Bill Bryson lives in an old rectory near Wymondham, just a few miles from my own home in Norwich.
He uses his present home as the starting-point for his fascinating study of domestic life, At Home.
There are, consequently, some interesting observations on English clergy in the period leading up to and around the time the rectory was built, in 1851.
In 1851 there were 17,621 Anglican clergy. Going into the church was one of the two default occupations for the younger sons of the well-to-do (a military career being the other). A typical country parson had about 250 souls to care for in his parish, and received the generous sum of £500 per year as income.
In order to be ordained in the Church of England, a man needed a degree. But this was more often in classics than in theology. In fact, many ministers had neither the training nor the inclination for composing and delivering meaningful sermons of their own, and simply bought a book of sermons and read one of them out per week.
What we find, then, in the 19th century, is a class of well-educated and comfortably-off men with a great deal of time on their hands. No wonder that often found remarkable things to do, even if these had little or nothing to do with Christian ministry.
George Bayldon compiled the world’s first dictionary of Icelandic.
Laurence Sterne wrote novels, including The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman.
Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom.
Jack Russell bred the terrier dog that bears his name.
William Buckland became an authority on dinosaurs.
Thomas Robert Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population, thereby founding the discipline of political economy.
Octqavius Pickard-Cambridge became an authority on spiders.
William Shepherd wrote a history of lewd jokes.
John Clayton was a pioneer of gas lighting.
George Garrett invented the submarine.
Adam Buddle studied botany, and gave his name to the buddleia.
John Meckenzie Bacon was a hot-air balloonist and father of aerial photography.
M.J. Berkeley became the leading authority on fungi and plant diseases.
John Mitchell taught William Herschel how to build a telescope, and worked out how to estimate the mass of the earth.
Thomas Bayes was a brilliant mathematician who devised the Bayes theorem which, although it had no practical application at the time, is used today to work out statistically reliable probabilities (it is used for studying climate change, the stock market, determining radiocarbon dates, and so on).
Then a whole hoard of clergymen achieved no great things themselves, but produced great children. John Dryden, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Thomas Hobbes, Jane Austen, Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Horation Nelson, the Bronte sisters, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Cecil Rhodes, and Lewis Carroll (who was himself a non-practising clergyman) were all sons of parsons.