aken, saying grace, wa_1962_17_4-a-s
WA1962.17.4 Joseph van Aken, ‘Saying Grace’ (c. 1720), Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

This project examines the role of religion in the lives of ordinary people living in urban areas in the North of England, between 1740 and 1830.

This period was one of considerable change in the character of Northern towns, but as yet it is not clear what role religion played in this transformation. Though recent scholarship by historians of the supernatural has suggested the continued importance of belief amongst lay people, industrialisation and urbanisation are still generally seen as secularising influences, with the decline of religion co-existing with the development of ‘modernity’. This project will demonstrate the influence of faith on some of the most important aspects of eighteenth-century society, including family, identity, business, and the use of domestic and urban space. Unlike many existing histories of religion in the eighteenth century which focus on formal church organisation and leadership, this project considers what religion meant to ordinary people in their daily lives.

We are looking at four main themes –

  • Faith and Identity
  • Faith, Space and Time
  • Faith, Work and Business
  • Faith in the Home

Research Questions

  1. In what ways did urban piety give meaning to the lives and outlooks of men, women and children?
  2. How important was religion in shaping individual and group identities, alongside class, gender and occupation?
  3. To what extent were the religious activities of ordinary people independent of formal religious organisations and did they cross denominational boundaries?
  4. In what ways did lay religious practice influence the organisation and meaning of urban space?
  5. How did religious devotion affect concepts of time, including daily routine, the calendar and the lifecycle?
  6. How important was faith to business practices, commercial networks and the economic development of towns?
  7. How were understandings of family, household and domestic space affected by religious belief?


Sources and Scope

prospects of leeds and wakefield, cropped an1613072859_l
William Lodge, The Prospects of the two most remarkable towns in the north of England for the clothing trade (c. 1680), etching, 2005, U.62, British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

This project focuses on people living in urban areas in the North of England. This includes old county or cathedral towns like Lancaster, York and Newcastle, but also the rapidly growing, new industrial hubs of Liverpool, Sheffield, Hull, Manchester and Leeds, among others.



downes to wesley, jrri, ddpr1_20
DDPr1/20, Letter from D.Downes in Leeds to Charles Wesley, 2 February 1777, Image © University of Manchester Library


We’re using a range of different sources, including letters, diaries, business records, church and school records, maps and material objects.







Public Engagement

Our findings from the project will be used to produce a range of teaching materials in Religious Education for primary and secondary schools. We’ll be working closely with school teachers and other education providers, including Cathedral education teams. We hope that the project will aid understanding of the role of diverse faith communities in modern towns and cities and of the historic development of the urban environment around us.

We also hope that our project will be useful to heritage and faith organisations, and to individuals interested in their own family history. Our project will provide greater insight into the role of religion in the lives of ordinary people, alongside other significant themes in social history, including identity, family, space and trust.

We will be updating our blog regularly throughout the project, so have a look at what we’ve been working on here.