The diaries of a Victorian clergyman might not sound like a great read, but those of Revd William Pelham Burn have unusual appeal.
Burn was born in London in 1859, the third son of Major-General Henry Pelham Burn. He studied at Pembroke College, Oxford and was ordained in 1885, serving as curate at Kensington and at Bodmin before moving to Norwich in 1890 to be vicar of St Peter Mancroft.
In that position, he soon took on additional roles. He was chaplain to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, an honorary canon of Norwich Cathedral, and, still aged just forty, Archdeacon of Norwich, from December 1899. He also served as a member of the School Board on the Board of Guardians, of which he was Chairman, from 1898 until the time of his death.
The diaries cover most of his time in Norwich, running from July 1893 to September 1901, and deal with clerical, public, social and family life. Aspects of parochial life and duties recorded include church services and music, the restoration of St Peter’s chancel and the opening of a new Mission Memorial Hall in 1899. The well-respected musician, Dr Edward Bunnett, was organist at St Peter Mancroft throughout the period of Burn’s incumbency and is referred to in the diaries.
Burn was a very active man, but also a cool and conscientious observer. He routinely noted books he was reading and also (especially when staying in London) commented on plays, exhibitions and other cultural events. The real charm of his diaries is that written comment goes hand-in-hand with images. His journal entries occupy only the right-hand pages of the six volumes: on most of the facing pages he pasted his own photographs.Like many clergymen, Burn joined in the leisure pursuits of his social class. He went shooting, hunting and fishing on some of Norfolk’s country estates, and in Scotland, too. He was a keen cyclist, riding all over Norfolk, and much of Suffolk, alone or in company, for work and pleasure. Indeed, travel features strongly, both in the Norwich area (usually on foot or cycling) and across Norfolk (mainly by bicycle), and further afield, in England, Scotland and Europe. A keen mountaineer, he was a member of the Alpine Club.
Like most amateur photographers, Burn took numerous shots while on holiday, at home and abroad. In Norwich, he captured some everyday street scenes, with passing carriages and pedestrians, as well as special occasions, when the streets were crowded with onlookers. He took his camera with him on cycling and sporting trips, too, giving us images of scenes across the county and beyond.
Burn married Margaret Rate in 1890: they had five children, the last of whom was born only weeks before his sudden death, on 2 September 1902, while returning from an ascent of the Croda di Lago in the Dolomites.
William Pelham Burn’s diaries (catalogued as MC 2678) are a lasting legacy for those interested in the life and landscape of Norwich and Norfolk, as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth.