discovered, he was a humorous, vigorous character. A figure who, throughout his life, had made a success of three careers - as a published poet, distinguished professor, and leading churchman and reformer. As a contemporary journalist wrote, ‘many men are content to make a reputation in any one of these departments. Mr Beeching has made a mark in each.’

The recent pandemic gave ample proof that even disasters have silver linings. Lockdown had me scouring the attic, where I came upon a bundle of letters written from 1870 up until Beeching’s death in 1919. Poets like R.L.Stevenson and Christina Rosetti, to name but two, showed in their correspondence that here was a man at the very centre of artistic life in the late nineteenth century. Benjamin Jowett, perhaps the most famous Master of Balliol College, Oxford, treated him as a protégé; his tutor was A.C.Bradley, one of the pioneers of Shakespeare criticism.

Lodged with all the letters was a pamphlet from Norwich Library, printed after Beeching’s death and listing most of his publications. The list is striking for its breadth and sheer variety. There are thirty-seven books and pamphlets, twenty-four editions of works by other authors, forty-nine articles and sermons, along with reviews without number.

Had I, twenty years ago, tried to track these publications, it would have meant journeying thousand miles across the UK and the USA, to visit the university libraries in which they have been stored. Thanks to the magic of internet, most of these works have been scanned and saved and most are accessible now at the single touch of a keyboard. And librarians are generous to a fault, spending hours of their time answering questions from researchers like me. What a priceless treasure store they are.

During his early Oxford days, Beeching and friends together penned the infamous Masque of B-ll—l, a set of scurrilous epigrams, one of which featured Lord Curzon, future Viceroy of India.

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person

My face is pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at 
Blenheim once a week.

The verses included others on notable Oxford characters of the day and were thought to be so beyond the pale that even forty years later, they were still considered unpublishable.

Besides his comic writing, Beeching and friends John Mackail and John Bowyer Nichols published plenty of poetry, with the help of the Broad Street publisher Benjamin Blackwell. Much of it is melancholic, dreamily romantic stuff, in keeping with the prevailing mood, but there are many fine exceptions. The trio would go on to publish three volumes during the 1880s.

Queen Victoria’s reign saw the number of clergymen doubled from 14,500 to 24,000 in 1875. Bishops and Deans did not possess the force they had held in days of yore, but they remained a power in the land. And the work of a clergyman, if he were not of the evangelical kind, often provided a comfortable living, with plenty of scope to pursue other interests.

Beeching’s journey took him from Oxford, via Liverpool, to the Berkshire village of Yattendon. Here he ‘chafed’ at fifteen years of rural isolation. But Yattendon enabled him to study and write at leisure, as well attending the daily round in the life of a country parson. During this time, he edited works of Milton, Herbert and Tennyson, as well as those of his hero William Shakespeare. He also notably wrote the anonymous, highly popular ‘Notes from a Private Diary’ for the Cornhill Magazine, packed full of humorous insight into the foibles and follies of man-and-womankind.

So, when the call from Westminster came, the change of life-style brought to a head the chance to deliver those highly popular sermons to a crowded Abbey, the challenge of Church and Prayer Reform and the stresses and strains of all-out war between the ascetic Dean Robinson and most of the Chapter Canons. The correspondence still contains a whiff of smoking gunpowder.

Finally in Norwich Cathedral, the Dean was a popular figure, a voice of wisdom in the dark days of the First World War. There, he conceived and planned the War Memorial Chapel, which was completed a decade after the War and he wrote at length on the dual themes of Shakespeare and Christianity.

The years after the War had little time for the late Victorians. The rise of Modernism and the sceptics of the Bloomsbury Set were scornful of a more genteel and gentle way of life. The legacy of a character like Beeching was unfashionable. But a man ‘distinguished equally by fineness of intellect and sweetness of temper,’ was clearly no Greenery-Yallery cleric, but in the words of Sir Sidney Lee, a lifelong friend and biographer, a ‘soul sweet and sound…(far) greater than his scholarship or his literary gifts or his position in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.’

At Beeching’s memorial service, the Headmaster of his former school quoted lines from Hamlet, which the Dean had chosen as a motto.

For every man hath business and desire
Such as it is, and for mine own poor part,
Look you, I’ll go pray.’

​Peter Fanning is a teacher, theatre director, journalist, and writer. You can get your copy of his latest book Henry Beeching: Professor, Poet, Priest – here!

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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