Collection Endeavours (1): Transcribing a Colourful Life

~ The journals of Herbert Hensley Henson (1863-1947) –––~

This is the first feature in a new blog series, Collection Endeavours: this focuses on special, often long-term projects involving the Cathedral’s Collections of printed books, manuscripts, and other artefacts.  We hope you enjoy this different perspective on our work and collections…


From copperplate to keyboard

More observant visitors to Durham Cathedral Library in recent months might have noticed some studious volunteers poring over beautiful copperplate handwriting and a laptop, faithfully transcribing every word of the texts in front of them.  The texts in question are journals of former Bishop of Durham Herbert Hensley Henson (1863-1947) – a prolific writer who produced at least a page of writing every day of his life for over sixty years.

Henson pensively portrayed.  Collotype of drawing by Aidan Savage (1901-1986), date unknown (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Henson pensively portrayed. Collotype of drawing by Aidan Savage (1901-1986), date unknown (© Durham Cathedral Library)


A wartime observer

Interest in Henson has increased in recent years in the run up to the centenary of the breakout of World War One – as Dean of Durham from 1912 until late 1917, his insights into the area at the time give a vital first-hand account of how the Great War affected Durham and its residents, as well as the broader Church of England.  Furthermore, his warnings about the danger of appeasement, and his stress on the importance of standing up to a new threat from Germany during the 1930s – largely ignored at the time (much like those warnings of Winston Churchill (1874-1965)) – have helped vindicate Henson, so long considered a loose cannon.

‘I was there’: Henson’s vivid, eyewitness account of Durham responding to the call to arms, war having been declared only five days ago (© Durham Cathedral Library)

‘I was there’: Henson’s vivid, eyewitness account of Durham responding to the call to arms, war having been declared only five days ago (© Durham Cathedral Library)


Vocation and humanity

An unhappy childhood and an unconventional education made him unwilling to discuss his early years in his otherwise comprehensive autobiographies; Henson later felt his start in life (losing his mother at six, and living with an evangelical father who refused to send his son into formal education as a child) always placed him on the periphery of the Church of England: he didn’t necessarily feel that he ‘fitted in’ with his colleagues and contemporaries.  With a fearsome intellect, he briefly flirted with the idea of a career in law – but soon came back to his childhood dream of being ordained.

Capturing a musical dozen: a top-hatted Dean Henson with the Cathedral choir, May 1913 (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Capturing a musical dozen: a top-hatted Dean Henson with the Cathedral choir, May 1913 (© Durham Cathedral Library)

By the time he was made Dean of Durham in 1912, Henson had garnered a reputation as a phenomenal preacher and a dedicated churchman, as well as something of a troublemaker.  He had been keeping his journals for twenty seven years already – colourful, often brutally honest accounts of both his private and professional lives.  In deeply moving passages, he writes about the stillbirth of his only child, a son, in 1905 – and later discusses how he feels fatherhood may have changed him:

“Our married life has missed the crowning joy of children, and so far it has been a maimed and shadowed thing.  The measure of that great failure is hard to know.  Probably our characters would have been greatly advantaged, and we should have escaped the isolation which is beginning to shadow our lives … Life is robbed of its natural interests for those who are childless, and old age takes on a new terror when it must be faced in solitude … I incline to the conclusion that the childless clergyman loses more than he gains” (October 20th 1920).


Sense of humour essential

Other entries take a lighter tone – particularly his description of a somewhat unexpected Swedish bath taken in 1920: “The whole performance seemed as natural and fitting as showing your tongue to a doctor, or stripping for his inspection; but it was a startling experience for a bashful bishop!” (September 26th 1920).

Cutting and amusing doodles frequently litter his letters and other papers – such as this sketch of his fellow bishops following the 1927 Lambeth Conference (December 1927):

These formidable drawings show some artistic talent, and an incisive sense of humour… (© Durham Cathedral Library)


Bishop at the coalface…

After a short spell as Bishop of Hereford from 1917, Henson returned to Durham as Bishop in 1920, and continued to be a controversial figure.  While acknowledging he liked the miners he came into contact with on a personal level, he vehemently opposed the miners’ strike, feeling that he was “witnessing the deliberate suicide of a great nation” (March 7th 1912).  At the Miners Gala in July 1925, Dean of Durham J.E.C. Welldon (1854-1937) was mistaken for Henson and attacked, eventually being thrown into the River Wear.


An eminent life, fruitfully lived

Henson was 75 before he retired from his post at Durham; his warnings against appeasement and his statement that “there can be no compromise or patched up peace” largely ignored.  In 1940, however, he was persuaded out of retirement by Churchill and took up a post as canon at Westminster Abbey – Churchill feeling that Henson’s preaching could serve as a useful boost to wartime morale.  Henson was not happy in this appointment: he resigned the following year, and died six years later.

Sometimes maverick, always estimable? - Henson photographed as Bishop of Durham, 1920-39 (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Sometimes maverick, always estimable? – Henson photographed as Bishop of Durham, 1920-39 (© Durham Cathedral Library)


Henson’s digital legacy

Extracts from the Henson diaries are currently being transcribed for a Durham University project led by Dr. Julia Stapleton, entitled ‘The Bishop in Politics: Herbert Hensley Henson’s Journals, 1885-1947’.  Extracts from his WWI diaries are also being transcribed and displayed in Durham Cathedral, as well as featured online here: http://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/first-world-war/hensley-henson.


Further reading:

  • Chadwick, Owen; Hensley Henson: A study in the friction between Church and State; Canterbury Press, 1994
  • Henson, Herbert Hensley; Retrospect of an Unimportant Life, vols. 1-3; Oxford University Press, 1942-50
  • Peart-Binns, J.S.; Herbert Hensley Henson: A Biography; Lutterworth, 2013

 

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