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Making amends for Dereham’s shame

PUBLISHED: 11:24 11 November 2017 | UPDATED: 16:30 11 November 2017

The Rev Benjamin Armstrong, diarist and Rector of Dereham, who was moved by the pity of the death of a French PoW in the town.

The Rev Benjamin Armstrong, diarist and Rector of Dereham, who was moved by the pity of the death of a French PoW in the town.

Archant

Keith Skipper looks at how a Norfolk vicar was moved to make amends for a town’s ‘shameful’ act.

Dereham Vicarage in the Victorian era. Dereham Vicarage in the Victorian era.

One of my favourite Norfolk chroniclers invites grateful remembrance in this season of patriotism, poppies, anthems for doomed youth and anguished cries for the piteous waste of war.

Benjamin Armstrong, diary-keeping Vicar of East Dereham in Victorian times, was born in Middlesex on November 11, 1817, exactly a century and a year before an armistice between the Allies and Germany signalled the end of a conflict causing an estimated 41 million military and civilian casualties.

Armstrong must have been weaned on tales of the Napoleonic Wars, a series of clashes between the French Empire and its allies against a fluctuating number of European powers formed into various coalitions. His diaries later compiled during Norfolk years are sprinkled with news and views of international strife.

He became Vicar of East Dereham in 1850. He resigned in 1888 through ill health and died two years later. Elder son also chose the Church as his profession but the younger joined the Army. Settling into his Norfolk career, Benjamin Armstrong makes a frank admission in his diary entry for January 13, 1855: “My cousin, Henry Armstrong is gazetted first lieutenant of his regiment. I remember the time when I should have jumped at such a chance; and even now, next to being what I am, were I a few years younger and single, I should prefer the Army to all other professions.”

Those musings were put to the test on many occasions as grisly bulletins from various warfronts rubbed shoulders in his regular deliberations with small but significant items of life as a country parson. He could be acerbic – but his affection for Dereham and district grew stronger by the year.

The fact he could include countless stories of visits to London by train for cultural and social events, and even a lively report of a family holiday in Paris, underlines a capacity to see way beyond Norfolk horizons and to weigh up possible implications of global affairs.

Armstrong’s diaries make frequent references to the Crimean War and the involvement of Dereham men in the front line. He follows the fortunes of Garibaldi in his struggle for unification of Italy. He expresses horror at the carnage of the Franco-Prussian War.

He writes on August 8, 1870: “The Prussians have achieved a victory over the French. They took 30 cannons, 6 mitrailleuses (a murderous engine said to kill 500 at a discharge), 2 eagles, 4000 prisoners, and the camp and the baggage. Nothing like this has occurred to the French army since Waterloo.”

Scanning destruction in Paris at the end of the war, he notes on May 25, 1871: “Even in the Revolution the public buildings were spared … The scum of all Europe seems to have collected under the Red Banner. Thank God they are beaten!”

He took a much closer interest in the war in the Sudan and in the fate of General Gordon – not least because his younger son was fighting in that war zone. Armstrong also sought to put right, as far as he could, yesterday’s wrongs.

Jean de Narde, a French prisoner-of-war, escaped from the bell tower in Dereham church in 1799 and was shot dead when found sheltering in a tree. Armstrong set up a cross in the churchyard in memory of de Narde with a memorial tablet.

It ends with the words: “This memorial of his unhappy fate has been erected by the Vicar and two friends who accompanied him on a visit to Paris as a tribute of courtesy to a brave and generous nation, once our foes, but now our allies and brethren. October, 1857.”

Armstrong also wrote to top officials in de Narde’s home town of St Malo to pass on history of the monument, explaining “that my parishioners, then and now, were ashamed of the deed as being a piece of unnecessary cruelty”.

A love of Norfolk and its worthies and an eye for historical detail shine through a host of Armstrong’s diary entries. On August 2, 1876, he writes: “An old parishioner, upwards of ninety years of age, told me that he had stood behind Lord Nelson’s chair when the messenger came to summon him for Trafalgar.

“He described how he came down the stairs with Lady Hamilton, the ladies and gentlemen in the hall forming a line for them to pass. It was then and there that they parted, and none of them saw the hero more.”

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