10 . Weston Longville Church, Norfolk: James Woodforde's mural tablet

Weston Woodforde tabletThe memorial to James Woodforde in Weston Church commissioned by Nephew Bill and Nancy [photo Margaret Bird 2014] This memorial was placed by William and Anna Maria (Nancy) Woodforde on the chancel north wall of Weston Parish Church. They pay tribute to their uncle, with whom they had lived in turn at the parsonage – the one briefly, and the other for more than 20 years. William had left Somerset for Norfolk on hearing the news of James Woodforde's death; his sister would have needed his support.

They identify a two-way relationship: the parishioners' regard for their pastor, and his care for the needy: 'The poor feel a severe loss as they were the constant objects of his bounty.' Woodforde, 29 years their rector, had died on 1 January 1803 aged '63' [62].

The coat of arms at the top, seen here in shadow, is that of the Woodfordes of Ansford: a crest formed of a woodman holding a club, above three leopards' heads.

The Latin motto Pro aris, et focis (For altars, and hearths) expresses two aspects of his life that the diarist held most dear: his faith, and his home.

Woodforde was buried on 5 January. A lozenge-shaped plaque set in the chancel floor near the sanctuary rail marks the place where he rests, as pictured on the Literary Norfolk website.

Weston or Weston Longville?

Today the village is almost invariably called Weston Longville. However in Woodforde's time it was equally almost invariably Weston, without its suffix. In the licensing records for its public house the parish is always Weston. In the visitation returns for the diocese of Norwich, described later on this page, it is again always Weston.

The patrons of the living, New College, Oxford, preferred the early mediaeval manorial title Weston Longueville. This name, referring to the priory of Longueville in Normandy, is recorded just once by Woodforde in his diary: on the day he was told at New College that he had been granted the living. It is also the name which appears on his institution certificate of 12 April 1775 from the Bishop of Norwich, still held by his descendants. Interestingly when the Norfolk-based surveyor Robert Corby prepared his estate map for New College in 1829 he named the parish as Weston, with no suffix.

It would seem the name Weston Longville only became well established in the twentieth century. Was it Woodforde's first editor John Beresford, in opting for Weston Longeville, who popularised the ancient manorial usage?

Weston parish

The Parson Woodforde Society Journal contains numerous articles on Weston. The layout of the roads in the eighteenth century was very different from today's following parliamentary enclosure in 1822 and the building of an airfield on farmland during the Second World War. RAF Attlebridge, as it was known, being named for the nearest railway station, was operative between 1941 and 1956 and used by the RAF and USAAF.

Studies of Weston's roads and landscape, with mapping, are published in the Journal for Spring 1986: vol. 19 no. 1; also for Summer 1989: vol. 22 no. 2 and Winter 1993: vol. 26 no. 4.

The Weston terrier of 22 May 1777, held in the Norfolk Record Office (DN/TER 161/4/11), is an extremely valuable resource. Woodforde took part in the survey accompanied by some of his new flock. This detailed examination of church property and land in the parish, including the parson's glebe, is transcribed in full, with copious footnotes, by Dr Heather Edwards in her edition of Volume 7 of The Diary of James Woodforde, appendix 1, pp. 249–59.

The long document tells us about the parish's historic 'common ways', footpaths, tracks and placenames as well as its small, unenclosed fields. We also learn that at the time Woodforde arrived in Weston the church had five bells, each weighing between 5 and 11 hundredweight (254 kg and nearly 559 kg). Some of the spelling is phonetic. The farmer William Bidewell, frequently mentioned in the diary, pronounced his name Biddle. The book can be bought direct from the Society.

Farming his 50 acres of glebe

John Beresford omitted what he regarded as trivial or of little interest in his five-volume edition of the diary published 1924–31. Only the complete transcription reveals Woodforde's strong identification with the land.

The diarist was prepared to help out when necessary with farming his 45 acres of glebe, in 46 parcels, plus meadow. However the very great bulk of the work was carried out by one man, the loyal, faithful Ben Leggatt. 'Benjamin' was taken on a month after the 1776 harvest and stayed with the parson to Woodforde's dying day. In all that time his annual salary of £10 never rose. As a living-in farm servant he was however provided with board and lodging without charge.

N Kent NorfolkPlough 1796A plough such as Ben Leggatt could have used to farm Woodforde's glebe. Two horses with docked tails draw it abreast [from Nathaniel Kent's General View of the Agriculture of the County of Norfolk 1796]

William Jacob discusses the rector's farming of his glebe in the Journal for Autumn 2010: 'James Woodforde as a parish priest': vol. 43 no. 3.

The parson was not on close terms with the farming families other than when hosting the sometimes boisterous annual tithe frolics at his rectory. He was careful however to co-operate with them where possible. He would have wished to avoid disputes over tithes, which he took not in kind but as a cash substitute: tithes formed by far the greatest part of his income. In this he succeeded, as he was able to reassure the Bishop of Norwich in the visitation returns that he had no trouble with his parishioners in the matter of tithes and claiming his dues.

Weston, Peachman family gravesWeston, the south churchyard: deeply incised headstones to four members of the Peachman family. The farmer John Peachman features prominently in the diary. His little brother William, with his own ornate memorial, died aged nearly eight months [photo Margaret Bird 2014]The stonemasons employed to commemorate the relatively well-to-do inhabitants of Weston were talented craftsmen. Their work has withstood centuries of buffeting by the elements, very many being still legible.

Seen here are four headstones to members of the Peachman family. They commemorate the parents and brothers of the farmer John Peachman who appears in the diary: (left to right) Ann Peachman (d.1788 aged 83), wife of John; her husband John Peachman (d.1771 aged 72); Thomas Peachman (d.1771 aged 32); and William (d.1744 aged 34 weeks), son of John and Ann. They are beautiful to look at still, with their cherubs and mementi mori. A tiny angel spreads his wings protectively around little William.

Woodforde did not get off to a good start in his relations with John Peachman. He was easily rattled (a character trait amplified with the passing of the years), as we learn at the end of his first harvest after coming into residence at Weston:

14 September 1776 . . . Very busy all day with my barley, did not dine till near 5 in the afternoon, my harvest men dined here today, gave them some beef and some plum pudding and as much liquor as they would drink. This evening finished my harvest and all carried in to the barn: 8 acres.

I had Mrs Dunnell's cart and horses, and two men, yesterday and today. The men were her son Thomas and Robin Buck. Gave to each of them when they went away £0 2s 6d . . . Peachman and Dade promised to help me but never came near me all the time, though they had my men some days . . .

The uncooperative John Peachman died in 1801 aged 67. His wife Hannah died after the rector's passing, in 1806 also aged 67. They share a headstone to the left of those seen in the photograph. The Peachman graves lie south-east of the south porch, with John and Hannah's memorial sited near the path.

The evidence of the visitation returns

Norwich Cathedral clergymanA clergyman entering Norwich Cathedral from the cloisters [lithograph by Newman & Co., London]Bishops were required to hold visitations every few years and at the time they were appointed. These were opportunities to tour all the deaneries of their diocese and enquire into their running.

At the same time they carried out mass Confirmation services, for which the parish clergy had to prepare the children; this included teaching them their Catechism. Norwich was a particularly large see, with 1296 parishes in total stretching into Suffolk and part of Cambridgeshire. Physical endurance was an essential quality in a bishop.

Deaneries doubled up when the bishop was on tour, reducing his workload. In this way the clergy were able to renew ties with their more distant 'brethren', thereby helping to ease the loneliness and isolation felt by many. James Woodforde's membership of the 'Rotation' among his neighbouring clergy fulfilled the same function, but on a smaller scale.

Weston formed part of the deanery of Sparham in central Norfolk, the visitations grouping Sparham and Ingworth deaneries together. Ingworth lay to the east and reached to the Norfolk Broads.

In advance of his tour the bishop would send out a printed questionnaire requesting huge amounts of data, if filled in conscientiously. This Woodforde chose not to do. He was unresponsive to the point of disrespect towards the prelate.

The dozens of questions would enquire into the geographical extent of the parish; how many Roman Catholics ('Papists'), Dissenters and Quakers it harboured (many clergy choosing not to class Methodists as Dissenters as they had not broken away from the Established Church); the number of houses; the presence of 'families of note'; whether the clergyman resided in his parish 'on his cure' and had any problems over holding services; the disposal of the offertory and how it was collected; the number of communicants; how often Communion (the Sacrament, or 'Lord's Supper') was held; the number and types of school; the local charities; and a large space for the clergy to unburden themselves of any issues they might wish to raise with the bishop.

The Weston returns

The responses for Weston are held in the Norfolk Record Office (NRO) under Sparham deanery.

In 1784 (DN/VIS 29a/9) Woodforde is very firm that he does not face any competition: 'There are no Dissenters of any sect or denomination whatever within my parish.' A search of the licences for meeting houses confirms this statement. None is licensed in Weston during the whole of Woodforde's 29-year tenure of the benefice (NRO: DN/DIS 1/2). He administers Communion four times a year, which was standard practice at the time, and has about 30 communicants – quite a high proportion for a parish of Weston's size. This figure was however on a downward trend. Ten years later he gave the number as 25.

Woodforde is not entirely truthful with the bishop on the controversial issue of private baptism. We know from his diary that he was prepared to perform private baptism, notably for the Custance children. He states disengenuously, 'The Sacrament of Baptism is regularly performed by me according to the plain directions of the rubric.' But then, at the end of the form, he admits he has problems:

There is no other matter at present, my lord, proper for your information relating to my parish – but only wish that parents could be prevailed upon to bring their children (after being privately baptized) to be publicly presented into the church.

It was a very common problem for the Norfolk clergy, cropping up frequently in the returns.

Weston Church pamments smlPamments in Weston Church: floor tiles worn down by generations of worshippers [photo Margaret Bird 2011]By 1794 (DN/VIS 34a/7) Woodforde had become much less communicative. Instead of filling the space provided on the printed form he squeezes his answers under the question; his writing is small and shaky.

Weston has about forty houses. There are no absentees from services 'that I know of'. He hands out the offertory money as he thinks fit: 'It is disposed of by me to the sick, infirm and aged.' (Some of the charitable donations noted in the diary could thus have come from the Sunday collection rather than his private purse.) He catechises 'As often as my parishioners send their children for that purpose': a somewhat misleading statement. He appears on the evidence of the diary never to have catechised the children.

By 1801 (DN/VIS 38/6) his answers are minimalist in the extreme. He nowhere admits that he has not personally conducted a service in his church for many years and that he relies on a succession of curates. His parish is about eight miles in circumference. There are still no Papists, Dissenters or Quakers, nor absentees from services 'that I know of'. He collects the offertory money, but does not reveal what he does with it. There are numerous gaps in his replies, where he just leaves the space blank.

The contrast with the loquacious author of a world-famous diary is poignant. His daily record is crammed with vivid detail. His New College sermon of 1776 is a revelation. Yet his self-assessment of the way he is carrying out his vocation, in the presence of his bishop, is disappointingly monosyllabic.

William and Nancy tell us on his mural tablet that 'His parishioners held him in the highest esteem and veneration.' The bishop had no means of judging that claim on the evidence of the Weston returns. Fortunately we do, as readers of the diary. This incomparable record attests to Woodforde's kindness, gentleness, generosity and undemonstrative Christian spirit.