‘Worldly Labour’: Sabbath-breaking in industrial England

Sabbath observation was considered the cornerstone of Christian belief. As the anonymous-authored devotional manual The Christian’s New Year’s Gift (1764) stated, ‘The sabbath, as it is the very first instituted ordinance of religion, so it is the foundation of all the rest, with the neglect or profanation of which is linked to the contempt of all piety’. In the early nineteenth century, individuals like Warrington nonconformist Martha Rylands considered it ‘a day that should be spent to the Lord’, dedicated to public and private worship, reading and contemplation. She worried repeatedly in her diary that she had spent it ‘unprofitably’, if she had allowed herself to become distracted by worldly concerns. These views were echoed in legislation passed throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which prohibited ‘worldly labour’, the charging of admission to places of entertainment, and travel by boat on Sundays. There were, though, many exceptions to the legislation, and continued debates in parliament, among religious leaders and between ordinary people suggests a significant lack of consensus over what exactly was permissible behaviour on a Sunday.

Isaac Cruikshank, 1756–1810, British, ‘The Enraged Politician or the Sunday Reformer or a Noble Bellman Crying Stinking Fish’, 1797, Etching, hand-colored, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1981.25.1192

Some of the most pious considered working on Sundays to be a grievous sin, and went to considerable lengths to avoid it. When his neighbour, printer Mr Man, died from cholera in the 1830s, Leeds stay-maker and Independent Robert Ayrey presented it as divine punishment for his delivering newspapers ‘All the Sabath day long’. Itinerant tract seller and Anglican John Burnthwaite, for example, did not sell on Sundays, even though he could not afford to lose business. His diary suggests that he saw it as a compulsion rather than a choice; despite travelling through ‘very populace Country’ in North Yorkshire, he felt that ‘being Sunday could not Call it’, and in Cheshire when he passed through ‘considerable vilages’ added ‘but being Sabath could do nothing’. One Saturday in September 1830 he ‘thank[ed] God’ that he had that week ‘plenty to put me Over Sabath’. Burnthwaite planned his expenditure in order to be able to rest on Sundays, indicating the commitment necessary to Sabbath observance, and its potential significance in patterns of spending throughout the working week.

Other examples show variation in Sabbath-working, in some cases due to the demands of particular occupations. Bakers were exempt from laws against working on the Sabbath throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on the understanding that their provision of ovens to cook a Sunday dinner enabled the rest of the community to attend church. In the 1760s, Wakefield cloth friezer John Brearley suggested that milling cloth on the Sabbath was a practical necessity because it was so time consuming. Brearley considered that ‘the[y] are Biseyr on Sundays Milling att Wakefd Mills than aney day in ye week the Reason is Cloathers take Care Each of theire own prs in ye Milling So the[y] can Save a days work[,] for Each Cloath att least is 12 Hours in milling’. As each clothier rented mill time to work their own cloth, the mill had to open on a Sunday to complete such time-intensive work. In the early 1800s cloth manufacturers in Halifax tentered their cloths – stretching them to dry them evenly (illustrated in the image below) – on Sundays in order to avoid government quality inspections. In these cases, a desire to produce goods more quickly or maximise profits encouraged Sunday working, particularly in the highly competitive and rapidly expanding cloth industry, and among workers who manufactured items at home or who were paid by the piece.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775–1851, British, ‘Leeds’, 1816, Watercolor, scraping out and pen and black ink on medium, slightly textured, cream wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1981.25.2704. On the far left of the image you can see workers tenting cloth on the hill above Leeds.

Industrialisation did not simply lead to more Sunday working, though. Individuals in older, less rapidly changing occupations such as domestic service continued to be at the mercy of their employer; as a previous blogpost showed, many servants were required to cook, clean or look after children on Sundays. To a certain extent, the Sundays of workers in the most highly mechanised industries were the most protected because they relied on large-scale, coordinated machinery that could not be easily started and stopped. None of the Lancashire spinning mills mentioned in an 1816 Parliamentary enquiry into child-workers in factories were open on Sundays because they stopped the machinery on that day. Servants, piece workers who laboured in their own homes, or in small workshops were far more likely to have their work bleed into their Sunday leisure or worship time. Sabbath observance was by no means universal, but the recurrent debate over it and its continuing place in the urban working week casts further doubt on the idea that industrialisation led to the secularisation of urban life in this period.


Warrington Archives: E4748 Box 3/1, Diary of Martha Rylands diary, f. 10v, 6 Aug. 1809; f. 33r, 23 Sept. 1810

Anon., The Christian’s New Year’s Gift: containing a companion for the feasts and fasts of the Church of England (London, 1764), p. 1

John Wigley, The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Sunday (Manchester, 1980), p. 26

Report from Select Committee on the Observance of the Sabbath Day: Report, Minutes of Evidence, Appendix, 1832, no. 697, vol. 7, 253, pp. 3, 5

Leeds Central Library: SR826.79AY 74, Letterbook of Robert Ayrey, pp. 45-6

Cumbria Archives and Local Studies Centre, Barrow: BDX/215/2, Diary of John Burnthwaite, 7 Nov. 1830, 24 Oct. 1830; 25 Sept. 1830

WYAS Leeds: WYL463, Note book of John Brearley, 1757-62, vol. 2

Select Committee on State of Woollen Manufacture of England, Minutes of Evidence, House of Commons Papers 268a, vol. 3, no. 595 (1816), pp. 226-7

Select Committee on State of Children Employed in Manufactories of United Kingdom: Minutes of Evidence, House of Commons Papers 397, vol. 3, no. 235 (1816), passim

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