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Sheepshanks, John (1834–1912), bishop of Norwich, was born in Belgravia, London, on 23 February 1834, the second son in the family of six daughters and three sons of Thomas Sheepshanks (1796–1875), rector of St John's, Coventry, and his wife, Katherine, née Smith (1804/5–1869). He attended Coventry grammar school, where his father was headmaster, and proceeded to Christ's College, Cambridge, where he matriculated in 1852 and was elected a scholar in 1853. He graduated BA in 1856, and MA in 1859. He was ordained deacon in 1857 by Robert Bickersteth, bishop of Ripon, and priested the following year. From 1857 to 1859 he served his title at Leeds as curate to Walter Hook, whom he described as ‘the man who gave the impulse to my own life’ (Duthie, ix), and who impressed him in translating the principles of the Oxford Movement into everyday parish life.

In 1859 Sheepshanks was recruited to serve in the new diocese of British Columbia by its first bishop, George Hill, who had also been a curate under Hook. Arriving in August, Sheepshanks became the first rector of Holy Trinity, New Westminster. He served also as chaplain to the troops in the colony. He borrowed £1000 from friends in England, and laid the foundations for the church in 1860. In 1864 he returned home to solicit more funds, sailing to San Francisco, and then crossing North America on a Wells, Fargo & Co. ‘express waggon’. This journey took him through Utah, where he visited Brigham Young and preached in the Mormon Tabernacle at Salt Lake City. He then proceeded, via Niagara, Montreal, and Quebec, to New York and Washington, and thence to England. He returned via Jamaica and San Francisco, crossing the Central American isthmus to Panama by railway.

While Sheepshanks was in England, the church at New Westminster had burned down, but when he returned in April 1866 he brought £1200 with him. While planning his new church, he was forced to resign owing to the failing health of his father. Just before leaving he heard that his father was improving, and that his immediate presence was not needed, so he accepted an invitation to visit the bishop of Honolulu in the Sandwich Islands. When that visit ended, he decided, ‘in the belief it was good for every man to see some little, not of the British Empire only, but of the great world’ (Duthie, 209), to travel homewards across Asia, in order to see the progress of missionary work, and also to learn about other religions. He sailed first to Hong Kong, and thereafter travelled on foot, unarmed. He crossed northern China, Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, the Siberian wilderness, and the Ural Mountains, and went to Moscow, eventually returning to England, via St Petersburg and Germany, in November 1867.

In 1868, aged thirty-four and having circled the globe, Sheepshanks resumed parochial life as vicar of Bilton in Yorkshire, a living in the gift of his family. On 26 April 1870 he married, at St George's, Hanover Square, London, Margaret (1852–1943), daughter of William Hall Ryott MD, of Thirsk; the marriage produced thirteen children. In 1873 he was appointed vicar of St Margaret's, Anfield, Liverpool, where he spent twenty years of parochial ministry. A Liberal in politics and a Tractarian, he came to the attention of the prime minister, Gladstone, who in March 1893 appointed him to the see of Norwich following the resignation of the evangelical John Thomas Pelham. He was consecrated on 29 June 1893.

Although a high churchman, Sheepshanks was not an extreme ritualist, though in Liverpool he was criticized by militant protestant followers of John Kensit for having processions in the church with people carrying banners. As a bishop, he wore a cope, but not a mitre. Yet he actively opposed the more extreme manifestations of ritualism, culminating in his twelve-year ‘difference’ with Edward Ram (1843–1918), the vicar of St John's, Timberhill, Norwich, over the latter's ritualist innovations, such as the burning of incense. In his visitation charge of 1901 he attempted to rein in the more extreme manifestations of Anglo-Catholicism by urging loyalty to the Church of England. He worked well and amicably with the staunch protestant dean of Norwich, William Lefroy.

Sheepshanks was an eminently pastoral bishop. Believing that a bishop should personally know all his clergy, he toured the large diocese, staying at remote parsonages. He was known to prefer riding on the box of a fly with the driver, rather than inside, and he travelled by third-class railway, talking to the porters and drivers, which his daughter ascribed to his ‘well-known democratic ideas’ (Muir, 50), although it may equally well illustrate his concern for pastoral care. As bishop he made a great point of having the clergy from the diocese to the palace, and very often there were meetings or parties for the clergy. Having been a parish incumbent, he sympathized with his clergy over the reduction of their incomes during the agricultural depression. In order to assist him in administering over 900 parishes, building on his predecessor's revival of rural deans he secured the appointments of the first suffragan bishops since the sixteenth century (Thetford 1893; Ipswich 1899), and actively promoted the division of the diocese, though this did not happen until 1914, with the formation of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich for Suffolk.

Sheepshanks spoke rarely in the upper house of convocation, and less still in the House of Lords, but he gave an address on disestablishment at the Yarmouth church congress of 1907, which he repeated by invitation at the National Liberal Club. He regretted that so many clergy had opposed the parliamentary enfranchisement of agricultural labourers, which he believed had turned them towards nonconformity, and urged that parish affairs in temporal matters should be democratically run, involving working people. He was somewhat ascetic and was decidedly averse to luxury in his home life. During his episcopate the great staircase of the palace at Norwich was covered with linoleum, rather than carpet. His daughter Dorothy Erskine Muir (1889–1977) described this home life in recollections of her upbringing at Liverpool and Norwich, Lift the Curtain (1955). Her elder sister found this atmosphere austere and joyless, and was alienated from religion.

Portions of Sheepshanks's travel journals, edited by D. Wallace Duthie, were published in 1909 as A Bishop in the Rough, and were notable for his account of the colonial church in Canada, his descriptions of Mormonism, and his reflections on the extinction through hunting of native animal species in the countries where he had travelled. After a series of heart attacks he resigned the Norwich see with effect from the end of January 1910. He died of a cerebral thrombosis and atheroma of the arteries at his home, Hill House, 56 Bracondale, Norwich, on 3 June 1912, and was buried in the cloister garth of the cathedral.

Nicholas Groves


The Times (4 June 1912) · D. W. Duthie, ed., A bishop in the rough (1909) · D. E. Muir, Lift the curtain (1955) · Crockford (1868); (1885) · Venn, Alum. Cant. · F. M. Powicke and E. B. Fryde, eds., Handbook of British chronology (1961)


LPL, corresp. with Frederick Temple


photograph, 1860, repro. in Duthie, A bishop, frontispiece · Bassano, dry-plate glass negatives, c.1898, NPG, London · photograph, 1902, repro. in P. Dearmer, Everyman’s history of the prayer book (1912) · vintage bromide postcard print, c.1908, NPG, London · group portrait, photograph, repro. in R. J. Colman, A catalogue of the collection of engraved Norfolk and Norwich portraits (1911), 142 · portrait, repro. in W. L. Wilson, The Imperial gallery of portraiture and biographical encyclopedia (1902), 57

Wealth at death  

£43,965 16s. 8d.: probate, 17 Aug 1912, CGPLA Eng. & Wales