‘A day of rejoicing, that will be remembered throughout the present generation, and recorded to the next’: Whit and Sunday School Processions in northern English towns

The continuation of Wakes and rushbearing ceremonies in northern towns throughout the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth was one of several opportunities for religious organisations and ordinary residents to enact their own events in which large groups processed through town streets before ending their journeys at parish churches and local chapels. This served to emphasise the civic links and the performative role of church buildings, as well as the possibility of remaking outdoor spaces into places for religious spectacle and meaning.[1] During the early nineteenth century,Sunday school processions began to appropriate Whit as a suitable time for communal festivities which suggests its continued significance in the popular urban imagination.[2] Whit may also have been considered as the most appropriate time for a festival exhibiting the piety of children. Devotional manuals stated that Whit demonstrated purity and innocence, as it was ‘one of the stated Times for Baptism in the ancient Church’, and that the ‘spiritual Purity’ of baptism was signalled by the wearing of white, a sartorial choice also common among Sunday School processioners.[3]

Anglican Sunday School teacher Benjamin Braidley devoted considerable time and effort to this highlight of his calendar, stating in 1815 that ‘The Preparations requisite for the Sunday School Anniversary have prevented me from attending to my Diary during the whole of last week.’ This Whit Monday procession involved only the Anglican Sunday Schools – which taught nearly 8000 pupils – and went from St. Ann’s Square to the Collegiate Church, right through the centre of the town.[4] The extent to which Whit week processions were interdenominational varied considerably from town to town and year to year, depending often on whether there had been any disagreements or misunderstandings between different churches. In Keighley in 1833, the committee of the Sunday School Union had an elaborate plan to demonstrate interdenominational unity. All sixteen schools in the Union met in a field in the town to sing hymns together and then processed through town, before dividing into groups, in which different denominations were mixed together. The Anglican and Independent schools repaired to the Protestant Methodist Chapel ‘to be addressed by a Baptist Minister’, whilst another group of Baptist, Primitive and Protestant Methodist schools went to the Independent chapel to be addressed by a Protestant Methodist minister, and so on. There were public prayer meetings before and after the procession, which went through the centre of Keighley town.[5]

Route of 1813 Sheffield Sunday School Union Procession, 1813. 
Map: W. and J. Fairbank, Sheffield (1808).

Accounts of Whit Week processions indicate the considerable impact and visibility of religion on public space in northern towns. A published account by nonconformist James Montgomery of the procession marking the first anniversary of the Sheffield Sunday School Union on Whit Monday in 1813 described it as a ‘day of rejoicing’ that would be remembered through the generations. The School committee put considerable time and effort into planning the procession, including approving the wording and layout for printed tickets, and on the placement of the boys and girls of different schools within the procession. Three thousand children from eight Sunday schools processed ‘three abrest’ on a mile-long route through the centre of the town to the Methodist Chapel on Norfolk Street. Montgomery stressed the size of the procession and its audience, which was ‘the most numerous’ ever seen in the chapel, and described the children as ‘so goodly a number of the future fathers and mothers, and masters and servants, of this great town, assembled on such an [o]ccasion’.[6] In 1820, celebrations had become larger and more vocal, with ‘all the schools in the Union’ instructed to ‘meet at the Burying Ground Broad Lane, at 8 O Clock in the Morning to go on at the West end’ with the children singing the hymn ‘Shine mighty God on Britain shine’, presumably a deliberate choice that exalted Britain as a space endowed with divine favour. At nine O Clock the Procession to proceed ‘down Broad Lane, West bar Green West bar, up Snig Hill, Angel Street High Street Church Street and West Street to Carver Street Chapel’.[7] This organised parade followed a long circular route along the main thoroughfares and through the centre of town that also passed the Church of St. Peter’s, Sheffield’s Anglican parish church (now Sheffield Cathedral: numbered 21 on the map). 

With their ordered ranks, large numbers and singing, there is little doubt that these parades would have been noticed by the general population, and that taking part in them was both a celebratory act and a way of claiming the city streets as religious space: what Paul O’Leary has described as ‘sacralising the streets’.[8] Designed to pass through the centre of towns, capturing the attention of passers-by, religiously-orientated processions relied on a shared sense that their message was appropriate for civic space, and that they would therefore have the support of other townspeople.[9] In that sense, such parades can be read as representing more than just those who organised them.

[1] E. P. Thompson, ‘Patrician Society, Plebeian Culture’, Journal of Social History, 7 (1974), 390-4; Robert Poole, ‘The March to Peterloo: Politics and Festivity in Late Georgian England’, Past & Present, 192 (2006), pp. 109-153, pp. 118- 27.

[2] Dorothy Entwhistle, ‘The Whit Walkes of Hyde: glorious spectacle, religious witness and celebration of a custom’, Journal of Religious History, 31 (2012), pp. 223-5.

[3] Robert Nelson, A Companion for the Festivals and Fasts of the Church of England, 28th edition (London, 1800), p. 253.  

[4] MA: M103/18/6/1, Diary of Benjamin Braidley, 15 May 1815. 

[5] University of Leeds Special Collections: BUS/Marriner/6/Box 34, Printed flyer on the third anniversary of the Keighley Sunday School Union ‘To be holden on Whit-Monday, May 27th, 1833’.

[6] Sheffield University Archives, MS468/DOC/12/1A, First Report of the Sunday School Union in Sheffield; with the Proceedings of the Anniversary Meeting of the Superintendants and Teacher, held at the Nether Chapel, on Monday, June 7, 1813 (Sheffield, 1813), pp. 16-17; MS468/MIN/1/1, SSSU Minute Book, 1812-1820, pp. 16-18, 21-22.

[7] MS468/MIN/1/2, SSSU Minute Book, 1820-1830, fol. 21v.

[8] O’Leary, Claiming the Streets, pp. 123. See also Charlotte Wildman, ‘Religious selfhoods and the city in inter-war Manchester’, Urban History, 38/1 (2011), 103–23 (esp. p. 109).

[9] Ibid., p. 4.

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