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The Torrington Diaries

by Tony Singleton

Reprinted from an article in West Gallery no.41, Spring 2007

Most summers from 1781 to 1794, John Byng, became a tourist and travelled from London through some part of England, putting up at local inns and alehouses and visiting the "sights", mostly country houses and churches. He was born into an illustrious naval family, the younger son of the Third Viscount Torrington, although he went into the army and achieved the rank of colonel. He retired in 1780 and was appointed Commissioner of Stamps with the Inland Revenue, which allowed him time to travel. His older brother, George, became the fourth Viscount Torrington and after George's death, John succeeded to the title but only weeks before he died.

John Byng
John Byng, later the 5th Viscount Torrington

John Byng usually travelled on horseback, sometimes alone, often in the company of a friend, and he kept a detailed journal recording his observations on the landscape and buildings he saw and the people he met. Like Cobbett, a generation later, he had a forthright manner and recorded many critical comments in his journal, but had no political aims as did Cobbett. Being a member of the aristocracy, he normally attended the Anglican church and hence described himself as a "churchman", although he was not particularly devout. His observations on the state of religion at this period are therefore perhaps of more value for their impartiality. His notebooks were published in the 1930s as the "Torrington Diaries" and give us a fascinating view of many aspects of Georgian England.

He lived at a time when organs were being introduced into town churches, replacing the old church bands, which he referred to as "the old melody". Although he was often travelling on a Sunday, he sometimes attended church services where he encountered the choirs with their bands and commented on the instruments and singers. It is clear from these comments that he mourned their demise although he was quite ready to criticise where performance standards were not so good. Such was his interest that he made a point of enquiring of parish clerks as to the state of the music and of the preaching in their churches. During this period, pluralism was rife and absentee clergy frequently encountered (or not!), and he saw the resultant spiritual vacuum and lack of leadership from the Anglican church as a major cause of its losing ground to the numerous dissenting sects. Methodism had not in the early years of his touring separated from the established church and he viewed it as a welcome, even necessary, injection of enthusiasm and commitment in the church.

Preaching and the clergy

On his first tour in 1781, he went to church in Winchcombe in Gloucestershire on June 10th and noted "I attended divine service; as irreligiously perform'd here, as at most other places. The inhabitants are of different sects; which is owing to the want of discipline in the Church of England; for whither would the people flock were pluralities, in general, abolish'd, and more spiritual comfort to be had; which not being the case, the religious fly into other persuasions. The vicar of this place must be a Welshman from Jesus College, Oxon, and his stipend is 40 per ann: which is considerably augmented to the present incumbent by subscriptions, and his skill at whist."

Ten years later, whilst visiting the parish church in Spilsby, Lincolnshire he observed with some surprise that two women were "church'd" by the clergyman, "in the space of two minutes: which office I did not know could be thus huddled over, privately, in a church?" He continued his travels into Yorkshire, and in Knaresborough, he enquired of the Parish Clerk if the preaching was good? 'Aye', said he, 'from our Curate'. When he asked 'But where is your Rector?', the reply was, 'He never comes but once a year, at the election of the parish officers'.

The following year, he visited Askrigg church in Yorkshire on a Saturday afternoon when the choir was practising its "psalm singing". However, after enquiry he decided not to attend the service on the Sunday as he noted in his diary: "But why not church? Why, because I had convers'd with the minister; and had an account of the service and preaching."

From these and many other enquiries and observations, he was able to summarise the state of affairs as he saw it in the established church. While staying in an inn in St.Albans in July 1789, he wrote "about religion I have made some enquiry, (having been in so many churches) and find it to be lodged in the hands of the Methodists; as the greater clergy do not attend their duty; and the lesser neglect it; that where the old psalm singing is abolish'd, none is establish'd in its place ... at most places the curates never attend regularly, or to any effect, or comfort, so no wonder that the people are gone over to Methodism."

Unfortunately, he did not find that the City churches and cathedrals were much better. In July 1781, he was staying in Worcester: "I attended morning service at the cathedral, which was very ill perform'd, with chaunting, and began with the Litany." Later "... to evening prayers at the cathedral ...; the psalms were slurr'd over most irreverently, and the organ is an hoarse unpleasant instrument". At Oxford he noted: "The chapel service at the colleges begins so early, that we hurry'd away from our dinner in hopes of hearing an anthem sung by a famous singing boy of New College: ... we were baulk'd of our intention, as the anthem was very ill sung, and the service most idly perform'd, by such persons as I should suppose as had never learnt to sing or read; tho' the warden himself attended and I thought might have order'd a better anthem for the strangers; but good breeding is scarcer here than elsewhere."

However, occasionally he did find singing which he was pleased with. On a Thursday in July 1787, before leaving Gloucester, he decide to attend the cathedral service there, "which Mr O. (who had been here some days) said was executed with due decency: ... a long service, and tedious sermon! The singing was good, and some of the boys' voices seem'd excellent ..."

At Southwell in Nottinghamshire, in 1789 he noted: "The bell now ringing for evening service carried me to the church, where I met Dr Marsden, a prebend, who offer'd me, as a stranger, every civility, as a choice of anthem, etc, and I then enter'd a stall. If I commonly find fault, I shall seldom be wrong; and if I sometimes praise, you may suppose it right. Therefore let me now express my astonishment of pleasure at hearing this service. The prebend was attended in due form; the prayers were read most leisurely, and devoutly, by Mr Houlson, one of the Vicars; the organ was excellently play'd; and four singing men, and eleven boys, sang as carefully as if at the Antient Concert! The anthem of three parts, 'Sing O Heav'ns' by Mr Kent was capitally perform'd; and I was told that one of the Boys was reckon'd to be the finest voice in England, and the men had been sent for to the Abbey-Musick."

At Lincoln, the service was "a decent, and honourable performance, but, unluckily for us, no anthem, as that is perform'd on Wednesdays, and Fridays, at evening service. How few people attend! Any attendance will soon cease ..."

Even at Canterbury in September 1798, where one might have expected all to be of a high standard, he had a mixed experience. In the morning he went "to the cathedral service; which we thought well perform'd, and that a well-chosen anthem was sung by two good singing boys". However, later that day, he recorded, "I reached my inn where I ate a tolerable Dinner, and sat (during the rain) till the hour of the Cathedral service; which was as sadly slurred over as any dissenter could wish. I then chose to be shown the curiosities of the Cathedral; and by a boy in full, ignorant prate. I was made to observe the monument of the Black Prince and to recall the memory of the daring Becket. The screen and painted windows would yet do honour to the Popish Faith; and might raise a sigh over the ruins of religion!"

Methodism and Dissent

In 1792, he headed northwards out of London, his first stop being Welwyn on Whitsunday, May 27th. "Here they are building a new, large meeting house, sad omen of the downfall of the churches! For the dissenters will soon chuse the parliament; and then look to yourselves, my Lord the Bishop, Mr Dean, ye fat prebends, and ye idle absent rectors."

Three years before, he had been in Ashby de la Zouch and noted: "Adjoining to the castle, on the eastern side, is a long timber'd building ... part of this building is used as a concert room, and at another end is a Methodist chapel, under the guidance of the Dowager Lady Huntingdon. the lady patroness of this persuasion; and to which (service time now beginning) there went 5 to the one that went to church; and no wonder, as here may be fervour, and devotion. To church we had thoughts of going, until we heard that the preach was not to be heard; and I heard that there was an organ, which has driven out the old melody, - and singing, all together".

John Berridge
John Berridge, vicar of Everton, Beds, 1755-93

In 1789, on one of his tours of the Midland counties, he came "over the Sandy Hills to near Everden (ie Everton - Ed.) church (whence were many people returning from the Evening-Service) where a famous Preacher (ie John Berridge - Ed.) has been renowned in his Pulpit for many years. His face appears to me abundant of Honesty, Zeal, and good works; ... To his church does the County flock for Instruction, and Consolation; but he is generally term'd a Methodist: and as such held out by the Clergy, as a stumbling block, and a dangerous character." "Now what the title of Methodist is meant to signify I know not; but if these Preachers do restore attention, and congregations within the Churches, and do preach the work of God, they appear to me as men most commendable".

Church Quires and Organs

At Bourne in Lincolnshire, in June 1791, the sexton informed him "that they had good psalm-singing here, of thirty hands, and several musical instruments". A week later at Grantham, he went to church with the landlord of his inn and commented in his diary "this I call my religious tour, tho' I sadly fear that curiosity oft'ner than devotion leads me to church); ... Here was a numerous, and decent congregation, with a singing loft crouded; and amongst them one lady in a blue silk bonnet, who sang notably; but the bassoons, and hautboys, were too loud and shrieking; as for the clergyman, he went off in a loud, unintelligible key, like a lawyer reading deeds, and was truly intolerable. Had I been in the company of those I knew, I could not have refrain'd from laughter. - Much singing before the service; likewise the Magnificat, and two psalms: during the sermon mine host slept, and I slumber'd."

In 1789, he was in Thurgarton, between Nottingham and Newark. "In regard to the decay of religious duties, which every person can remark, the Clerk said (to my regular enquiry) that Singing had been disused about six years. At Bottesford, yesterday I made the same enquiry, and found that tho' psalmody there was on the decline, yet was it tolerably supported by 2 Bassoons, a Clarinet, and a German flute. Nothing should be more encouraged as drawing both Young and Old to Church, than Church Melody, tho' the profligacy and refinement of the age has abandon'd and ridiculed it; but were I a squire of a country village I would offer such premiums and encouragement, (of little cost to myself) as would quickly rear an ambitious, and laudable desire of Psalm-singing, and put forth a little Chorus of Children; than which nothing is more elevating and grateful and sublime, hearing innocence exert their little voices in praise of their Creator. For let fashion say what it can, every ear is more gratified by a chorus of youth, than by the most violent exertions of Taste."

At Tonbridge in 1788 "we tried the church, which has been newly repaired, and within these few days organed by a legacy, and therein were listeners, whom we joined; but I was sorry to think that the old melody, so much better for country work, would be done away, and here they were rich in having all kinds of sweet instruments. Mopingly we returned to our sorry inn, however, that supper might make us happier, but everything was wretched and ill-served".

As a well-dressed visitor he would naturally have attracted some attention from the congregation when he attended a service. In 1792, in Middleham in Yorkshire, he recorded "At 11 o'clock, I was attended to the church, and became there an object of speculation, I suppose, as a stranger, and being put into the Dean's pew. There was a decent, well-dressed, well-behaved congregation; with a singing loft; from which there was too much singing from about a dozen voices, male and female; and two bassoons, of better accompaniment than an organ: one of their attempts was too powerful for them, 'And the trumpet shall sound', the bassoons imitating the trumpet. The service lasted long, but our service is much too long; the Curate, the Deputy of Mr Dean, had a good voice, and perform'd tolerably."

By now the reader will know that John Byng preferred the old church quires with their instruments to accompaniment by organs although he still appreciated a service with good preaching and a number of musical items, well-performed. At Knutsford in June 1790 he noted: "As this is a new dry church ... I was tempted to stay to divine service ... in proper form to church which is a neat, well pew'd building; and was well fill'd with well-dress'd company, many of whom came in their coaches ... The service open'd with a psalm, accompany'd by an organ, and the Te Deum - and were chaunted; so these with two other psalms, gave me singing enough; as for the sermon, it had the merit of being short."

John Byng's diaries record in great detail the landscape he passed through, his visits to country houses and parks, and the food and drink he consumed at the hostelries en route. He had many scathing comments to make about the inns and alehouses he stayed at and the bills he had to pay, so his diaries provide useful quotes and background information which might be included in readings by modern West Gallery quires who like to present the music in its social setting.

The Torrington Diaries, Hon. John Byng, ed. C.Bruyn Andrews, 4 vols., London, 1934.
There are also several later editions in one volume of selected extracts from the "Diaries".


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