From ‘desultory chit-chat’ to ‘edifying conversation’ – sociability and conversion in northern towns

by Kate Gibson

Eighteenth-century sociability has often been seen as anathema to piety: it was a distraction from worship and a gateway to the immorality of card playing and drinking. However, recent research by historians Carys Brown, Naomi Pullin and Amanda Herbert suggests that conversation and visiting could be considered as aids to piety, by encouraging individuals to debate and reflect on religious doctrine and to share their struggles with their faith and receive encouragement. In northern towns, which were seen by many as a hotbed of social sins, individuals’ close proximity with those of different religions meant that everyday sociability was often the cause of conversion.

Many individuals refer to religious conversations with workmates, colleagues or friends as the beginning of conversion or encouragement to greater piety. Leeds bricklayer Benjamin Woolley (1796-1866) ‘got acquainted with a few Methodists, & though he did not leave the [Anglican] Church, he often mixed with friends not connected with the establishments. He began to meet in Band… attended cottage prayer meetings, & finally went to meet in class at Johnny Briggs Cottage’. The edifying obituary of Nancy Clowes (1775-1796), a Stockport factory worker, records that she first came into contact with ‘two young women who feared God’ when she was placed in the same workroom. ‘Nancy was much affected by their conversation, and would often weep. When they proposed for a few of them to meet, for singing and prayer, she gladly embraced this opportunity of waiting upon God with them.’ Overhearing and joining in conversation, outside of formal religious space, was the key to Nancy’s religious awakening. Kendal Quaker Thomas Rebanks related that ‘Two Strangers… Baptists by profession’ were encouraged to attend Quaker meetings after they ‘became intimate’ friends with their neighbours.

Faith Gray, the daughter of a York hatter, became exposed to the Methodist leanings of clergyman William Richardson when she met him at tea parties at her Aunt Mortimer’s house. On these occasions, the party sang hymns, exchanged books, discussed biblical passages and debated theological topics such as ‘the Witness of the spirit and perfection’ or ‘causes of declension’. Faith always referred to these occasions through the language of sociability: she ‘Drank tea’, had ‘an interesting conversation’ or a ‘profitable evening’. These were lay-led occasions which were not overly didactic, although usually in the presence of a clergyman. Gradually, Faith converted her whole family; in March 1776, three years after she first attended Aunt Mortimer’s parties, her siblings drank tea there, by May 1776 she recorded in her diary ‘Mr Richardson drank Tea with us the first time’, and, finally one week later ‘My Father & Mother at Belfries Church, all my Brothers & Sisters there too. I admired the goodness of God in thus removing prejudices.’ The family never left the established church, but the invitation to Mr Richardson to drink tea at their home signalled their decision to attend one particular church and adopt the evangelicalism of its clergyman.

van Aken, Joseph, c.1699-1749; A Tea Party
Joseph van Aken, ‘A Tea Party’, 1719-21, oil on canvas, 37.4 x 45.7, Manchester Art Gallery 1979.537 (CC BY-NC-ND) 

Nonconformist clergy and lay preachers certainly recognised social occasions as a tool in the fight for believers. Catholic priest Thomas Penswick, stationed at Chester in April 1798, wrote that he had been advised by fellow priests ‘to form acquaintances with the Gentlemen of the town & this they say is the way to conciliate the minds of the Protestants & effect conversions.’ The biography of lay Methodist preacher Henry Longden, formerly a Sheffield razor-maker, stated that ‘In his visits to dinner or tea… his rule was to pray in every house, and to direct all his words to their edification… In large and mixed companies’ he endeavoured to ‘manage the conversation as that it shall not tend to injury rather than to improvement, and he could not endure the desultory chit-chat which is so frequently introduced, and which he called “murdering time”. To prevent these evils, he would call forth into exercise the talents and graces of some of those present; or he would introduce a leading topic of conversation, which would tend to general improvement’.

Social conversion may have been particularly significant for Methodism prior to the movement’s secession from the Church of England as it could expose individuals to alternative views without requiring a formal commitment. The Methodist emphasis on classes and prayer meetings outside of Sunday worship may have been especially attractive. The obituary of Faith Gray’s cousin Frances Pawson, a Methodist convert who died aged 72 in 1809, stated that ‘it was their Classes and other opportunities which attracted her, and suited a turn of mind that was peculiarly social’. But, the emphasis on social conversion was not confined to Methodists: as we have seen, it was employed by Quakers and Catholics. Anglicans also perceived visits as a way to inculcate good religious habits in their less pious friends. Cloth manufacturer Thomas Brancker berated himself for not attending to family prayers when his wife’s parents, the Wrights, came to stay. Although they attended double duty at St Paul’s one Sunday in June 1825, he stated ‘This evening we have not had our usual family prayers, for which I am really ashamed; we have certainly done wrong. They [the Wrights] are not accustomed to have them at home, but it might have put them into the good habit’. Literary scholar Jon Mee has found that evangelical Anglicans such as Hannah More and William Wilberforce encouraged their followers not to hide their piety in the service of appearing polite, but to use mixed company as an opportunity for conversion. The fact that gatherings in domestic households continued to have religious significance for those involved long after the Toleration Act suggests that religious sociability developed not only in response to the lack of sanctioned nonconformist meeting places, but was recognised as a useful and fulfilling religious practice in itself. Sociability was the gateway to more organised group worship and full conversion, particularly by exposing individuals to other denominations without needing to formally leave or join a church.


Carys Brown, ‘ Religious Coexistence and Sociability in England after the Toleration Act, c. 1689-c. 1750’, unpublished PhD thesis (University of Cambridge, 2018)

Amanda E. Herbert, Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (London, 2014)

Jon Mee, Conversable Worlds: Literature, Contention, and Community, 1762 to 1830 (Oxford, 2011)

Naomi Pullin, Female Friends and the Making of Transatlantic Quakerism, 1650-1750 (Cambridge, 2018)

Heritage Quay, Huddersfield: WHS/12774 – Manuscript account by Jabez Wooley of the life of Benjamin Woolley, f.3r

Stockport: Extracts from the Memoir Book of the Stockport Sunday School (Manchester: J. Cleave, 1811), pp. 9-10, 13

Kendal Archive Centre: WDHCW/3/1/8, Thomas Rebanks to James Wilson at Darlington, from Kendal, 25 Feb 1759

York Explore: GRF/5/1, Diary of Faith Gray, 1764-1810, pp. 25-8, 31, 33-4

Durham University Special Collections (Ushaw College Library): UC/P13/2/163, Thomas Penswick in Chester, to Thomas Eyre, 9 April 1798

Henry Longden, The Life of Mr Henry Longden, (late of Sheffield), Compiled from his own Memoirs, from his Diary, and his Letters (Liverpool, 1813).

WYAS (Leeds): WYL1963, Diary of Thomas Brancker, vol. 2, Sunday 12 June 1825.


Faith and the Festive Season

by Kate Gibson

As historian Mark Connelly has found, around 1800 there was a concern that Christmas was in decline. The culprit was thought to be industrialisation and urbanisation, where there was no place for the traditional rural hospitality and communal feasting enjoyed by landowners and their tenants. Our evidence does suggest that the Christmas season was celebrated in a fairly low key manner – many diarists do not even mark out Christmas Day – but those who did mention it do allude to religious rituals and practices that we would recognise today.

Christmas was perceived as a time to spend with family and friends, with some distinct rituals often involving food. Newcastle physician’s apprentice and notional Anglican Thomas Giordani Wright noted in his diary for 22 December 1826, ‘Received a regular Christmas basket this morning from home. A Yule log, Yule candle, Yule cheese, Yule cake, Yule cordial and many other yule-ish appendages’. Although living away from home, his parents sent a Christmas gift as a remembrance of his family ties, with specific material objects for use only at Christmas. The emphasis on food reflects much older associations of Christmas with hospitality and plenty. Making minced pies was a particularly common ritual to conformists and dissenters alike. Manchester Unitarian and the wife of a mill owner Hannah Hatfield wrote to her kinsman Thomas Nicholson to catch up on family news the week before Christmas ‘after a bustleling day in preparing Mince Pies &c &c’. The son of a Presbyterian Manchester cotton merchant, fourteen-year-old Joseph Robinson spent his Christmas holidays from Warrington Academy at his uncle’s home, ‘eating minced pies &c’. Although historian Neil Armstrong suggests that Dissenters often eschewed Christmas traditions as having no scriptural basis, the domestic rituals of food preparation certainly seem to have had a wide appeal.

Most people also do seem to have gone to visit others on Christmas Day. For Leeds merchant Thomas Brancker, Christmas Day 1824 was a ‘most dreadful day… blowing a hurricane’. The bad weather meant, that he, his wife and sister ‘dined at home all alone… it is so unlike what we have been accustomed to on this day’. Christmas socialising often involved music. Evangelical Anglican and wife of a York solicitor, Faith Gray, described one Christmas in the 1820s with her family and their friends the Thorpes, where they were all ‘so delighted’ by her daughter Lucy ‘playing Handels choruses’ – possibly a reference to the Messiah Choruses (1741)- on the family’s organ, ‘that we all were insensibly led to sit up to a later Hour than usual.’ As Armstrong notes, Handel’s music became particularly associated with the Christmas season over the nineteenth century. Its basis in the scriptural text of the King James Bible added an extra layer of religious significance to a festival based on socialising and merriment.

Allan, William, 1782-1850; Christmas Eve
William Allan (1782-1850), Christmas Eve [n.d.], Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums, (CC BY-NC)
The status of Christmas as a holiday from work also underlined its special status for individuals of all denominations and its function as a communal marker of time and the calendar year. The week surrounding Christmas had significance for Thomas Giordani Wright, whose patients were primarily Tyneside coalminers, if only because it was respite from his usual seven-day-week work schedule: ‘As the Pits are now laid off till after Xmas we shall have little chance of accidents for a few days.’ Quakers commonly did not celebrate Christmas but again it remained a day of notice because employees often received the day off. Quaker Anna Braithwaite of Kendal wrote to her son George, an apprentice in Liverpool, in January 1830 to warn him that a day of leisure was still a day of diligent spiritual reflection: ‘It was very kind of John Crosfield [his master] to give thee holyday on Christmas day, and thou must be careful not to ask for too much. I know, my dear boy, thou hast tasted the sweets of giving up inclination to duty, and that in this way thou hast found more substantial comfort that from any temporary pleasure. Cherish this disposition, and in all thou doest however trivial, do it as remembering thy Creator, who… rewards with the answer of a good conscience those who maintain the watch’.

Several individuals, particularly Anglicans, attended church on Christmas Day. Beverley lawyer John Courtney went to church on Christmas Day throughout his life, and marked its religious significance by receiving the sacrament. The rest of the day did not include any other special activity, only the visit of a friend or relation to dinner or to drink tea. There are hints that Christmas services were special occasions, albeit with variation between churches (of the same denomination) or regions. Thomas Brancker, a wool manufacturer originally from Liverpool, regularly complained that the people of Leeds did not mark religious festivals with the festivities he was used to. On Christmas Day 1823 he went to St Paul’s church, but complained ‘It did not seem at all like a Xmas day, much more resembled a fast day. The church very thin, penitential Psalms &c.’ Brancker expected the sacrament, music and something ‘different from an ordinary Sunday’, but was disappointed. This perhaps reflects differences in perceptions of the meaning of Christmas, as either a day of atonement and reflection or as a day of incarnation and joy. Armstrong suggests there was a transition from the former to the latter over the long nineteenth century, but perhaps these views coexisted. After two years in Leeds, Brancker was able to compromise in his worship patterns and find the festivities, particularly music, which he expected from his public worship. On Christmas Day 1825 he went to his usual church of St Paul’s in the morning, but then ‘in the evening went to the old Church where there was a crowded congregation to hear the music, and anthem was sung after service.’

Christmas has been described as a secular festival, with Connelly arguing that by the late eighteenth century it had very little to do with organised religion. To a certain extent, our evidence supports this argument; most diarists and letter-writers did not write religious reflections on Christmas Day but rather did so on New Year. A range of individuals from different denominations emphasised New Year as a time for spiritual reflection and self-examination of their improvement (or failure to do so), as well as a reminder of human mortality. On 3 January 1825, seventeen-year-old Margaret Gray of York, an evangelical Anglican, wrote ‘Through the loving mercy of my God, I have been spared to see the commencement of another year. On looking at my former memorandum at this period last year, I find that I am much in the same state as I then was. In our family we have been as signally blessed as heretofore, with uninterrupted health and prosperity’, but, she lamented that she still had the same ‘wretched depravity’ as last year. For sixteen-year-old Ebenezer Smith, the son of a Chesterfield ironworks owner and an Independent  Dissenter, 31 December was a date of counting both one’s sins and one’s blessings. He wrote in his diary: ‘I am come to the close of another year. I am now one year nearer death, have one year less to live… May the Lord enable me to think of the end of the year, so as to become more prepared for the end of life. Who can enumerate the Sins I have committed this year. No one but God… The next thing I must consider is the mercies I have recd & how innumerable are they!’ For Ebenezer, the festive period was a ‘solemn season’ of sober reflection, not celebration. Two years later he was still completing the same end-of-year ritual: ‘I now behold the first day of a new year. O that each New Year’s Day might find me a more exemplary Christian & a better man than the preceding’.

These New Year spiritual reflections were not confined to the very pious. Leeds wool merchant Thomas Brancker did not dwell on religious thoughts much in his diary, but always marked January 1 with an assessment of his life. In this he combined comments on the prosperity of his business with his thankfulness for God’s providence and the moral values of solvency and industry. On 31 December 1825 he stated, ‘At the close of the eventful Year what dangers and what difficulties we have providentially been enabled to steer through with comparatively trifling injury. We have indeed reason to be thankful… Let us hope & trust to a watchful Providence that before the close of another Year these disastrous times may be but as an useful lesson to guard us in our future dealings’. This spiritual stock-taking mirrored the business practice of actual stock-taking. For Brancker, the assessment of the state of his soul was even more tied up with  the state of his business because New Year’s Eve was a day of work – of stock-taking and collecting bills. 31 December 1824 was a particularly bad day as the business collected less than they expected: ‘this has been an anxious day to me, for we were disappointed in recg any remittance… so ends the old year & so begins the new, in anxious efforts to keep the wheel going; and all owing to our doing more business than our capital warrants’.

It is worth noting that most of our evidence for the celebration of Christmas, and indeed for New Year, comes from sources written after 1800, at the very end of the period of this project. Easter seems to have been of more enduring significance as the major religious festival in England. The evidence we do have, however, indicates that the festive season had significance for individuals of different denominations, and that to a certain extent it was a unifying custom because of its status as a holiday from work. The day of true religious significance was New Year. Although New Year’s Day was a holy day (the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ), its religious significance was in its status as a marker of the personal passage of time and the omnipresence of mortality and sin, rather than the communal celebration of a holy day.



Mark Connelly, Christmas: A Social History (London, 1999)

Neil Armstrong, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century England (Manchester, 2010)

Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford, 1996)

Tyne & Wear Archives: DX47/1/2, Diary of Thomas Giordani Wright, vol. 2, 22 & 23 Dec 1826

John Rylands Library: Eng MSS 1042/353 – Hannah Hatfield, Travis Mill, to T. Nicholson, Gateacre nr Liverpool, 18 Dec. 1812

Hull History Centre: C DFP/467, Joseph Robinson in Manchester to his uncle Robert Pease in Hull, 9 Jan 1766

WYAS (Leeds): WYL/1963/1-2, Diary of Thomas Brancker, vols 1-2, 18 April 1824; 25 Dec 1824; 25 Dec 1825; 31 Dec 1825; 31 Dec 1824

York Explore: GRF/5/2, Diary of Faith Gray, 1811-1826, p. 19

Cumbria Archive Centre (Kendal): WD/BR/21, Anna Braithwaite in Kendal, to her son George Foster Braithwaite in Liverpool, 3 Jan 1830

Hull History Centre: U DDX/60/1-3, Diary of John Courtney, vols 1-3, 1 Jan 1761; 25 Dec 1764; 25 Dec 1795.

York Explore: GRF/8/2, ‘Some Account of the Personal Religion of Margaret Gray’, p. 51, 3 Jan 1825.

Sheffield Archives: MD1874, Diary of the religious exercises and experiences of Ebenezer Smith, 1801, pp. 13, 118


‘She has not good clothes to go in’: Faith and Dress

by Kate Gibson

One of the central questions of this project is to investigate the impact of religion on urban-dwellers daily lives: on their daily routines, how they ran their businesses and how they interacted with family and friends. One way in which the intrusion of religion into daily life can be measured is in its relationship with what people wore and when. As historians such as John Styles and Vivienne Richmond have shown, clothes could symbolise social status, maturity, identity and moral rectitude, but they could also be used to exclude and control.

A common thread in many of our sources, from different denominations, is the desire to appear at a place of worship dressed only in ‘decent’ clothing. Although none of our case studies used the phrase ‘Sunday best’, which Vivienne Richmond found was a common concept in the later nineteenth century, eighteenth-century individuals did often worry that they lacked clothes good enough to appear at public worship. As Styles has shown, the labouring poor often found it difficult to keep clothes clean and in good repair, particularly if they lacked more than one change of clothes or had particularly dirty occupations. The travelling tract seller John Burnthwaite stated in October 1830 that ‘I intended to have gone to Church, but my Cloths are getting so bare that I am ashamed to go amongst deacent dressed people.’ After being on the road for three months and covering nearly 750 miles, ‘the roads very wet and dirty’, he concluded ‘my Shoes are completely done and do not know where to get another pair’.

Sunday School accounts are full of families stating that they did not attend church due to lack of suitable clothing. When Manchester Sunday School teacher Benjamin Braidley met satin stitcher Ellen Bibby, he ‘asked her “Does your Mother regularly attend the Church?”’. She replied ‘“No Sir, I am sorry to see her excuse herself, because she has not good clothes to go in, and she is afraid of seeing somebody that may know her”’. In response, many Sunday schools started clothing funds. In 1812, the Liverpool Old Church Sunday school started one fund ‘to be applied in aid of many poor Children of the School, who are prevented from attending Divine Service on Sundays, though want of Shoes and decent articles of apparel. A small sum for this purpose is already in hand; as many Ladies during the last Year have contributed in this way to increase the comforts of these Children of Poverty: and it will afford the Governors the liveliest pleasure to be able in their next Report to state the good Effects which so charitable a plan has produced.’ The following year, the school extended this for children leaving for ‘respectable situations’, providing money ‘towards furnishing the Girls with articles of apparel, in order to enable them to appear decently & comfortably at Church on Sundays, and other public occasions’.

Northcote, James, 1746-1831; Black John of Tetcott
James Northcote (1746-1831), ‘Black John of Tetcott’, Royal Cornwall Museum, CC BY-NC. The tears on Black John’s coat indicate the difficulties that the labouring poor had in maintaining their clothes.


Although gifts of clothing will have been useful to struggling families, the Sunday school clothing funds were heavily paternalistic, and focused on displaying poor children as credits to their wealthy patrons. Accounts often state that clothing was to be worn on public occasions such as processions, creating a type of uniform that would display the piety and success of that Sunday school. In 1813 the Liverpool Old Church Sunday school resolved ‘That the Girls of this School be supplied with a Cloak, Bonnet & Tippet each at the Expence of the Institution, to wear on Sundays and other public occasions; and that they do appear in such Dress for the first Time at the opening of St Nicholas’s Church’. Later that year the school boasted ‘of the excelling of the Institution and of the good effects it produces in the habits & manners of the poor children… who are thus happily rescued from the paths of Ignorance & Vice. And nothing certainly can more evidently elucidate this truth than the display of the Children at the last Annual Meeting of the Charity Schools in town… exhibiting to public view 259 Boys & 189 Girls who were all enabled to join the Service of our excellent establishment.’ A plain, uniform, dress that demonstrated conformity and physical and moral cleanliness was key in this display of evangelical success. In a crowded and competitive urban market, patrons were keen to ensure that their Sunday school, and their church and denomination, appeared the most successful in reforming the morals of the poor.

The public nature of collective worship was significant in the association between piety and ‘decent’ clothing, and indicates the codependence between churchgoing and urban sociability. Governess Ellen Weeton scathingly mocked the social exclusivity of Christ Church in Liverpool in 1808 when ‘Mrs C. told me the other day that she could not for shame take me to Christ Church, I had nothing fit to go in… to be “clothed in rags” was once a recommendation to the Church of Christ; but now, the surest way of being denied entrance into it. Fashion in times of old could no more gain admittance into that church, than a woman into a Turkish Mosque; but the present age are so little scrupulous, that Fashion, whatever garb she wears, is permitted, indeed every pain taken to allure her, to take her seat in Christ Church: that Church is altogether Fashionable’. Church was a place to see and be seen, and the additional status of Sundays as a key leisure time for both rich and poor contributed to a desire to dress well. Beverley lawyer John Courtney regularly went straight from church to the assembly rooms or coffee house, as well as to the parlours of women he was courting, requiring him to look his best in both social and religious spaces. Display was particularly significant in cathedrals or urban minsters, where civic and religious duties combined. On one visit to York Minster in March 1763, Courtney ‘heard a Sermon & a new Te Deum composed by Revd Tho Bridges of York’, adding ‘The High Sherif was most magnificently drest in Pompadour & Gold.’ Courtney himself had a ritual of always going into mourning on a Sunday, waiting for example five days following the death of his uncle in order to appear first in mourning at Sunday service at Beverley Minster. When he transitioned into second mourning on Easter Sunday, he appeared in ‘my light grey Frock Suit made at London’. Church was a key public arena in which to display sartorial choices, particularly those which signalled both fashionable gentility and propriety.

This is not to say that concern over dressing well at church was all about competition, status and outward appearance. Just as individuals were concerned about going to church in the right frame of mind, free from worldly cares and ready to receive instruction, so they may have perceived their clothing choices as part of the ritual of worship. As John Styles and Peter Jones have found, ‘decency’ was both an economic and a moral concept, conveying virtue, industry and moral cleanliness. Poorer individuals may have felt unable or unworthy for worship if they felt indecent, particularly if it was associated with shame or worldly stresses that could distract from religious practice. For both conformists and nonconformists, dressing appropriately for church shows the interaction between religion and worldly reputation. Biblical injunctions to be clean, wholesome and plain for communion with God chimed with class and gender ideals, to appear as a member of the deserving industrious poor, or as an upstanding member of a mercantile community.



Cumbria Archive and Local Studies Centre (Barrow): BDX/215/2, Diary of John Burnthwaite, 1830-1, Sunday 10 October and Wednesday 15 September 1830.

Manchester Archives: M103/18/6/1 – Diary of Benjamin Braidley, 1815, pp. 1-4.

Liverpool Record Office: 283 NIC/11/1/1, Minute book of Old Church Sunday and Day Schools, Moorfields (1809-1844), pp. 11-14.

Wigan Archives: D/D2 EHC vol 165a – Ellen Weeton, letters to correspondents, vol. 2, pp. 140-1, letter 94, Ellen Weeton to Mrs Braithwaite, 7 Nov. 1808.

Hull History Centre: U DDX/60/2, diary of John Courtney, vol. 2, pp. 3, 26, 38. Entries for 6 March 1763, 8 January 1764 and 22 April 1764.

Peter D. Jones, ‘”I cannot keep my place without being deascent”: Pauper Letters, Parish Clothing and Pragmatism in the South of England, 1750-1830’, Rural History (2009), 20.1, pp. 31-49.

Vivienne Richmond, Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

John Styles, The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).


”Nearer the invisible world”: spirits and the supernatural in the eighteenth-century town

by Kate Gibson

One of the most significant grand narratives of modernity is the idea that as urbanisation and industrialisation increased, beliefs in ‘magic’ and supernatural interference in the world decreased. This was central to sociologist Max Weber’s understanding of the development of capitalism, and to historian Keith Thomas’ highly influential argument that post-Reformation England underwent a process of ‘disenchantment’. More recently, historians such as Bob Scribner, Sasha Handley and Karl Bell have complicated Thomas’ thesis, suggesting that beliefs in the supernatural not only persisted into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but were reinvented and revitalised in response to the pressures of urbanisation, scientific developments, and religious and political change. Sasha Handley’s study of eighteenth-century ghost beliefs suggests that many people in this period were open to the possibility of supernatural phenomena, and that beliefs in providence, ghosts and spirits were compatible with mainstream Protestant Anglican theology, as well as with many types of Dissenting religion.


The evidence that we have collected from individuals living in Northern towns certainly supports arguments that belief in the supernatural not only continued into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but were also integral to many people’s understanding of their religious faith. The most significant way in which individuals invoked the supernatural was by talking about ghosts, often within a narrative of conversion and repentance. One such narrative appears in a bundle of letters of applicants seeking to join the Lowther Street Congregational Church in Carlisle in the early 1800s. W. Ashton’s life story starts conventionally enough: although brought up by pious parents, he was led astray as an apprentice and fell into a life of pleasure and vice. His religious epiphany came when he was visited by a ghost in a dream: ‘While I laid upon my bed on Sabbath morning I think I was awake, and like Eliphaz [a spiritual guide in the biblical book of Job] a spirit passed before my face, an image was before my eyes, but I could not discern the form thereof, there was silence, and I heard a voice, saying – Repent – fear came upon me, I arose and from that time by the grace of God attended to a preached gospel with benefit.’ Ashton protested ‘I am not superstitiously thoughtful about dreams… Though some might think this account borders a little upon the marvellous, yet it is not without a precedent and I am fully persuaded it was the means employed by an all wise providence to call me from darkness to light.’ As with many of the examples found by Handley, this ghost story was rooted within biblical precedent, invoked as a compelling instance of God’s providential interference in the world, and accommodated within the presentation of an otherwise sceptical worldview.


Other examples suggest that belief in the existence of ghosts was entirely compatible with some of the basic tenets of Protestant theology. Evangelical Anglican Mary Dikes wrote to her relative Margaret Hey in 1813 following the death of Margaret’s sister Lucy at the age of just twenty-six. Mary stated: ‘Her loss will be long and deeply felt, but O! what a different thing is it to part with friends without hope, and with a well founded assurance of their unspeakable happiness, and an humble trust that the separation will not be final’. She then quoted a sermon she had recently heard from her parish clergyman Mr Scott: ‘”think them not in their better part dead, or no longer concerned for your welfare! Think that their eye is still upon you – Suppose that you hear them, the dead yet speaking – encouraging you when cast down, reproving you when grown slack; warning, animating… you to see that you fail not of making your salvation sure”’. Mary stopped short of suggesting that the dead could actually appear to the living, but presented ghostly surveillance as an important moral example and encouragement to the pious. The continued existence of the dead was integral to the Anglican belief that the faithful would be reunited in heaven, and was often invoked in condolence letters as a way to comfort the bereaved.

Edward Scriven (engr.), ‘Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar’, from Josiah Boydell’s A Collection of Prints… Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare (London, 1803), British Library (Public Domain)


The idea of an ‘invisible world’ beyond immediate human understanding was not only based on communication between the living and the dead. Belief in a spiritual connection between the living based on a shared faith was expressed by some individuals, particularly those who practised a more revelatory religion. Doncaster Quaker Martha Smith wrote regularly to her cousin Susanna Hawsley, endeavouring to maintain a close emotional relationship with someone who lived over seventy miles away. In one letter, though, she suggested that this closeness owed more to a preternatural, spiritual connection than to the eighteenth-century postal system. She stated: ‘tho we have little outward intercourse, yet that at seasons is felt, wch needs not the medium of words, & under this precious feeling my mind salutes thee, believing we are both desirous to be journeying forward, towards the land of rest & peace, & if obedient to devine requirings, shall I do believe be joined together never more to separate… ah! It is both good & pleasant, how do I feel it flows even while writing, it is an intercourse that the world knoweth not of’. They were connected through their shared religious goal, in a way that elided worldly description. Liverpudlian merchant William Rathbone similarly alluded to a spiritual connection in a letter to his relative Hannah Greg: ‘Tho you are not, I believe, one of the disciples of Swedenborg, yet perhaps you are not quite an unbeliever in the intercourse of spirits, tho I fear you are not fully sensible how often my Wife & I have been visitors in your sick chamber, how often we have held ideal converse with you.’ Rathbone felt that a connection based on both emotional and religious closeness could transcend worldly distance, but this time suggested that this belief in a spiritual bond varied according to denomination. On one end of the spectrum were the followers of Emanuel Swedenborg, who claimed divine revelation through dreams and visions, and on the other, perhaps, more latitudinarian types of dissent such as Unitarians. The difference was one of degree, however: there was no distinct line between belief and unbelief as far as supernatural phenomena were concerned. Rathbone himself had been raised a Quaker and became Unitarian in adulthood, but still felt that the Unitarian Greg would respond to his appeal to spiritual connection. And, as Handley suggest, certain beliefs, such as ghosts or spiritual connection, were strengthened by their compatibility with theological doctrines of the afterlife and revelation.



Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1971)

Robert W. Scribner, ‘The Reformation, Popular Magic, and the “Disenchantment of the World”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23.3 (1993), pp. 475-94

Sasha Handley, Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in Eighteenth-Century England (London, 2007)

Karl Bell, The Magical Imagination: Magic and Modernity in Urban England, 1780-1914 (Cambridge, 2012)

Cumbria Archive Service (Carlisle): DFCCL/7/3/16, W. Ashton to the trustees of owther Street Congregational Church, n.d.

York Explore Library and Archives: GRF/7/5, Account of the illness of Lucy Gray, pp. 45-52, Mary Dikes to Margaret Hey, 6 February 1813

Doncaster Archives: DD/CL/3/18, M. Smith to Susanna Hawsley, 12 January 1807

University of Liverpool Special Collections: RP II.1.51, William Rathbone IV to Hannah Gregg, 3 December [n.d.]



Record of the Week: Childhood and Church

by Kate Gibson 

In looking at how individuals thought about and practised religion in the eighteenth-century town, it is worth considering how this might have changed over the life cycle. Were children expected to just copy adult religious practice, or was it adapted to suit the particular needs and ideals of childhood? How did children themselves think about religion? The extensive archive of the Gray family of York solicitors indicate how one urban, evangelical family viewed childhood religious practice.


A range of letters from 1810 and 1811 focus on the behaviour of three-year-old William Gray (1807-1880). The son of solicitor Jonathan Gray and his wife Mary, William was left in the care of his father and paternal grandparents whilst his mother travelled to Derbyshire to help with a difficult family birth. Letters from Jonathan to his wife indicate that there were difficulties in involving young children in organised worship. In June 1810 Jonathan stated that ‘I wished Wm. to stay from church; but my mother was against any of the servants remaining from Church. I therefore took him with me to St. Maurices’s, where he kept awake, & I did the same. I thought Belfreys [St-Michael-le-Belfrey, York] wd. be hot.’ The practicalities of childcare governed Jonathan’s choice of church. He never seems to have even considered taking William to the family’s usual choice of York Minster, perhaps because of the extra pressure on a child to behave well in a large church where public worship demonstrated the family’s status in York society. The decision of whether to leave a child at home during church time also raises questions about the extent to which servants and parents, particularly women, were restricted in their ability to attend church at certain times.


Parents also had to contend with the difficulties of getting a small child to pay attention during public and domestic worship. Jonathan regularly took three-year-old William to catechisings at church but with varying success. On one occasion Jonathan stated: ‘Wm. went to the catechizing with great reluctance. He is more & more unwilling to go to church.’ On another visit, Jonathan lamented: ‘Wm. did not attend, but amused himself by [playing at] shaving Miss Dikes. He used a wall flower instead of a brush: but boasted when we came out that he had not fallen asleep.’ William regularly fell asleep during family prayers, however, as his father stated on two separate occasions: ‘Wm. sat up to prayers, but fell asleep… On Sunday night Wm had determined to sleep with Mary at father’s. As he fell asleep at prayers & was carried to be, he awoke in Aunt Lucy’s bed; & cried for ½ an hour…’This shows that children were encouraged to join in regular, communal worship both at home and in church from a very young age to get them accustomed to the rhythms of lay religious life, albeit with varying success.


Children were not just expected to echo adult religious practice. A developing genre of specific, child-focused publications suggests that children were considered to need particular guidance on developing pious behaviour. One letter to William’s aunt Lucy updated her on her nephew’s progress with reference to one such publication, Isaac Watt’s Divine Songs: Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children: ‘Wm… has learnt in Watt’s Hymns “Let dogs delight, Whatever brawls, Tis the voice of a Sluggard” & some others. His memory is wonderful’. A bestseller first published in 1715, Watt’s songs were designed to deliver moral lessons in an accessible format, which in this instance at least seems to have been more successful for the three-year-old William. ”Tis the voice of a Sluggard’ warned children to pity the example of a boy who sleeps in late, wastes his time in idleness and never reads his bible.

watts isaac divine B20082 02
‘The Sluggard’, as learned off by heart by three-year-old William Gray, from Isaac Watts, Divine Songs: Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children (25th edn., London, 1761), British Library Ch. 760/47 (Public Domain)


The Gray family were clearly aware that children might find religious practice difficult, and invested considerable time and effort in taking children to church, practising catechisms and singing hymns, as well as informing aunts, uncles and grandparents on a child’s progress. To historians, the letters are a reminder that age and childcare responsibilities did affect individuals’ religious practice, particularly the routines of communal worship.


Explore York Libraries and Archives: GRF/4/3/J/26-28, Jonathan Gray to Mary Gray, June 1810; GRF/4/4/1/M3f, extracts from letters to Lucy Gray.




Record of the Week: The Diary of John Burnthwaite

by Kate Gibson

Most of the surviving diaries of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were written by people who were settled, in both their home and business. Other than pauper letters (which have been the subject of some fascinating research by other historians), it is relatively rare to find accounts written by those whose daily life was precarious. For this project, it is useful to see how the practice of religion was affected by being on the economic and spatial boundaries of society. Did it matter if someone was unable to regularly visit one place of worship or become part of a community? How did it affect your personal piety if you lacked a secure home for the practice of domestic religion? And, if you were on the economic margins, how did you perceive the workings of providence?

The diary of John Burnthwaite can help answer some of these questions. Very little is known about him. He was born in Ulverston, now in Cumbria, and was likely around sixty years old when he began his diary in 1830. His preference seems to have been for Anglicanism. Although he had worked in Manchester and Glasgow for a firm of twist spinners, by 1830 he had fallen on hard times, been refused poor relief, and was making a living as a journeyman tract seller.

Burnthwaite invoked his faith as a way to cope with economic precarity. In July 1830 he was refused a job from an old friend, but stated ‘the Lords will be done, I am content with my hard Lot, I hope something will turn out for the better’. The next day he received some charity from a Miss Shepard; ‘she is a Kind Lady to me, more than I have any reason to expect, I hope G-d will reward her for it’. It was difficult for Burnthwaite to predict when he would sell tracts, so he directly related his performance to his piety and God’s providential interference. On the 13th of August he stated ‘have done well today. Thank God for it.’ But, 3 weeks later, in Barnsley, business was ‘very dull – I could get no Tracts and have been hard put to it today however thank God I have to do my turn, I am affraid I am not thankfull enough’. Burnthwaite was vulnerable – he regularly records stormy weather, poor lodgings and his rapidly deteriorating clothing, for example – and so faith may have helped him to keep going.

A page from BDX/215/2, Diary of John Burnthwaite, 1830-1 (Cumbria Archive and Local Studies Centre, Barrow). Photograph by Kate Gibson. Our thanks to Cumbria Archive for permission to use this photograph. 

Burnthwaite’s itinerancy hampered his ability to practise his religion. He explicitly observed the Sabbath by not selling his wares, even when he could not afford to. But, poverty restricted his ability to mark the Sabbath by churchgoing. One Sunday in October 1830, whilst staying in Lincoln after a continuous four months on the road, he wrote, ‘I intended to have gone to Church, but my Cloths are getting so bare that I am ashamed to go amongst deacent dressed people.’ His lack of a home of his own also interfered with his usual routine of reading after church. That same day he stated ‘Lodged at H. Drums next to the Lock Tavern a clean house, but too many Irishmen and over noisey to read or have any comfort… I am quite tired with such a way of Life nothing but blasphemy shocking to any persons of the least sense of Feeling or delicacy. I am determined to have a place some where to stay in’. Burnthwaite’s experience is a reminder that domestic worship, conducted in a warm, secure and quiet environment, was a luxury not available to many.

John Burnthwaite’s story has a happy ending. In November he received welcome news that ‘my Friends had come forward to assist me, I want words to express my thankfull[nes]s to the Almighty for his kindness’. With this small fund, he found lodgings on a farm in Wreay, a village just outside Carlisle. He recorded that ‘I can now say that I have a home, thanks be to the Almighty for his goodness to me. I have been more than five years that I never had a place to call a home. May the Lord give me a thankfull heart for all his Mercies is my sincere prayer.’ Now with some economic stability, peace and quiet, the rest of Burnthwaite’s diary records the routine of parish and domestic faith; ‘Sunday 5 Dec 1830. A Soft Morning Went to Chapple heard Mr Gascoin from Micha. 6 Chap. 8 Ver – a very good Sermon – Spent the day reading’.


  • Cumbria Archive and Local Studies Centre (Barrow): BDX/215/2, Diary of John Burnthwaite, 1830-1.


Record of the Week: On Marriage, Methodists and Medical Men

by Kate Gibson

On Boxing Day 1829, surgeon John Wilson wrote a letter to Mary Parkin declaring his love for her. Both John and Mary had been born and raised in the centre of Whitby, in North Yorkshire. Although Whitby’s population was small, it was a north-east centre of the eighteenth-century shipping boom that was responsible for the prosperity of other rapidly growing Northern towns like Liverpool, Whitehaven and Hull. As a port town, its inhabitants were involved in shipbuilding and fishing, but also in the trade of coal and the other raw materials of industrialisation. As Stephanie Jones has argued, by 1800 Whitby’s shipbuilding production was enough to rival that of London and Newcastle, contributing over ten per cent of the total tonnage of merchant vessels in England and Wales.[1] Mary, the granddaughter of a sailmaker, daughter of the port comptroller, and with close relations living in the similar port towns of Sunderland and North and South Shields, owed her family’s prosperity to the interaction between the sea and industry.

The Parkin family had a flexible approach to denominational choice. Mary and her siblings had been baptised Anglican and in the 1800s her family had rented a pew in the parish church. But, she had been sent to a Quaker school in Leeds, and by 1814 her father seems to have begun attending Whitby’s new Methodist chapel.[2] Letters from her parents to her brother Thomas in the 1810s show Mary’s piety; ‘your dear Sister Mary has been deeply convincd of Sin… We are much rejoiced to find that your dear Sister has given herself a willing Sacrifice to him who bought her of you with his Blood… We are happy to see she has already begun to feel the power of Religion, & to taste of its pleasures which the World can neither give nor take away’.[3]

By the time that Mary was contemplating marriage with John Wilson, she seems to have been certain of her own religious conviction and its importance in her choice of marriage partner. She had clearly brought it up in their correspondence, as John’s letter begins ‘I cannot but admire the observations which you have made on Religion and your sense of it.’ Mary was worried about John’s choice of occupation, as he states, ‘As to the… charge which you make against the class of medical men as to their being in general careless of Religion I confess that I am not altogether prepared to deny it.’ As Sally Holloway has shown, this type of discussion was common among courting couples testing religious compatibility before marriage.[4]

Courtship fan
Unmounted fan-leaf with six scenes on the progress of courtship, British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (Anonymous, 1790-1800)

John tried to convince Mary of his suitability, not by professing himself a Methodist, but by suggesting that confessional identity was less important than a general outlook of religious openness. He stated:

‘I was brought up in the Church of England and have ever been satisfied with its orthodoxy. As to any particular creed, I am no bigot, but entertain the profoundest reverence for genuine and consistent piety in every one of various Christian denominations and pity every rational being in whom it is wanting… Of your being a Methodist I was never ignorant. I am glad that we perfectly coincide as to the futility of name alone it can be in the state of the heart and mind only where is to be found the test of real worth. However deficient I may be in religious knowledge or practice I trust there is not wholly wanting in me an openness to conviction and some degree of capacity for improvement.’[5]

Although historians have generally emphasised that different denominations had strong religious identities and that a certain degree of religious intolerance was common in this period, it is clear that a general profession of faith was enough to satisfy the pious Mary Parkin. She professed herself a Methodist, but had been educated by Quakers, and when she married John Wilson in 1831, she did so in the Anglican church where she had been baptised.St Mary the Virgin.[6] Her husband’s later diary reveals that on a Sunday the couple could be found worshipping in an Anglican church in the morning and a Methodist chapel in the afternoon.[7] Mary’s religious fluidity was not in this case a symptom of secularism, but of an engaged and open piety.


[1] Stephanie Jones, ‘A Maritime History of the Port of Whitby, 1700-1914’, unpublished PhD thesis, UCL (1982), p. 22.

[2] North Yorkshire County Record Office (NYCRO): TD 19/1/4/46, ‘Book of Observations’ of Thomas Parkin Jr (d. 1836).

[3] NYCRO: TD 19/1/6/1, Thomas and Mary Parkin (senior) to their son Thomas Parkin, from Whitby, 4 July 1812.

[4] Sally Holloway, The Game of Love in Georgian England: Courtship, Emotions and Material Culture, (Oxford, 2019), p. 23.

[5] NYCRO: TD 19/I/7/10, John Wilson to Mary Parkin, 26 December 1829.

[6] Mary Parkin, bap. 8  May 1795 to Thomas and Mary Parkin, St Mary the Virgin, Whitby; marriage of Mary Parkin and Thomas Wilson, 26 April 1831, St Mary the Virgin, Whitby, NYCRO: N-PR-WH1-30, p. 5.

[7] NYCRO: TD 19/I/8/17, writings of John Wilson, diary, 1837.

Record of the Week: The Trials of a Catholic Priest in Carlisle

by Kate Gibson

Most studies of Catholicism prior to the 1829 Relief Act emphasise the significance of rural Catholic communities, sustained by gentry and aristocratic families. Within this scholarship, it was primarily country houses which hosted priests and small private chapels, not urban areas. Catholicism has also been generally left out of narratives of industrialisation and urbanisation which focus on the supposed Protestant work ethic, until the mass migration of Irish Catholics to urban centres such as Manchester or Liverpool in the mid nineteenth century.  But what was the presence of urban Catholics before 1830?  Within this project, it has been difficult to find diaries, memoirs and correspondence written by non-elite urban Catholics. This paucity of sources does not mean that non-elite Catholics were not living in Northern towns in this period, but rather that their ego documents have not survived. When we turn to other types of sources, such as the reports written by local priests for their superiors, it is clear that Catholicism not only existed in Northern urban manufacturing areas, but, by the turn of the nineteenth century, was thriving.


According to the priest of Carlisle, Charles Saul, the 1790s were a difficult period to be Catholic. In December 1799 he wrote to his superior Thomas Eyre complaining that ‘I never was in a place where the catholics and their religion were in such disesteem as they are here. The town is full of Presbiterians, who disagreeing among themselves in their creed, are all unanimous in their hatred to us.’ Saul disliked the people of Carlisle in turn, stating ‘they are in general so deeply involved in vice and ignorance… the dullness and stupidity of the people in the things that regard God and religion is inconceivable.’ The Church rented the priest’s house with its chapel from their one wealthy supporter in the town, Mr James Fairbairn the owner of the Bush Inn posting house. However, Fairbairn’s ability to help was encumbered by his wife. Saul wrote ‘Mrs F. has taken it into her head and blabs it about the town that they are eaten up by me, that I am a burden to them, and I know that she has told her husband that different people have been to her who would give so much rent for the house and garden… she is a very disagreeable woman’. Despite this negative appraisal, however, Saul did admit that their congregation was growing to the extent that they needed a new chapel, as ‘The present one is far too small’.[1]

IMG_1080 resized
Durham University Special Collections/Ushaw College Library: UC/P13/2/154, Printed advertisement, ‘To the Benevolent Christian’, 24 June 1806

By 1801, the new priest of Carlisle, Joseph Marshall, wrote that the congregation continued to increase; ‘last Sunday it was crowded from ye Altar down to ye very bottom of ye stairs.’[2] According to a fundraising advertisement for the new chapel, the growth in numbers was due to the expansion of Carlisle’s manufacturing base. The current chapel ‘is now found inadequate to hold one half of the Catholics, which consist, for the most part, of the labouring poor… Upon account of a great number of poor Catholics restoring to the City of CARLISLE, to obtain employment in the Manufactories established there; especially those of the lower order or poor Irish’. The labouring status of the congregation was the root of the problem and the barrier to its solution; the priest was unable to raise sufficient money for the new chapel because the congregation were so poor. Perhaps aware that they would raise more money by appealing to higher status Catholics from further afield, the advertisement continued ‘And as Carlisle is a very great thoroughfare, it will be of the greatest utility to travellers’.[3] The wider remit of the fundraising campaign worked; by 1807 Marshall wrote with satisfaction that ‘with ye blessing of Almty God I have a neat, elegant Chapel which every one admires; It has cost me about two hundred & sixty pounds’. Although the chapel house still doubled as the priest’s accommodation, Marshall was engaged in preaching to full congregations and teaching ‘near fifty children’.[4] Although anti-Catholic sentiment in towns was often considerable, it is clear that there was a growing demand for large, new, purpose-built chapels to accommodate Catholic workers attracted to the manufacturing and industrial base of Northern towns in this period.

[1] Durham University Special Collections/Ushaw College Library: UC/P13/2/197, Charles Saul to Thomas Eyre, 23 Dec 1799.

[2] UC/P13/2/153, Joseph Marshall, priest of Carlisle to Thomas Eyre, 11 March 1801.

[3] UC/P13/2/154, Printed advertisement, ‘To the Benevolent Christian’, 24 June 1806. Our thanks to Ushaw College Library for allowing us to use this image. Photography by Kate Gibson.

[4] UC/P13/2/155, Joseph Marshall, priest of Carlisle to Thomas Eyre, 30 Jan 1807.


Record of the Week: Death in the Diaries of John Courtney

by Kate Gibson

Four large manuscript diaries held in Hull History Centre span nearly fifty years of the life of John Courtney (1734-1806). Courtney was born and lived in Beverley, a small market and Minster town in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and his diaries detail the rhythms of elite sociability in Beverley, York and Hull. Courtney trained as a lawyer, but later lived off a considerable inheritance from his mother’s family. His experiences are in many ways typical of a well-off individual who could take full advantage of the urban cultural and consumer renaissance of the late eighteenth century. His diaries are full of the secular amusements of balls at the assembly rooms, male dining clubs, committees, shopping, suppers and drinking tea. Courtney was a regular Anglican churchgoer, but his diaries comment little on religion and certainly show none of the religious anxiety and self-examination more common in seventeenth-century writing. His piety is there, but it is revealed only in specific moments of crisis or change in his life: when a relative died.


Cover of vol. 1 of the diary / An entry from December 1763, vol. 2, p. 22, in which Courtney describes the couples present at a Beverley ball (Hull History Centre: U DDX/60/1, 2)

Scholars of death have consistently underlined the influence of religion on attitudes towards death and grief, particularly the function of religious ritual in allowing the community to recover and in the significance of a ‘good death’. However, most of this work continues to emphasise an eighteenth-century secularisation and medicalisation of death, alongside lowering mortality rates and the supposed rise of affective family ties. (Houlbrooke, 1989) The eighteenth century is perceived as a secular blip in the history of death, before the rise of evangelicalism in Victorian perceptions of death (Jalland, 1996). John Courtney’s example shows that even individuals apparently embedded in secular urban life still maintained an intensely religious attitude towards death, and that moments of illness and death provided significant opportunities to practice their piety.

The most significant death in the diary is that of Courtney’s beloved Aunt Peggy, in September 1765, when Courtney was 31. When his ‘dear Aunt Peggy’ became seriously ill, Courtney immediately went to her house and seems to have perceived his duties as involving both physical presence and spiritual support. The practice of religion on Peggy’s deathbed was communal and domestic, involving close family members who took their cue from the dying person. Courtney describes that ‘Parson Johnston came & pray’d with her she was got up & sat in Elbow Chair, my Mother & I join’d in Prayers & Tears. She was very attentive & join’d as well as she could’. After a visit from the doctor Courtney stated;

 ‘I comforted & helped her all I could, & asked her if shd pray by her, she said I might if I would, I knelt down by her & said the Prayer for a Person at the Point of Death in Nelsons Fest:x Fasts. I found much difficulty in getting ‘thro with it, after this I repeated the Lords Prayer & a short Blessing… I told her I hoped we should meet again in Heaven, & I said she set us a glorious Examples & that she was almost to be envied, & often when I sd to her God almighty bless you my Dear Love, she wd: say, & you too.’

Although Courtney was clearly reacting to Peggy’s wishes for prayer and spiritual comfort, he was aware of the conventional prayers required on a deathbed, what to say and how to act. His prayer was not just responsive, though, as after Peggy’s death he reflected on its religious significance to himself; ‘Oh God this is an Heavy Stroke, but thy Will be done! Teach us O Lord to profit by all the disperations of thy Providence & fit us for our latter End & finally bring us to thy everlasting Glory thro the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen!’ His account of Peggy’s death not only gives us the fullest example of the practice of domestic piety in the diary, but also reminds us that religious belief could be awakened at particular times, and was often intermingled with strong emotions such as love and grief. Courtney prayed because his beloved aunt asked him to, but also perceived it as an outlet for his own emotions; he and his mother, after all, ‘join’d in Prayers & Tears’. Religion remained significant for how individuals reacted to and processed death, even for those whose daily life was otherwise determinedly secular.


Entry for Monday 16 September 1765 describing Peggy’s illness, vol. 2, p. 83 (Hull History Centre: U DDX/60/2)


  • Hull History Centre: U DDX/60/1-4, diaries of John Courtney of Beverley. Thanks to Hull History Centre and Hull University Archives for permission to publish these images. Images taken by Kate Gibson.
  • Ralph A. Houlbrooke (ed.), Death, Ritual and Bereavement (London, 1989).
  • Patricia Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family (Oxford, 1996).

Using material culture to explore domestic piety: samplers and embroideries

By Hannah Barker

Maria Wood, 1832: Gallery Oldham ©Gallery Oldham.

Historians have always known that religion was not something that only happened in church. As John Walsh and Stephen Taylor observed in 1993, though ‘the piety of the closet, the parlour and the fireside might be less visible for historians’, it was nevertheless likely to have been widespread.[1] This insight is apparent also in more recent contributions to the study of domestic piety, which suggest that churchgoing was not necessarily understood as the only or even the most important aspect of living a Christian life.[2] My own studies of tradesmen in the north of England during the long eighteenth century suggests that religion was one of their principal concerns. Faith influenced most aspects of these men’s lives, and they tended to display the kind of ‘unspectacular orthodoxy’ that was practiced by people of all sorts in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: for whom such principles as regular church attendance and prayer, the scrutiny of one’s actions and those of others, a belief in providence, and the need both to engage and to struggle with the world and its expectations were a part of daily life.[3] Similarly, Lauren Winner’s examination of Virginian Anglicans argues that ‘laypeople engaged in vital religious practices in the household, a space where ordinary men and women, not clerics, presided. The religious practices in elite households were quotidian rather than rapturous, a part of ordinary life rather than characterised by rupture from it’.[4] Studies of belief in the supernatural in England during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries have further indicated the influence of ideas that were inextricably linked to popular religious devotion.[5]

Jane Wood Pomfret, Darlington, 1820: York Castle Museum, YORCM TDP 207.1. © York Museums Trust (York Castle Museum).

Made objects, according to Jules David Prown, ‘reflect, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, the beliefs of the individual who made, commissioned, purchased, or used them, and by extension, the beliefs of the larger society to which they belonged’.[6] For Venessa Ochs, religious objects are ‘vessels of identity and memory’. ‘We know’, she argues, ‘that objects have intrinsic properties and rules that must be respected. Thus, scholars of material culture are especially attentive to the methods of studying objects as everyday people employ them’.[7] Textiles and clothing are familiar to historians who examine material culture, particularly those who focus on female production.[8] Samplers are examples of female textile production that were commonly made by young girls (though women also produced them on occasion). Such samplers survive in relatively large numbers in museums across the north of England. Their survival can be attributed to the fact that they became collectable in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and also because they were kept by makers’ families and looked after as heirlooms. This second factor reminds us of why such items are important for historians. As Vivienne Richmond argues when writing about working-class sewing in the late nineteenth century: ‘things mattered to people and they must matter to those who write their histories’.[9]

Elizabeth Moody, Pontefract, 1824: Bankfield Museum, Halifax ©Bankfield Museum.

Needlework was central to female education across the social spectrum during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the acquisition of these skills were displayed in the production of a formulatic sample of one’s work. Like other forms of craft work, embroidery and sewing were forms of home production that – unlike shopping – were viewed as ‘a socially acceptable, morally endorsed expression of women’s materialism’.[10] For Rozsika Parker, embroidery was expressly associated with the inculcation of feminine virtue, but she also concluded that we should not ignore ‘the support and pleasure women found in embroidery’, with the title of her book – The Subversive Stitch – suggesting that needlewomen were not always meekly obedient nor restricted in their domestic roles.[11] Once a young girl had learnt how to handle a needle and thread confidently she would moved on to creating her first sampler. The counted-thread stitches of letters and numbers prepared her for the task of marking the household linen, as well as grounding her in the world of reading.[12] Lauren Winner argues that for elite Anglican women in Virginia, samplers were not just part of a girls’ education in the art of housewifery, they were also an integral element in their religious education: ‘Religiously influenced needlework testified that the girl would be not just an appropriately elite wife but also an appropriately Christian one …’.[13] We see this tendency to include religious texts and images in English samplers as well, a practice that became more common as the eighteenth century developed.[14] Though not all samplers contained religious messages, verses or images, a good many of them did. With their common inclusion of the maker’s name and date of production, samplers have been described as a way of ‘fabricating identity’,[15] as well as evidence of a process ‘whereby women not only expressed themselves as individuals but above all organized, appropriated, and made sense of the world around them’.[16] They acted as proof of the stitcher’s skill in needlework, as well as a sign of their piety and a way of understanding how they viewed their world.

Section of sampler by Mary Tonge, aged 10, 1737: York Castle Museum, YORCM TDP267. © York Museums Trust (York Castle Museum).

Moreover, samplers and embroideries reminded those who saw them to consider the religious messages they contained. Though this effect might have been felt most strongly by those that stitched them, samplers and other forms of embroidery appear to have been commonly displayed on the walls of living spaces within households. This embroidered motto, held by the Quaker Tapestry Museum has been kept in what is almost certainly at original frame (showing typical eighteenth-century handmade dovetail jointing) – in common with the framed embroidery by Elizabeth Moody, shown above.

Quaker Tapestry Museum, QTRS 2010.51. © Quaker Tapestry Museum.

This sampler by Jane Simpson from 1834 has a ribbon loop attached at the top in order to hang it from a hook on the wall:

Jane Simpson, 1834: Bankfield Museum, Halifax. ©Bankfield Museum.

Contemporary images of domestic scenes also show framed samplers adorning the walls:

James Gillray, ‘Farmer Giles & his wife shewing off their daughter Betty to their neighbours, on her return from school’, published by Hannah Humphrey (London, 1809), British Museum, Prints and Drawings, 1868,0808.7711 ©Trustees of the British Museum.

A later image of a schoolroom from 1826:

George Cruikshank , ‘Breaking Up’, published by S. Knight (London, 1826), British Museum, Prints and Drawings, 1859,0316.190 ©Trustees of the British Museum.

Tara Hamling’s work has described how religious texts and images were displayed in middle and upper class homes during the early modern period to both sanctify the physical, domestic spaces of godly households and to remind its inhabitants that God was watching them.[17] Hamling suggests that ‘crafted images and objects distributed around the domestic interior could function as mnemonic tools to reinforce learning, to prompt and support approved forms of Protestant prayer and meditation and to anchor private, potentially rogue, thoughts in pious contemplation and the world’.[18] This echoes the findings of social anthropologists, such as Alfred Gell, who described the ways in which certain images have particular agency in specific social and historical contexts because of the impact that they have on the viewer.[19] Tara Hamling’s study of the materiality of domestic devotion in sixteenth-century England has illustrated how an understanding of the spatial and material context of the home can shed new light on domestic piety, offering a radical corrective to the dominant narrative of post-Reformation Protestant culture ‘which invariably casts reformed religious practice as self-consciously separated from material props or concerns’ rather than being ‘rooted in the paraphernalia and bustle of domestic life’.[20] The study of objects can help us to explore domestic religious practice, building on studies of religion and material culture in earlier periods, and that of historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such as Winner on Anglicans in north America and Joseph Stubenrauch on English Methodism.[21] Deborah Cohen has suggested that pre-Victorian ‘religious folk’ showed a marked austerity when it came to domestic decoration and consumption for the home.[22] And though there is no doubt that the interiors of Georgian houses did not display the level of busyness that we associate with Victorian household, our study will still demonstrate the importance of domestic objects in domestic religious life in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

[1] J. Walsh and S. Taylor, ‘Introduction: The Church and Anglicanism in the “long” eighteenth century’, in J.Walsh, S. Taylor, C. Haydon and S. Taylor, The Church of England c.1689-c.1833: From Toleration to Tractarianism (Cambridge, 1993), p. 25.

[2] Eg. Private and Domestic Devotion in Early Modern Britain, ed. Alec Ryrie and Jessica Martin (Ashgage, 2012); Religion and the Household ed. John Doran, Charlotte Methuen and Alexandra Walsham (Studies in Church History, Woodbridge, 2014); Carolyn Steedman, Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age (Cambridge, 2007).

[3] Hannah Barker, ‘Soul, purse and family: middling and lower-class masculinity in eighteenth-century Manchester’, Social History, 33, 1 (2008) 12-35; Hannah Barker, ‘A devout and commercial people: religion and trade in Manchester during the long eighteenth century’, in Revisiting The Polite and Commercial People: Essays in Georgian Politics, Society, and Culture in Honour of Professor Paul Langford, ed. Elaine Chalus and Perry Gauci (Oxford, 2019), 136-52.

[4] Lauren F. Winner, A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia (New Haven and London, 2010, p. 2.

[5] Sasha Handley, Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in Eighteenth-Century England (London, 2007); Karl Bell, The Magical Imagination: Magic and Modernity in Urban England, 1780-1914 (Cambridge, 2012); Shane McCorristine, Spectres of the Self: Thinking About Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750-1920 (Cambridge, 2010)

[6] Jules David Prown, ‘Mind in matter: an introduction to material culture theory and method’, in Material Life in America, 1600–1860, ed. R. B. St. George (Boston, 1988), p. 19.

[7] Vanessa L. Ochs, Inventing Jewish Ritual (Philadelphia, 2007), p. 92.

[8] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (New York, 2001); Beverly Lemire, ‘Draping the body and dressing the home: the material culture of textiles and clothes in the Atlantic world, c. 1500-1800’, in Karen Harvey, ed., History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (London, 2009), 85-102; Marueen Daly Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin, Women and Things, 1750-1950: Gendered Material Strategies (London and New York, 2009).

[9] Vivienne Richmond, ‘Stitching the self: Eliza Kenniff’s drawers and the materialization of identity in late-nineteenth-century London, in Women and Things, 1750-1950, 43-54, p. 51.

[10] Ariane Fennetaux, ‘Female crafts: women and Bricolage in late Georgian Britain, 1750-1820’, in Women and Things, 1750-1950, 91-108, p. 94.

[11] Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (London, 1984). See also eg. Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors: At Home with the Georgians (New Haven, CT, 2009), pp. 231–56; M. D. Goggin, ‘Introduction: Threading Women’, in Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles, ed., M. D. Goggin and B. F. Tobin (Ashgate, 2009), 1–10; M. Morris, ‘Negotiating domesticity in the journals of Anna Larpent’, Journal of Women’s History 22, 1 (2010), 85–106; Bridget Long, ‘“Regular progressive work occupies my mind best”: needlework as a source of entertainment, consolation and reflection’, Textile: Cloth and Culture, 14 2 (2016), 176-87.

[12] Long, ‘“Regular progressive work occupies my mind best”, p. 180.

[13] Winner, A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith, pp. 60 and 67 (quote from p. 67).

[14] Fennetaux, ‘Female crafts: women and Bricolage in late Georgian Britain, 1750-1820’, p. 95.

[15] Maureen Daly Goggin, ‘Fabricating identity: Janie Terrero’s 1912 embroidered English suffrage signature handkerchief’, in Women and Things, 1750-1950, 17-42, p. 33-4.

[16] Fennetaux, ‘Female crafts: women and Bricolage in late Georgian Britain, 1750-1820’, p. 92.

[17] Tara Hamling, Decorating the ‘Godly’ Household: Religious Art in Post-Reformation Britain (New Haven CT and London, 2010)

[18] Tara Hamling, ‘Old Robert’s girdle: visual and material props for Protestant piety in post-Reformation England’, in Private and Domestic Devotion in Early Modern Britain, ed. Jessica Martin and Alec Ryrie (Farnham, 2012), 135-163, p. 137.

[19] Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford, 1998), pp. 12 and 68. Though note that other social anthropologists have questioned the extent to which objects can ‘enchant’ individuals in ways that suggest they have agency on their own: Howard Morphy, ‘Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency’, Journal of Material Culture, 14, 1 (2009), 5-27.

[20] Tara Hamling, ‘Living with the Bible in post-Reformation England: the materiality of text, image and object in domestic life’, in Religion and the Household, 210-39, p. 212.

[21] Winner, A Cheerful & Comfortable Faith; Joseph Stubenrauch, The Evangelical Age of Ingenuity in Industrial Britain (Oxford, 2016)..

[22] Deborah Cohen, Household Gods: The British and their Possessions (New Haven, CT, 2006), p. 7.