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Popularly called the 1851 Religious Census, this demographic census is actually a census of “accommodation and attendance at worship”.
The printed instructions to the clergy stated its purpose, which was to discover “how far the means of religious instruction provided in Great Britain during the last fifty years have kept pace with the population during the same period, and to what extent those means are adequate to meet the spiritual wants of the increased population of 1851”.
Because of the controversy generated by this census, the study was never repeated. The leadership of the established church (Church of England or Presbyterian in Scotland), felt that the outcome of the census favored the dissenters. Also, some objected to the intrusive nature of the census in regards to the endowment of the church.
In preparation for the census, each enumerator was to search out every church, chapel or room in his district used as a regular place of worship. A printed form was given to the responsible person (usually the minister) to fill out on the census Sunday. However, reporting was not compulsory. 34,467 forms for England and Wales were returned. Of that number, 2,524 contained no information about sittings. 1,394 contained no information about attendance, and 390 had no information filled out for either. The return rate for Scotland was not as good. The 1851 religious census was not taken in Ireland.
A very detailed report for England and Wales, including summary tables, was published in 1854. The report for Scotland was much shorter and less detailed because the report had to be compiled and printed much sooner than the one for England and Wales.
The 1851 religious census figures of attendance are not accurate. Sometimes the minister (or person reporting) rounded off the number. Local circumstances such as rain or an epidemic meant fewer than usual attended church that Sunday. Established ministers accused the dissenting churches of packing more people in than normally attended to boost their numbers.
Historians, demographers and others have used the religious census to study the pattern of country-wide religious worship. Some interesting conclusions about England and Wales have been drawn. As with any generally, there are always exceptions. Nonconformity was stronger in the north of England (from Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire up to the Scottish border) than in the south. Dissenters were more populous in industrial areas than in agricultural areas. Catholicism was strongest in Lancashire than anywhere else.
David M. Thompson did an extensive study of Leicestershire and made some very interesting observations based on his study. His conclusions were reported in the chapter he wrote entitled “The Religious Census of 1851” in The Census and Social Structure.
- Nonconformist chapels are found in villages where there is no single, large landowner dominating the area.
- Catholic chapels are usually found near the homes of old Catholic families or in places where there are Irish laborers.
- Chapels of older dissenting groups are often found in villages with a number of long-established freehold farmers.
- Methodist chapels are more likely found in villages with an 18th century industrial or mining development or in villages where there are agricultural laborers.
- Nonconformist chapels are likely found in the larger villages where the population had grown.
- Church of England parishes generally have better attendance than average in places of smaller population, undivided landownership and where the men are employed in agricultural pursuits.Conversely, attendance at Church of England parishes was lower than average in places of high population.
For the genealogist, the value of the 1851 religious census is as a locator of churches attended by the people in England and Wales (Scotland to a lesser degree since the report for that country is less detailed). If a family is not found in the established church the researcher can determine what other churches a family might have attended using the religious census.
The Census and Social Structure. Richard Lawton, editor.FHL 942 X2ce. This book contains excellent chapters on both the 1851 religious census and the education census. Also, an extensive bibliography of sources is given. The appendixes include published tables summarizing census data reported in the Parliamentary Papers.
Land, Church and People. Joan Thirsk, editor. FHL 942 H2lp.Pages 179‑185 contain useful background information about the religious census.
The Local Historian. Volume 11, number 7, 1975. FHL 942 B2ah. Found in this volume is an article by R. W. Ambler entitled “The 1851 Census of Religious Worship”.
PRO Information Leaflet #51 “The Ecclesiastical Census of 1851”. FHL Reference 942 1/L1 A3pa.
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