Family Bibles


by Kate Gibson

The blank spaces in bibles and other religious texts have long been used by families to record births, marriages and deaths. Historian Kathleen Ashley has found examples from sixteenth-century Books of Hours, and Lauren Winner and Karin Wulf have found that the practice was widespread in eighteenth-century America. As Tanya Evans has recently explored in an illuminating Twitter thread, there is a contemporary ‘roaring trade’ in orphaned family bibles. These objects can be useful and emotive prompts to genealogists, but also raise complex questions about the materiality of family history and the act of recording and memory-making.

For this project, we are looking at family bibles for evidence of lay religious belief and practice. So, our question is why was it particularly religious books that were chosen as repositories for family genealogies? Karin Wulf suggests that families were echoing the bible’s own status as a ‘genealogical text’; it did, after all, spend pages detailing the patrilineal descent of early Christians such as Adam or Noah. She suggests the practice had religious and worldly functions, in some cases used to demonstrate God’s providential goodness towards a family, and to prove access to inheritance and status. As Wulf states, ‘Perhaps embedding one’s own family history in the most important book of Christian family history created an authoritative echo’.

We suggested in a previous blog post that religious spaces were seen as particularly evocative prompts to memory, because they were seen as reassuringly dependable links to centuries of past worshippers. Religious texts may have performed the same function, which, as Lauren Winner states in her research into eighteenth-century elite American families, ‘created a kind of domestic or familial immortality’. Our evidence shows that this practice was also common among non-elites living in urban Northern England. Anglican William Robinson, a Durham tailor, recorded the births, deaths and marriages of his children in the flyleaf of their family bible from the 1780s, as did the Methodist Richardsons, living around Stockport and Manchester from the 1830s, and the Banks family of Cockermouth from the 1770s. The sixteenth-century bible belonging to the Dain (also spelled Dayne) family of Derbyshire and later of Manchester, contains hundreds of marginalia, including signatures and genealogical information.

In the bible belonging to the Rawson family, woollen manufacturers from Halifax, an extra inscription dated 1797 and preceding the genealogy, indicates the association of the bible with immortality: ‘Eternal Life God’s Word imparts, / Whereon each fainting Spirit lives’. Our evidence suggests that eighteenth-century individuals saw religious objects as eternal and above human concepts of time; they inscribed the reminders of the earthly passage of time and human mortality – birth, marriage, and death – on a bible, in the confidence that it would long outlive them. This was an act of kinship with biblical families, positing them as their spiritual ancestors and drawing on centuries of bible readers since. It is the equivalent of writing ‘I was here’, marking one’s existence on something that you thought would last. Although Winner also suggests that writing on bibles shows that they were not seen reverentially as sacred items, the practice of using them, rather than any other book, for preserving genealogical information suggests that they were considered as having a certain symbolic temporal power beyond the capacity of their temporary human custodians. The religious nature of the bible gave it a sense of permanence and security, above the vulnerability of human life.


Kathleen Ashley, ‘Creating Familial Identity in Books of Hours’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32. 1 (2002), pp. 145-65

Karin Wulf, ‘Bible, King and Common Law: Genealogical Literacies and Family History Practices in British America’, Early American Studies 10.3 (2012), pp. 467-502

Lauren Winner, A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia (New Haven, 2010)

DRO: D/X/422/1, Robinson family bible

Tameside Archives: DD320, Richardson family bible

CALSC, Whitehaven: 9 BIB, Banks family bible.

WYAS, Calderdale: WYC, 1525/6/8/1, Rawson family bible

The John Rylands Library: R211685, The Byble in Englyshe (London, 1541), also known as the Dain family bible or High Peak bible

Memory and Religious Space in the Eighteenth-century Town


by Kate Gibson

Physical locations act as repositories for collective and individual memory. Sites are, as French historian Pierre Nora states, ‘where memory crystallises and secretes itself’. For some, memories could be prompted by walking down a street or entering a house, but for others living in rapidly changing and growing eighteenth-century towns, it was churches and other places of worship that acted as emotional triggers of memory and nostalgia.

It is clear from the many diaries of genteel Anglican lawyer John Courtney, that memory was entirely bound up with the built environment of local churches. His parish church, St Mary’s in Beverley, was a solid, unchanging witness to significant events in the life of Courtney and his family. When attending his Aunt Featherstone’s funeral in 1789, he commented in his diary ‘Thus have I attended the Ceremonys of the Marriage & of the Funeral of my dear Aunt Featherston in the same Church at an Interval of over 49 years!’ Visits to churches were bound up with memories of family and friends, which were prompted by the building itself or the service. When Courtney took his family on holiday to the Yorkshire resort of Burlington Quay (Bridlington) in 1796, he noted that at church ‘I sat in Mr. Pricket’s Pew (wch was old Grimston’s & the first Pew I ever sat in at Burlington Church with my Dear Father & Mother’. As his parents were deceased, the embodied experience of inhabiting the same space decades later triggered an emotional memory that was entangled with religious practice.

Anglican cloth manufacturer Thomas Brancker of Leeds had a similar sense of nostalgia provoked by worship. In February 1828, having left his home town of Liverpool five years before, he and his wife returned to visit. On a Sunday morning they went to St Philip’s Church, where ‘The service there is done plainly & well, without much show, and not much changed from what we formerly knew it’. In the afternoon they went to St Peter’s Church ‘where we heard the famous old Organ now well played by Maybrick’s son. Mr Bulman read prayers and Mr Rufford preached both just as they used to do a dozen years ago’. When returning home at the end of the day Thomas reflected that it had ‘been gratifying to us from the recollection of old occupations & scenes.’ The routine of Sunday worship was an aide to this recollection, partly because it was perceived as unchanging and dependable.

Anglican churches could also provoke an emotional response amongst nonconformists who did not worship there. On a visit to Darlington in 1816, apprentice clerk and lapsed Quaker William Bernard ‘crossed the market place towards the church, near to which stands the house where the school was held when I was there… I much longed to have heard once more the chiming of the bells at twelve o’clock, but it was then only eleven, and it seemed unreasonable to require my father to wait an hour’. In this case nostalgia was prompted by the sight and sound of an Anglican church, the twelfth-century St Cuthbert’s, rather than the ritual of a service, but it nonetheless indicates the centrality of an Anglican church to the identity of a town and the memories of those that lived there.

An engraving of St Cuthbert's Church, Darlington, with the market place behind it.
St Cuthbert’s Church, Darlington (with the market place behind it), from ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’, Sept. 1824, after Wilkinson, © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Although nonconformists generally defined the ‘church’ as embodied in the group of worshippers rather than a physical building, they did also endow places of worship with meaning. A nonconformist meeting place could act as a site of memory and identify just as much as an Anglican church. In 1832 Leeds Independent Robert Ayrey experienced some ‘anciaty’ when he was put in charge of finding a new minister for their chapel. But he felt that his satisfaction at ensuring its ‘prosperity’ would ‘amply repay me for all my labor for I have to Confess I am the moast at home when I am in that little place of Worship’. In the 1820s Manchester Unitarians Mary Robberds and Helen Martineau valued Cross Street Chapel for its ability to prompt recollections of friendship and shared public worship. Mary wrote to Helen, who was living in Madeira; ‘you say your thoughts are always in Cross Street on a Sunday. I assure you it is a day & a place when we particularly think of you. Especially in my own little seat, where I have a view of the [memorial] tablet; and this is not only “sacred to the memory” of our venerable friends, but associated with her whom they so dearly loved’. Mary felt ownership of her ‘own little seat’ and was prompted by the material reminders of people she knew. And, by thinking of a public religious space at a synchronous religious time – Sunday – Helen was able to access memories of this shared religious experience across spatial distance. This suggests that the significance of places of worship as triggers of memory and belonging was not based on their status as the parish church, as often one of the oldest buildings or occupying the most prominent position in the town. Any place of worship could inspire emotion because of their meaning within an individual’s lifetime. They were, after all, places where the pious spent a lot of time, and in a weekly routine that could continue for decades. The diarists and letter-writers that we examine here considered places of worship as reassuringly dependable repositories for memories that constructed aspects of their identity and personal relationships, even though the urban environment they lived in was rapidly shifting.

Sources and further reading:

Pierre Nora, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations 26 (1989), pp. 7-24

Alexandra Walsham, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity, and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (Oxford, 2012),

John Rylands Library: UCC/2/21/1/22, Mary Robberds to Helen Martineau, 25 February 1824.

Leeds Central Library: SR826.79AY 74, Letterbook of Robert Ayrey, pp. 22-3.

Durham Record Office: D/X 782/3, Diary of William Bernard Ogden, vol. 3, p. 48, 16 October 1816.

Hull History Centre: U DDX/60/3, Diary of John Courtney, vol. 3, 5 March 1789

Hull History Centre: U DDX/60/3, Diary of John Courtney, vol. 3, 14 August 1796

West Yorkshire Archive Service, Leeds: WYL/1963/5, Diary of Thomas Brancker, vol. 5, 3 February 1828.

Gender, Care work and Faith

by Kate Gibson


In recent years, historians have been looking in more detail at the impact of childcare and care work on men and women in the past. Linda Oja’s research into eighteenth-century Sweden, for example, suggests that mothers did the most day-to-day childcare, but that fathers were expected to take responsibility in a crisis, or if the mother was absent. Most research looks at the economic impact of this – did the demands of childcare affect the type or amount of work that women did, for example – but we are thinking more broadly about how caring responsibilities affected how men and women felt about their faith, or the time that they had left each week to practice it.


Our sources indicate some differences in the impact of childcare on the religious practice of mother and fathers. Fathers did undertake caring responsibilities that limited the time they could spend on piety, especially going to church on Sundays. Beverley attorney John Courtney kept a diary that detailed the fatal illness of his teenage son Cornelius (Corry), between 1791 and 1793. When Corry started to lose his eyesight, John left the rest of the family at home in Beverley, and took him to Leeds for medical advice. On their first visit in 1791, John ‘cd not leave him nor go to Church’, because the pair were alone in temporary lodgings with no servant or family member who could stay with Corry while John worshipped. On later visits John and Corry were accompanied by family friend, clergyman Mr Smith, but again John stayed from church to ‘read to Corry’, a decision likely motivated by his feeling ‘much anxiety’ over Corry’s health. When he was solely responsible for an ill child, John prioritised paternal care over Sunday worship.

Russell, John, 1745-1806; Cook Cooper Taylor and Sons
One of a pair of portraits of the family of Cook Cooper Taylor, a druggist from York. John Russell (1745-1806) , ‘Cook Cooper Taylor and Sons’ Merchant Adventurers’ Hall (CC BY-NC-ND)

However, when Corry experienced his last, fatal illness back home in Beverley in 1793, John’s ability to attend church was more mixed. In April 1793 he was able to attend church with his wife and ‘all my Children except Corry’, suggesting that they relied on a servant to nurse Corry in their absence. When Corry grew visibly worse and a doctor warned John that he would not recover, John stayed home from church in order to fulfil his paternal religious duties in preparing his child for death. In May 1793 whilst the rest of the family went to a second afternoon service, John ‘stayd at Home with my Dear Cornelius, & read Prayers to him, & talked to him about receiving the Sacrament’. By June, both Corry and John’s wife Mary were ill, causing John to miss ‘several Sundays’ due to his ‘anguish & distress’ over their health: ‘it was all I cd do [to] keep up I never went out except an airing with Corry’. John’s absence from church was exacerbated by Mary’s incapacity; once she had recovered he resumed attendance at least once on Sundays, even though Corry did not improve. It was also Mary, not John, who missed church to look after their son Henry when he was ill in August 1797.

Russell, John, 1745-1806; Mary Phoebe Spencer Nelson Taylor and Daughters (1776-1847)
The other portrait: John Russell, ‘Mary Phoebe Spencer Nelson Taylor and Daughters (1776-1847)’; Merchant Adventurers’ Hall; (CC BY-NC-ND)

Similarly, the difficulties of combining worship with the care of his four-year-old son William only crop up in the letters of York solicitor Jonathan Gray whilst his wife Mary was away; incidentally her absence was because her care labour was needed elsewhere to attend a difficult family birth. In 1810 Jonathan tried to leave William with his own mother’s servants, but when Mrs Gray senior objected, Jonathan ‘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 restricted Jonathan’s choice of church, but it is notable that Jonathan first tried to leave his son with a servant rather than take him to church himself.


Historians have argued that there was a growing idealisation of the tender and physically present father in this period, particularly influenced by evangelical emphasis on the home as the site and support of religious instruction and moral virtue. This may have been true in the abstract, but in practice men found it easier to delegate childcare to others rather than allow it to impede on time for their personal worship, except in the most extreme circumstances of maternal absence or fatal illness. Frustratingly, most of the evidence of comes from the diaries and letters of fathers. It is impossible to quantify with any accuracy the extent to which Mary Courtney missed church during the childhoods of her eight surviving children because she appears only intermittently in her husband’s diary, and did not keep one herself: perhaps she did not have the time.


Divisions of parental labour suggested that fathers were more likely to take on responsibility for religious instruction and discipline, than for the nuts and bolts of physical care. These former duties were more easily balanced with the schedule of public and domestic worship. As John Courtney took responsibility for his son’s spiritual education, so did the father of Faith Gray, née Hopwood, an Anglican hatter from York. In her ‘Recollections from F. Gray’s infancy’, Faith recorded that ‘My Mother at that time was so much engaged with the nursing of the young ones, with business and Family cares, that her attention was chiefly directed to external matters, and we were more particularly left to my Father in other respects’. These respects were reading to the children, testing their catechism and taking them to church, activities that were finite and regular in the time they took up. Faith judged that her mother was ‘too much occupied with the cares of the World, and indifferent to those of the Soul’, and stated that she only discovered religion in 1778, the year her son William died, but also perhaps not coincidentally a point when her children had left home and her domestic duties eased. It was only now that Mrs Hopwood had time for daily Bible study, which Faith depicts as integral to her mother’s growing religiosity.


Mrs Hopwood was not unique out of Faith’s relations. Faith recalled on the death of her kinswoman Lady Anderson of York, in 1801, that it was only later in life, following her daughter’s marriage, that ‘she had a growing relish for religious reading’, held family worship twice daily, and volunteered as a visitor to the York spinning school, Grey-coat school and Friendly Society. Prior to this, she had been engaged in raising a highly accomplished daughter, introducing her ‘into every fashionable circle’ and holding ‘Morning Concerts’ for her to exhibit her musical skills. In reading these accounts, it is difficult not to think that Mrs Hopwood and her peers may have wanted to be more involved in religious practice earlier in their lives, but that they were limited by the gendered expectation that their time be spent on more hands-on or worldly aspects of parenthood.



Linda Oja, ‘Childcare and Gender in Sweden, c. 1600-1800’, Gender & History 27.1 (2015)

John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (New Haven, 2007, second edition)

Hull History Centre: U DDX/60/3, Diary of John Courtney, vol. 3.

York Explore Libraries and Archives: GRF/5/1, Diary of Faith Gray, 1764-1810,

York Explore Libraries and Archives: GRF/4/3/J/26, Jonathan Gray to Mary Gray, 7 June 1810.

Night Watching: Faith in the Hours of Darkness

by Kate Gibson


The darkness of the night has been seen in many cultures in the past as a time of danger and vulnerability to both worldly and supernatural evils. Historian Sasha Handley has shown that people in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England evoked the protection of religious faith to ensure both comfort and safety during the night. This ‘spiritual consolation’ was achieved by reading devotional texts, looking at religious images or praying at bedtime. Craig Koslofsky similarly argues that the night was seen as a time when the supernatural and natural worlds could overlap. This could make you vulnerable to evil, but could also be seen as a time of transcendence and interiority, that allowed you to get closer to God. The night could also, therefore, be a productive time for worship.

In these histories, the eighteenth century is often seen as a period of transition in attitudes towards the night. Sleep was increasingly understood as a physiological phenomenon, related to nerves and brain function rather than supernatural or divine intervention. The night also began to lose some of its mystery. By 1750 the rise of urban public street lighting and the expansion of evening leisure activities meant, according to Koslofsky, that the night had been successfully ‘colonized’. In towns, the night became social rather than solitary. The general picture, therefore, is that urbanisation after 1650 contributed to the secularisation and disenchantment of the night; no longer a time for supernatural intervention or solitary prayer, but as a time for coffee house debates, theatre and assemblies. Evidence from our project suggests that this transformation was much slower than existing histories suggest, and that the urban night remained a time for faith.

Salmon, Robert W., 1775-1851; Liverpool Town Hall Illuminated, 1806
The bright urban night: Robert W. Salmon, ‘Liverpool Town Hall Illuminated, 1806’, Walker Art Gallery (CC BY-NC)

Individuals continued to view the night as a time of watchfulness and an opportunity for prayer. In the 1830s, when in his eighties, retired solicitor and Anglican William Gray found it difficult to concentrate on his prayers in the middle of the aches and pains of age. But, he held out hope for ‘Some improvement… of collectedness for devotional purposes in the night watches’. The night was a time free from distraction. This aspect of darkness took on on extra significance in periods of illness or death. Teenage Quaker William Bernard Ogden was particularly affected by the death of his younger brother Charles in 1823, noting that his failing breathing, in ‘the solemn stillness of the night, could be heard all over the house.’ The entire family kept watch over Charles, who died at half past two in the morning with his relatives ‘assembled round his bed’ to witness ‘an affecting and awful spectacle; the hand of the Almighty visibly operating on a human being’.

In 1826, the family of thirteen-year-old Lucy Hey told her that she was dying in order to give her time to prepare her soul: preparations such as prayer and meditation which often took place at night. This was partly associated with wakefulness. Lucy often woke at night – probably due to anxiety – and seems to have employed religious practice as a way to soothe her mind. In November 1826 her father noted that she had been memorising parts of ‘her Bible & hymn book… that she may think of them when she lies awake in the night’. Lucy employed devotional texts specifically intended to provide comfort at night. She memorised Bishop Thomas Ken’s ‘Midnight Hymn’, saying it would be ‘comforting to her as she passed so many sleepless nights’. Bishop Ken offered his hymn as ‘excellent Matter for your Thoughts to feed on and banish ‘idle and unclean Thoughts, which will [at night] be apt to crowd into your Mind’. Although the hymn was first published in 1697, it was republished throughout the eighteenth century and continued to have resonance for a teenage girl in the 1820s.

The night remained a time to commune with supernatural forces. The dying Lucy Hey, in response to her father’s observation that in heaven she would be reunited with her dead mother, replied “ I have often thought that perhaps she watches abt my bed at night”. In 1822 Anglican Newcastle printer John Hodgson was woken in the middle of the night by ‘an extraordinary noise… – something like the ticking of a large clock – but slower’. He later found out that his mother had died at this time, and viewed the episode as a portent of her death. He considered himself ‘not naturally superstitious’, but found it ‘soothing… There is nothing unnatural in supposing that something remarkable should happen when extraordinary people leave this world of woe.’ In 1799 Sheffield Catholic and cutler William Dunn was struck by the intense religiosity of a woman he met at a party. In order to convince him of her abilities, she persuaded him that ‘she has things revealed to her in the Night, has often seen Jesus Christ & other spiritual beings & has shook hands with them’. Darkness was accepted as a period of movement between the spiritual and earthly worlds, and made supernatural experiences seem plausible.

By the nineteenth century, the night continued to be seen as an opportunity for closeness with the supernatural and divine, even in urban areas. The solitariness of the night could be frightening, but it was also free from the hustle and bustle of daylight hours, and therefore an opportunity for introspection and prayer. The sensory environment of the night was helpful to piety: quiet and stillness allowed one to focus on the divine, and events of spiritual significance, such as death, acquired extra resonance. As daily life in the town became noisier and busier, the quiet of the night may have become even more valuable. There were some changes. Individuals in the later eighteenth century did not worry that night time was a period of vulnerability to evil or demonic forces such as witchcraft, which Koslofsky found in sixteenth and seventeenth-century accounts. The main peril of night-time wakefulness was emotional vulnerability: individuals experienced anxious or distressing thoughts and employed faith as a means of comfort.


Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (Manchester, 2016)

Craig Koslofsky, Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early-Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2011)

British Library: Add. MS 50240, vol.1, f. 148r, John Hodgson to Thomas Hodgson, 29 Oct 1822

Sheffield City Archives: MD1738/43, William Dunn to his wife, 5 May 1799

Durham County Record Office: Diary of William Bernard Ogden, D/X 782/4, vol 4, Sept 1817- August 1823

York Explore Libraries and Archives: GRF/5/4, Journal of William Gray, 1836-41

York Explore Libraries and Archives: GRF/7/4, Account of the death of Lucy Gray Hey by Samuel Hey, 1826

York Explore Libraries and Archives: HEY/1/10, Rev. Samuel Hey to William Hey in  2 November 1826

Thomas Ken,  A Manual of Prayers for the Use of Scholars of Winchester College, and all other Devout Christians. To which are added three Hymns: For Morning, Evening and Midnight (27th edition, London, 1748)



Are you sitting comfortably (in church)?

by Kate Gibson

The experience of public worship was not only regulated by the quality of the preacher or preference for a particular doctrine. The physical and sensory experience of sitting in church was also considered important by eighteenth-century individuals. This changed over the century as the town around the church or chapel grew noisier and busier, and as some congregations focused on providing new, extended or improved buildings for their worship.


Temperature was a particular issue. Places of worship could be cold and draughty in winter, and, if full, unpleasantly hot and stuffy in the summer. On one ‘very hot and faint’ June day in 1786, congregational minister George Lambert resorted to having ‘The doors and windows of the meeting all open.’ This was an unsatisfactory solution, as, forced to compete with the street noise of central Hull, he struggled to make himself heard. As the century wore on, congregations could take advantage of more high-tech solutions. Warrington steel manufacturer Peter Stubs complained to his sister, a foundry owner, on 1 January 1816 that ‘The weather is very severe & our Church… is very cold & warmed by 2 stoves at a great expence.’ He asked for her opinion on ‘warming [a] Church by steam’ and wished to be informed of ‘The Principles by which it is done’ and the cost of this new technology. Some twenty years before, the subscribers of Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel in Leeds resolved to enquire into the practicality of heating ‘by the means of flues under the east and west aisles’. After debating ‘the propriety of warming the chapel’, they resolved ‘that such a measure was highly desireable & would very much conduce to the comfort of the place’.

Turner, church interior
Candles were often smoky and could produce an ineffective, flickering light. J.M.W. Turner, ‘Interior of a Church’ (1819), © Trustees of the British Museum, 1870,0514.375


Being able to see and hear was also a matter of priority. In 1823, cloth manufacturer Thomas Brancker settled on buying a pew in St Paul’s Church, the centrepiece of the newly built Park Square, but only ‘until we can meet with a better’ as ‘it is too far from the pulpit, we with difficulty hear.’ Although this pew was not perfect, he and his wife ‘made our seat more comfortable having today got into it Cushions’. Physician’s apprentice Thomas Giordani Wright went so far as to write a letter to the Tyne Mercury in April 1829, on the merits of various shades fitted to gas lamps. He had often felt, he wrote, ‘during an evening service at any of the churches of chapels, or a lecture at the Literary & Philosophical Institution… considerably annoyed by the unobscured lamps which blaze on each side of the lecturer. It is always desirable that the eye should rest on the features of the speaker while listening attentively to his discourse, and I am sure many must have felt the inconvenience of these burners glaring directly in their way of vision’.


How can we explain this desire to be comfortable? Many pious individuals valued an emotional engagement with religion, and therefore wanted unimpeded contact between themselves and a religious leader, alongside a communal experience of hearing, seeing and feeling. Discomfort could be distracting, and prevent you from focusing your thoughts on God. Improvements to the environment of worship were also just part of a raft of new technologies of heating, ventilation and lighting installed in urban public buildings like theatres and libraries: churches were civic spaces like any other. Once these technologies were available, physical comfort began to be seen as a right rather than a privilege. Finally, as historians Emily Cockayne and Marie Odile-Bernez suggest, a desire for comfort was also about demonstrating status and virtue. Campaigns for clean, well-lit and quiet towns by middling residents reflected their desire for respectability and order. The ability to be comfortable was associated with virtuous moderation (as opposed to sinful luxury), and the technologies required to achieve it were proof of industrial growth and innovation. A warm, well-ventilated place of worship was a source of pride that signalled the prosperity, virtue and piety of its congregants. There was a downside to being too comfortable – the danger of falling asleep – but that is an issue for another blog.



John Markham (ed.), The Pastor of Fish Street: the Journals of the Rev. George Lambert, Congregational Minister (East Yorkshire Local History Society, 2008), p. 81.

Manchester Archives: L24/5/Box 3, Peter Stubs to Sarah Whitley, 1 January 1816.

West Yorkshire Archive Service, Leeds: WYL1386, Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel, Leeds, pp. 25-6.

West Yorkshire Archive Service, Leeds: WYL/1963/1, Diary of Thomas Brancker, vol 1, 7 September 1823.

Alastair Johnson (ed.), The Diary of Thomas Giordani Wright, Newcastle Doctor, 1826-1829 (Woodbridge, 2001), pp. 311-2

Emily Cockayne, Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770 (New Haven, 2007)

John E. Crowley, ‘The Sensibility of Comfort’, The American Historical Review 104.3 (1999), pp. 749-82

Marie Odile-Bernez, ‘Comfort, the Acceptable Face of Luxury: An Eighteenth-Century Cultural Etymology’, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 14. 2 (2014), pp. 3-21


Industry and Idleness

by Kate Gibson

In William Hogarth’s print series Industry and Idleness (1747), industry and piety are closely aligned. In plates 2 and 3, the industrious apprentice Francis Goodchild is depicted at church, whilst Tom Idle plays in the church yard. Each print in the series was accompanied with a pertinent bible verse, including Proverbs Ch: 10 Ver:4, ‘The hand of the diligent maketh rich’. Unsurprisingly, Francis Goodchild ends up as a wealthy Lord Mayor of London whilst Tom Idle sinks into a life of crime that ends on the scaffold. By showing the apprentices’ opposing relationships with religion right at the beginning of the series, Hogarth emphasised a commonplace within the print culture of eighteenth-century England: that God would reward the diligent, and that the virtues of being a good tradesman or woman correlated with the characteristics of a good Christian.

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The value of hard work was frequently explained within a Christian moral framework. According to nonconformist minister Richard Steele, work was a divine command as ‘the obligation to labour six days, is expressed in as general terms, and is bound upon us by the same authority, as the religious observation of the seventh’. To be idle was to fail to be useful to society, and therefore to frustrate God’s plan in putting one on the earth. These ideas were not only published in print, but also appear in contemporary diaries and correspondence. Rebecca Hey, the daughter of a Leeds surgeon advised her young nephew William to work hard at a new school and ‘seek God’s blessing in entering on this new Situation’. Then, she continued ‘the happy result will follow, namely that of becoming a blessing to others, and when … we enter on Eternity, what a comfort it will be to have been of any use in our day & generation, and if our Services have been done in humility & from a desire to please God, they will doubtless be mercifully regarded’. Hard work was a religious duty, as well as a means to make a living and support one’s family.


Hard work was only one component in the route to success; you could only get so far without God’s providential blessing. The belief that God would reward the virtuous and punish the sinful through the success or failure of business was widespread across denominations and occupations. Anglican William Hey, who became one of the most celebrated surgeons in Leeds, recommended a mixture of worldly prudence and trust in providence when he advised his nephew William Sharp to move to Manchester as ‘I know no place where medical men are so well paid… In all our prospects for future life, we should beg of God to direct & prosper us. Without his blessing we labour in vain: or our success may hurt us’. Manchester grocer and sometime Unitarian George Heywood firmly considered providence as the reward for his own industry. He believed that providence had ‘placed us in this situation’ and ‘endowed us with abilities’, but that its effect was only to ‘crown all our labours with that success which we have always endeavor’d to deserve’.

Here, Heywood was expressing a mainstream view echoed in several manuals and conduct books. The anonymous author of The Remembrancer: Addressed to Young Men in Business. Shewing How they may attain the Way to be Rich and Respectable (London, 1793) advised that ‘He that gets all he can, and saves all he gets… will certainly become rich; if that Being, who governs the world, to whom all should look for a blessing on their honest endeavours, does not, in his wise providence, otherwise determine’. After emphasising the importance of virtue, nonconformist clergyman and conduct book writer Richard Steele added the caveat that ‘It is not supposed, that our wisdom and prudence can controul the events of divine providence… But it… is the means which the great Governor of the world uses to bestow prosperity and happiness… God will not carry us to heaven like stones, without any sense or motion of our own’.

Screenshot 2020-05-13 at 21.17.04
Anon, The Remembrancer (London, 1793), Eighteenth Century Collections Online

Piety was entirely compatible with ambition, hard work and shrewd business sense. The belief that God would only reward those who worked hard made faith inseparable from outwardly secular values of prudence, good account keeping and an aptitude for making a profit. Religious belief evolved alongside the expansion of commerce and industry in this period; it was not in opposition to it.


Richard Steele, The Religious Tradesman; or Plain and Serious Hints of Advice for the Tradesman’s Prudent and Pious Conduct (London, 1776), ECCO

York Explore: HEY/7/1, Rebecca Hey to William Hey, 8 May 1828

Leeds University Special Collections: MS 1991/1/6/2, William Hey to his nephew William Sharp, 8 February 1792

John Rylands Library, Manchester: ENG MS 703, Diary of George Heywood.

Anon, The Remembrancer: Addressed to Young Men in Business. Shewing How they may attain the Way to be Rich and Respectable (London, 1793), ECCO


Faith and the Factory

by Kate Gibson

Historians now generally agree that religious practice was not confined to the church or chapel. Work by researchers like Alexandra Walsham, Lauren Winner, Tara Hamling and Sasha Handley shows that much religious practice – like prayer, reading or singing – took place in the home. However, much less is known about the potential religious activity that took place at work, particularly as the growth of factories in the early nineteenth century led to more people working in larger workplaces outside the home.

Evidence from the diaries written by ordinary people in towns like Manchester and Sheffield suggest that for many, being at work was an opportunity to practise their faith. In 1815, sixteen-year-old Mary Slack, a throstle spinner from Manchester, told her Sunday school teacher that she found it difficult to attend weekday prayer meetings, but that ‘she has a little Bible which she frequently reads at her work.’ Another Sunday school pupil, Elizabeth Taggart, was a spinner working at McConnel’s, one of the largest textile factories in Manchester. She had been told off by the overlooker for singing songs while she worked, ‘but yet when I began to sing hymns, which I did very often, he never once stopped me and indeed we might all have sung hymns if we would’. Accounts often mention that individuals were converted or led to religion whilst at work. In the 1810s Nancy Clowes, a needleworker in a Stockport factory, was put to work in a room ‘with two young women who feared God. These frequently reasoned with their fellow-servants on the importance of religion, and the necessity there was for them to repent, and know that their sins were forgiven, by faith in Jesus Christ. Nancy was much affected by their conversation, and would often weep’. This led to her accompanying them to singing and prayer meetings, followed by her conversion to Methodism. For those who did not have time to attend prayer meetings or whose parents were hostile to their faith – as was the case with many of the pupils at the Manchester Sunday schools – work outside the household could be the only opportunity for religious reflection.

A throstle spinning frame (c. 1835), CC 3.0, Bestbudbrian, Wikimedia Commons

The pious were encouraged to keep faith in mind at all times, but especially at work. Tasks that were boring or repetitive could encourage your mind to wander towards sinful or worldly thoughts, and interactions with annoying customers or colleagues could tempt you towards anger or impatience. One diarist in the 1780s, a Methodist who ran a shop near Sheffield, was particularly worried about speaking sharply to his employees. On one occasion he feared ‘I was very near being Angry in the Shop this day at Something that was done rong,’ and on another ‘I had Some Severe temptations in the Shop this Morning was Obligd to Exert my Authority and gave way to Anger’. He saw this as a failure of his virtue and faith, and when it happened again prayed ‘before the Lord and I was much more Composed and began the Business with more ease than I expectd’. He perceived religion as a tool to help him to cope with the trials of the workplace, as well as giving him a behavioural model of a virtuous and pious employer. The dangers and potential opportunities for the faithful whilst at work were summed up by seventeen-year-old Ebenezer Smith. A Protestant Independent and son of a Sheffield cutler, Ebenezer’s 1802 diary is the exercise of a young man trying to be pious and industrious and often failing. He dutifully copied down the following guidance he was given during family worship:

‘Whenever we are so employed as not to require the exercise of the mental faculties, then to have some scripture text, promise or doctrine to engage the mind & thus lead it to obtaining some real Profit, remembering that it is so continually active that unless we find some proper subject to engage its attention, it will find some improper one for itself, or rather Satan’

If, as many Protestant dissenters did, you believed that God was present in every aspect of life, then work was no exception. For many, work and business were not just distractions from a pious life, but could actually be opportunities to deepen and prove your faith.



John Doran, Charlotte Methuen and Alexandra Walsham (eds), Religion and the Household (Woodbridge, 2014)

Tara Hamling, Decorating the ‘Godly’ Household: Religious Art in Post-Reformation Britain (New Haven, 2010)

Sasha Handley, ‘From the Sacral to the Moral: Sleeping Practices, Household Worship and Confessional Cultures in Late Seventeenth-Century England’, Cultural and Social History 9.1 (2012), pp. 27-46

Lauren F. Winner, A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia (New Haven, 2010)

Manchester Archives: M103/18/6/1-2 – Diary of Benjamin Braidley

Extracts from the Memoir Book of the Stockport Sunday School (Manchester: J. Cleave, 1811)

Sheffield Archives: MD5716/18/1, diary of an unknown Methodist

Sheffield Archives: MD1874, diary of Ebenezer Smith

How the maid prayed: servants and religion in the town

by Kate Gibson

The growth of towns as centres of manufacturing and industry, or of fashionable sociability and consumption, was sustained by a small army of servants and apprentices. But how was the experience of religion shaped by the economic and social status of being in service?

The inclusion of servants in family prayer and the spiritual responsibility and authority of masters in loco parentis is well known, but historians have generally not considered that being in service could interrupt patterns of worship. Conduct manuals for servants agreed that their time was a commodity that belonged to their employer, and instructed good servants to conform to the household timetable, including, presumably, time for worship. But, when middling families paraded to church on a Sunday, whose labour ensured that the Sunday dinner was cooked or small children cared for in their parents’ absence? Eliza Heywood, in her manual A Present for a Servant-Maid (London, 1743), stated in her advice to servants on avoiding theft that ‘On Sundays, in the Time of Divine Service, when the Family are at Church, it is very dangerous to open the Door to any one that knocks.’ This guidance took for granted that servants would be left behind so the rest of the family could attend worship. Heywood also specified that ‘In all well-governed Families a Maid-Servant has the Liberty every Sunday, or every other Sunday at least, in the Afternoon, of going to Church’. This suggests that morning domestic duties were more pressing, and did not address the issue of what maids were supposed to do if they lived in a parish with only one daily service.

Screenshot 2020-02-07 at 10.31.41
Eliza Heywood, A Present for a Servant-Maid (London, 1743) (ECCO)

Although conduct manuals were clear that masters had a duty to ensure that their servants and apprentices attended public worship on Sundays, there was also implicit recognition that this was practically difficult. Richard Mayo exhorted servants to ‘Meddle with no worldly Business on this holy Day, but what is of Necessity’. The anonymously-authored Complete Man and Maid Servant (London, [1764]) instructed housemaids to ‘frequent the public worship of God as often as she has an opportunity’, and Bishop of London Edmund Gibson included in family prayer all those members of the household who could ‘conveniently’ be present. The caveats of ‘necessity’, ‘opportunity’ or ‘conveniently’ were subjective and not specified. Necessary tasks could presumably include childcare, cooking or nursing the sick, but also any task deemed such by the master or mistress. In recognition that servants’ time was circumscribed and that they were in need of specialised religious guidance, some ministers published guides for servants including shorter form prayers to be said on waking and sleeping, to compensate for non-attendance at church or longer family prayer.

Some employers were fully aware of their duty to support their servants’ faith, and the most pious do appear to have prioritised servants’ attendance at public worship above their domestic duties. On one Sunday in June 1810, Anglican York solicitor William Gray had wanted his four-year-old son William ‘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’. When staying with her married sister in Nottingham, Independent dissenter Catherine Read was needed for childcare: her sister and brother-in-law ‘having gone to chapel… I am staying to allow all the servants excepting one to be there also.’ Servants’ customary time off also often coincided with religious festivals. In April 1830 Elizabeth Barmby of Scarborough wrote to her aunt in Keighley that ‘This is Easter Monday & as our servant is gone to spend her holiday with an aunt I must go & prepare my Mother’s dinner’.

Morland, Henry Robert, c.1716-1797; A Lady's Maid Soaping Linen
Henry Robert Morland,  A Lady’s Maid Soaping Linen (c. 1765-1782), Tate (CC BY-NC-ND)

There were however, conflicts between allowing servants’ sufficient public worship and keeping the household running. Thomas Eyre, the priest in charge of the Catholic mission in the North East, was called on to give advice to on Catholics working on religious holidays. His correspondent, priest George Hay, worried that ‘Servants & apprentices in Protestant families cannot avoid it’ and referred to the difficulty of persuading his congregation ‘of the greatness of their obligation to keep these days’. In the 1780s, pious Quaker Esther Tuke tried to change the times of the York meeting, a contentious issue that ‘cost me many Hours sleep’. She argued for a greater gap between the morning and evening meetings, not only to combat the ‘heaviness’ and drowsiness of a meeting so soon after a midday meal, but also to prevent them leaving ‘Servants to stay Home & Cook’, and instead be ‘induced to leave none at home but where necessity required their Indisposition or little Children’. Having servants for cooking, cleaning and childcare was a privilege that allowed middling women, such as Esther Tuke, the freedom to attend public worship and to sit on governing and charitable committees such as the Quaker women’s meeting. As Anglican Margaret Gray found when she married and moved into a smaller household ‘looking so far after house matters as with one poorish Servant… has prevented my being able to attend so much as I ought at the Sunday School.’ The growth of female involvement in religious philanthropy is well documented, but what is less often noted is that this agency required the religious choices of their servants to be restricted in turn.


Eliza Heywood, A Present for a Servant-Maid (London, 1743)

[Richard Mayo], A Present for Servants, from their Ministers, Masters, or Other Friends (London, 1787), 10th edn, original 1693.

Anon, The Complete Man and Maid Servant (London, [1764])

Edmund Gibson, Family Devotion: or, An exhortation to morning and evening prayer in Families (London, 1758), 24th edn (original 1745)

Thomas Broughton, Serious Advice and Warning to Servants, More Especially Those of the Nobility and Gentry (London, 1763), 4th edn

Sheffield Archives: MD5690/5, Catherine Read in Radford to her sister at Wincobank in Sheffield, 22 Sept 1831

Leeds University Library Special Collections: BUS/Marriner/6/Box 34, Elizabeth Barmby in Scarborough, to her aunt Clarissa Spencer in Keighley, 13 April 1830

Durham University Special Collections (Ushaw College Library): UC/P13/2/104, George Hay of Edinburgh to Thomas Eyre in Crook Hall, Gateshead, 5 Dec 1798

York Explore Libraries and Archives: GRF/4/4/3/2, Margaret Hey in Ockbrook to Miss Ewbank in Market Weighton, 5 December 1810


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