Henson and his Journals

Julia Stapleton

I hope you are keeping a private journal, in which to note both the occurrences of your life, and the thoughts which they stir in your mind. You will find great relief in such self-communing, and a treasure of reminiscence in years to come. [1]

Henson’s Journals run to 101 volumes, covering his life from 12 May 1885, when he was 21 years old, to 7 April 1947, six months before his death aged 84. It is not known whether he had made any previous attempts to keep a journal. Nevertheless, the surviving journals emphasise the salience of this literary genre in Victorian and Edwardian Britain: Charles Darwin, Arthur Benson, General Gordon, Virginia Woolf, Beatrice Webb, W.R. Inge, and Queen Victoria all kept private journals, providing much insight into themselves, their activities, and their milieux.

William Rathbone, c. 1880.

The early Journals. The first three volumes centre on Henson’s experiences in Birkenhead, the first volume commencing shortly after his arrival in May 1885. Henson spent the following five months on the Wirral as the paid companion of Lyle Rathbone, the unambitious son of the shipping merchant and Liberal MP, William Rathbone. The position was arranged through Sidney Ball, fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, who had earlier served as Lyle’s tutor and had remained in contact with the family.[2] From the Journal, it would appear that Ball had acted in consultation with Robert Raper, founder of what later became the Oxford careers service.[3] Henson joined his former tutor at Oxford, Edward Watson, who had recently been ordained and had been appointed curate at Holy Trinity Church, Birkenhead.

The contrasting characters of Watson and Henson provide much of the force of these early volumes, Watson a broad churchman, and Henson strongly sympathetic to Anglo-Catholicism, and even Roman Catholicism. Together they came face to face with entrenched poverty and unemployment as the trade depression intensified. They also witnessed the bustle of the docks, the snobbery of the local elite, and what Henson termed the ‘schism shops’ of nonconformity as the Church of England lost its hold on the town’s transient population. It was far removed from the life he had enjoyed at Oxford since winning a prize fellowship at All Souls in 1884, although he used the opportunity to hone his preaching skills at the mission attached to Holy Trinity.

Reasons for starting a journal.
Perhaps it was the fascination of Birkenhead that prompted Henson to keep a journal, or perhaps the need for a distraction from his duties as Lyle’s companion, which he found burdensome and distasteful. He may also have been drawn to journal writing in the hope that it would assist him in overcoming the insecurity and self-doubt that plagued him throughout his life; in the early Journals there are several pages that had been torn out, suggesting that he may not have wanted to be reminded of his weaknesses, real or imagined.

General Gordon.

An added stimulus to journal-writing might have been the impending publication of the Khartoum diaries of General Gordon. These appeared on 21 June 1885.  The review in The Times on the day of their publication made clear that they had been keenly awaited since the death of Gordon earlier in the year. Henson idolised Gordon and delivered lectures on him in Birkenhead, London, and Oxford in 1885-6. While in Birkenhead, he purchased Gordon’s earlier journal, Colonel Gordon in Central Africa (1881), which made a deep impression on him; he quoted from it in a Journal entry thirty years later.[4]

Content of the Journals.  In the early as much as in the later Journals, Henson combined accounts of the main activities of the day with free expression of his opinions concerning the people he encountered. In concluding a Journal entry of 1930 that dwelt upon his complex personality and the difficulties this had created in the choice he had made to become a clergyman and preacher, he wrote: ‘[u]nhappily for myself I had a rare gift of sarcastic speech’. He may have sought in journal-keeping an outlet for the unguarded expression of this gift, along with the ‘fastidious literary sense’ he also noted in the entry.[5]

As he approached his ordination in 1888, the introspection that marks the later Journals increased. It was well after this dramatic turning-point in his life that national events begin to obtrude in any considered way. This is in conjunction with incisive commentary on parochial, local, diocesan, and political and public affairs, as well as developments in the national church and in other churches in Britain. Henson’s constant shifts of focus between these different concerns provide much of the variety and interest of the Journals, as do the quotations from, and reflection on his extensive reading.  The conversations he records – both with those occupying high ecclesiastical and political office at one extreme and the people he encountered in his daily life at the other – provide another dimension.  The quality of the preaching he witnessed exercised him throughout the Journals. His responsiveness to landscapes and scenery as well as the weather is also given full expression. In addition, Henson used the Journals to keep track of his correspondence, recording the letters he had sent and received and, before 1920, copying out some of his outgoing letters into the Journal; after this date, he reverted to the practice he had established from 1888 to 1892 of keeping ‘letter books’ for his outgoing correspondence.

Example of important letters copied into Journal. Vol. 14, pp. 404-5.

As well as prose, the early Journals include drawings of men’s profiles, but with no clue as to their identity. He also sketched some of the historic buildings he visited on holiday and – as in the example below – illustrated his current activities.

Vol. 15, p. 311.

Physical appearance and length of the Journals.  Physically, the Journals take different forms. The first four comprise small notebooks, between A5 and A6 in size, with black covers, each around 150 pages in length. In contrast, 4a is a large, unwieldy volume of some 500 pages and around A4 in size, covering two years (January 1888-December 1890).

Vol 20. Visitor Book repurposed as journal.

There is a gap of two months in this volume covering the summer of 1890. The entries for this period form the content of Volume 5, a thin book of blank matriculation certificates roughly the size of a large cheque book. Henson wrote on the reverse side of each certificate. He would have picked up the book somewhere in Oxford on one of his numerous visits to All Souls.

His resort to a lighter, smaller Journal for the summer months of 1890 is perhaps an indication of Henson’s burden of work at St Margaret’s, Barking, his first parochial appointment from 1888 to 1895, and his concern to keep entries brief. It would also reflect the time he spent travelling in the summer of 1890, when carrying a weighty tome would have been difficult.  He repeated the practice of writing in a smaller, portable volume when travelling during his visits to the north of England and Europe in the summer of 1900 and 1901 (vol. 15a), and to America in the spring and summer of 1909 (vol. 16a).

After Vol 4a, the main Journals also diminished in size, although never to the extent of the first four volumes.  Before 1918 the length of time covered by a single Journal varied widely from a few months to several years; one of the largest in terms of word length is Volume 20, covering September 1914 to March 1917. After that date, Henson produced around two or three volumes per year.

Up to the outbreak of the First World War, several days and on rare occasions even weeks passed without an entry. At this time, he would also write ‘block’ entries, recalling each day or selected days later, sometimes in outline only.  The only exception was during holidays when he had more time to write up the Journal on the day itself and at greater length. However, throughout the war he wrote a daily entry, numbering each day of the war sequentially; he maintained the habit of a daily entry thereafter, the entries becoming increasingly expansive, particularly after 1918 when he became a bishop.

All the entries are written in black ink and most in the beautifully formed hand he learnt from his step-mother; there are few illegible words and fewer still crossed out.  As with his letters, Henson made copious use of a ruler for underlining selected words, phrases, names, and passages as he wrote.

Changes in Henson’s motivation for keeping a journal. Having completed volume 4a in December 1890, Henson must have succumbed to journal fatigue as there is a break in the entries until June 1891. Sometime after he resumed the practice, a slight shift in orientation can be discerned. In the early years, he wrote to satisfy his own need for a record of his various engagements and the impressions that people and ambience made on him, and for the enjoyment he derived from the activity. Volume 6 opens as follows:

Notes far and near
Are collected here
To preserve good cheer
For the private ear of the chronicler.

At this stage and later on, the Journals also served a confessional purpose; Henson poured out his sense of failure and unworthiness in the sight of God, and his resolve to try harder to be a fitting instrument of His will.

However, in later years he began to write for posterity as well as for his own pleasure, particularly in recording conversations and providing eye-witness accounts of events as they unfolded. The Journals were an ‘open secret’ during his lifetime;[6] indeed, he showed extracts to a small circle of trusted friends.[7]  In moments of despair, he doubted whether the Journals or even himself would be of any interest at the end of his ministry.[8] On one occasion, reflecting on his lack of children who might have been curious about their father’s life and would have provided a reason to continue writing the journal, he even threatened to destroy the volumes. He was counselled against this action by Canon Alfred Rawlinson, archdeacon of Auckland, who recognised their value.[9] Still, the episode emphasises that he intended the Journals as a legacy. He never entirely lost his conviction that the Journals would be significant historically, and that his readers would be interested in the author, both as a person of unusual emotional and intellectual depth, and as a public figure who was rarely out of the news.

The Journals and the RetrospectConcerned to secure his reputation, Henson had been contemplating an autobiography for some years before beginning the work after he had retired as bishop of Durham in 1939. This is clear in a letter he wrote to Elizabeth Haldane ten years previously, when commenting on the posthumously published autobiography of her brother, the politician and philosopher, R.B. Haldane:

Autobiography is a genre of literature which particularly appeals to me, perhaps because the men who produce it are, for the most part, those who have a rather accentuated and chivalrous self-respect.  I never finished an ‘autobiography’ without a deeper regard for the writer, and more of a warmer sentiment which I may call affection.[10]

The self-deprecatory title of his three-volume autobiography, Retrospect of an Unimportant Life (1942-50), perhaps owed something to his concern to elicit a similar response through affecting a touching modesty. However, if so, it backfired among those who were not well disposed towards him.  For example, Christopher Hollis, a prominent Roman Catholic writer, discounted the suggestion in the title that the upheaval in the wider Church triggered by Henson’s questioning of long-established orthodoxies pointed to a life without significance.[11] A.L. Rowse, a younger fellow of All Souls, an atheist, and politically on the Left, detected in the title a ‘lingering reproach’ on Henson’s part that he had never been made an archbishop.[12] There is also a certain arrogance about the title, albeit perversely expressed: the Retrospect was certainly written in the hope, indeed expectation, of a vindication at the bar of history.[13]

The autobiography was rooted heavily in the Journals. This is especially so in Volumes 2 and 3 as his health failed and as he assembled often lengthy extracts without a connecting narrative. However, despite this heavy dependence on the Journals, the passages that are reproduced in the Retrospect represent a tiny fraction of the whole. Moreover, Henson selected them with a view to presenting himself in what he considered as the best possible light, particularly in relation to controversies such as the Hereford scandal. Notably absent from the Retrospect is any hint of the constant struggle against self-doubt that is apparent everywhere in the Journals, and which was central to his persona, both public and private. His successor as Bishop of Durham remarked shrewdly that Henson’s letters did fuller justice to his character than the Retrospect, barbed though they often were.[14]

Henson marked up passages in the Journals for inclusion through use of marginal strokes and underlining in coloured pencils and through an elaborate system of symbols. Some passages were also marked up for exclusion, to avoid offence to those still living and their immediate descendants, and perhaps to avoid libel actions, too. The Journals can only be appreciated by reading them in full.

Final entries.  The final entry in Henson’s Journal is on 7 April 1947: ‘I essayed a walk in the garden’, he wrote from his home in Hintlesham, Suffolk, ‘but had at once to abandon my attempt because of the violence of the wind, which made me pant.  What a spring, and what a winter!’

A month earlier, he had written of the haunting effect on him of Bertrand Russell’s recent broadcast on the meaning for humanity of the atomic bomb.  Evidently, he was struck by the hubris of the talk: against the words of St Paul that ‘the things that are seen are temporary: the things that are not seen are eternal’, the ‘bland assurances & golden expectations of the Secularist’ seemed ‘ridiculous’.[15]

Durham Cathedral.

The Journals and Durham.  When Henson’s wife died two years after him, ownership of the Journals and copyright in all his work passed to his wife’s companion of some thirty years, Fearne Booker.  She entrusted the Journals to the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral in 1951, and they acquired the copyright by the terms of a codicil to her will, added on the day before her death on 5 June 1969.  It was agreed in 1951 with the then Bishop of Durham that only members of Chapter would have access to the Journals for the next thirty years, except by the express permission of Chapter in consultation with the bishop; publication of extracts from the Journals would be forbidden for the same duration. An exception was made for Edward Norman, who included brief quotations from the Journals in his Church and Society in England, 1770-1970 (1976). As the expiry of the thirty-year embargo approached, the Dean and Chapter asked Owen Chadwick to write a memoir of Henson, and allowed him to borrow the Journals and consult them at his country home. This was published in 1983.  As a memoir rather than a biography, this lacked the scholarly apparatus that would enable the reader to relate the passages he quoted to their relevant entries.

[1] Braley, More letters, 145.
[2] Oona Edward Ball, Sidney Ball: me​mories & impressions of “an ideal don” (Oxford, 1923), 37.
[3] Journal, 2 Oct. 1885.
[4] Journal, 23 Jan. 1911.
[5] Journal, 15 June 1930.
[6] Norman Sykes, ‘Good or great bishops?’, Theology, 45 (Oct. 1942), 13.
[7] Cyril Alington, A Dean’s apology: a semi-religious autobiography (1952), 52.
[8] Journal, 23 May 1926.
[9] Journal, 2 June 1930.
[10] Henson to Elizabeth Haldane, 16 Feb. 1929, HHH109/70.
[11] Christopher Hollis, ‘Dr. Henson, of All Souls’, The Tablet, 5 Sept. 1942, 116.
[12] A.L. Rowse, ‘Hensley Henson: controversial bishop’, in Friends and contemporaries (1989), 132.
[13] Retrospect, II, 82.
[14] Alwyn Winton [A.T.P. Williams], Henson, Herbert Hensley, 1863-1947’, L.G. Wickham Legg and E.T. Williams (eds.), Dictionary of national biography, 1941-50 (1959).
[15] Journal, 9 Mar. 1947.