Piety and Punctuality

by Kate Gibson

Historians have expended considerable energy in working out the extent to which people in the past had ‘time awareness’. This term includes the desire to keep track of time, to control it or to attach value to it. In general, historians agree that by the late eighteenth century, most people in Western Europe were ‘time aware’: they were telling the time using clocks as well as social or natural cues like daylight, and a greater emphasis was placed on time-discipline, defined by historians Glennie and Thrift as ‘standardization, regularity and coordination’. And, although there is some disagreement on the extent and exact timing (no pun intended) of this spread of time awareness, most historians have argued that it was driven by the demands of industry, business and urban life. The greater availability of public clocks on civic buildings, a desire for regularity and standardisation among merchants, coordinated labour in large workplaces like factories and coordinated urban communications like coach travel, all fostered this awareness of time.

The availability of public clocks in urban areas. Unknown artist; View of the Bottom of Crown Street; Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council;

This emphasis on economic drivers for time awareness, though, tends to overlook the intense importance of time to Christian theology and practice before 1700. Several historians of the early modern period have pointed out the importance of time in structuring rhythms of worship, of correct time-use as a religious obligation, and of a belief in mortality and salvation as central to perceptions of the passage of time. As historian Matthew Champion points out, the period before 1700 is therefore seen as ‘troublingly religious’ and the story of time awareness as one ‘where precise mercantile practices effaced the older, vague ecclesiastical rhythms of time.’ A trajectory in which an intensely religious early modern mindset simply gave way to secular, urban and commercial modes of thinking about time, seems improbable. The evidence of ordinary people living in the industrialising, urbanising towns of Northern England described in this project suggests that strong time awareness was entirely compatible with faith, and that religion provided an important motivation for keeping track of time.

In our sources, ordinary people overwhelmingly understood time as something finite: a gift from God that must be used wisely under the ever-present shadow of mortality. Young Independent Ebenezer Smith’s diligent record keeping of his daily prayer in his diary was motivated by the thought of ‘how soon or how suddenly I may be called to appear before God & then how awful would be my condition were I not prepared!’ When in his twenties, Anglican solicitor William Gray became obsessed with the idea that ‘more than a third part of my Days allotted to be spent on this Side the Grave were already flown over, and … instead of considering this short Journey through Life, as a Passage to Eternity, I found I had acted with the same Indifference and spent my Time in as much self Security, as though I had been to live here for ever’. As time was so precious, any moment of it not spent in worship or religious contemplation was a potential waste for the faithful. This was a lesson taught to children early. Sheffield nonconformist Emily Read advised her younger brother to ‘think of the sinfulness in the sight of God, of wasting your time’ and reminded him that he would be called ‘to give a strict account for all your minutes’ before God on the day of judgement.

As the desire to use time profitably was so central to these concepts of faith, time-discipline was presented as a practical means to improve one’s piety. Young people in particular developed ways of measuring and evaluating their time use. Seventeen-year-old evangelical Anglican Margaret Gray produced a ‘Plan for the employment of time’, with allotted tasks copied into a table in her diary. On Monday, for example, her day began with ‘Prayers a quarter before eight. Breakfast at a quarter past eight’, before hours of reading, meditation and music. Sheffield razor-maker and Methodist Henry Longden was similarly encouraged by his mother ‘to keep a diary, in which I wrote a faithful register of every hour’. He ‘determined to divide each day into certain portions’, of prayer, reading and worldly tasks of business, so ‘that one positive duty might not interfere with another’.

The timetable used by 17 year old Margaret Gray in the 1820s, YELA: GRF/8/2

These individuals all had a highly developed sense of time and an intense desire to practice time-discipline. However, this was not primarily motivated by their working or social lives in the eighteenth-century town, but by their understanding of their faith. The motivation was not economic efficiency, but salvation. To waste time was a sin, to be punctual was a religious duty, and the management of time was a tool to increase piety, with all understandings of time ultimately derived from a sense of mortality and impending divine judgement. Belief continued to have a significant influence on concepts and practices of time past 1700. It was not replaced by secular, economic motivations, but rather continued and coexisted with them well into the nineteenth century.


Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift, Shaping the Day: A History of Timekeeping in England and Wales, 1300-1800 (Oxford, 2009)

Matthew S. Champion, The Fullness of Time: Temporalities of the Fifteenth-Century Low Countries (Chicago, 2017)

Sheffield City Archives: MD1874, Diary of Ebenezer Smith, pp. 2, 18, 31 Oct. 1801, 10. Jan 1802.

York Explore Libraries and Archives: GRF/4/1/W/1, William Gray II to William Gray I, 25 October 1773.

Sheffield City Archives: MD5690/7, Emily Read to Edmund Read, 6 June [1831].

York Explore Libraries and Archives: GRF/8/2, ‘Some Account of the Personal Religion of Margaret Gray’, 1826, pp. 82-3.

Henry Longden, The Life of Mr Henry Longden, (late of Sheffield), Compiled from his own Memoirs, from his Diary, and his Letters (Liverpool, 1813), pp. 8-9, 44.

Further Reading

Gerrit Verhoeven, ‘Clockwise? Timekeeping in London in the Long Eighteenth Century (1724-1825)’, Cultural and Social History (2020, online only),

Mark Hailwood, ‘Time and Work in Rural England, 1500-1700’, Past and Present 248 (2020)

E.P. Thompson, ‘Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism’, Past & Present 38 (1967),

Anne L. Murphy, ‘Clock-Watching: Work and Working Time and the Late Eighteenth-Century Bank of England’, Past & Present 236.1 (2017)

Jacques Le Goff, Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago, 1980)

Mark Harrison, ‘The Ordering of the Urban Environment: Time, Work and the Occurrence of Crowds, 1790-1835’, Past & Present, 110 (1986)

Anu Korhonen, ‘”the several hours of the day had variety of employments assigned to them”: Women’s Timekeeping in Early Modern England’, Journal of Early Modern Studies 6 (2017)

Food and Faith, part 2

by Kate Gibson and Hannah Barker

Last month we looked at the relationship between food and faith, and the ways in which ordinary people used the rhythms of fasting and feasting as part of their religious practice. This time, we’re focusing on religious practices that took place at mealtimes, including prayer or the use of material objects that had a dual practical and spiritual meaning.

Historians of religion and material culture have demonstrated that objects bearing pious inscriptions and images were common in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century households. We now know that these objects could act as reminders of faith, and create religious meaning in domestic spaces. The use of plates with religious imagery, for example, could mean that the dinner table could be seen as a site of both nutritional and spiritual food. This connection was underlined by the authors of religious manuals, such as Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-91), who advised that readers should ‘Exalt godliness in thy family’ through the regular practice of family prayer and reading. ‘Canst thou get all thy family together twice a day to set meals for their bodies, and canst not thou get them together twice a day for set meals (family duties) for their souls?’ he implored, urging readers to ‘Let Religion be in your families, not as a matter by the bye, to be minded at leisure, when the world will give you leave, but the standing business of the house: let them have your prayers as duly as their meals’. By rhetorically associating spiritual duties with meals, Baxter and his contemporaries emphasised the necessity of regular domestic religious practice. Spiritual nourishment was as vital as physical sustenance, and both should be central to the daily life of the household. Baxter’s message was repackaged and republished throughout the eighteenth century as An Address to the Heads of Families on the Necessity of Family Religion, with editions in Sunderland in 1794 and Leeds in 1797.

The findings of our project suggest that the association of the paraphernalia of eating and drinking with religious faith did not diminish as urbanisation and industrialisation gathered pace. The galleries and museums of Northern England are full of similar items dating from the period 1740-1830, which seem likely to have served a similar purpose: of reminding their users of their spiritual duties and underlining the connection between their faith and daily domestic routines. One tea pot, now kept in Stoke-on-Trent Museum, was dedicated to ‘Jonathan & Betty Wood, 1798’ and probably given as a wedding gift. On the reverse side, it carries the motto: ‘Whether ye eat or drink,/ or whatsoever ye do,/ do all to the Glory of God.’ Users of these objects would ideally be reminded that food and drink were divine gifts and proofs of God’s providence, which should be consumed with an appropriate sense of thankfulness.

One other creamware teapot, produced in the early nineteenth century by the Leeds pottery of Hartley Greens and Co. bears two blessings that might have been said or sung during mealtimes: ‘Be present at our Table Lord/Be here and everywhere ador’d/These creatures bless & grant that/May feast in Paradise with Thee’ appears on one side, and on the other: ‘We thank thee Lord for this our food/But more because of Jesus’s blood/Let manna to our Souls be given/The bread of Life sent down from Heaven’. These verses were written by John Cennick, a Methodist and later Moravian hymn writer and first published in 1740 in his Sacred Hymns, for the Children of God in the Days of their Pilgrimage.

Leeds Discovery Centre: E.2015.1.74, tea pot, 14 x 20.5 cm

Other objects focused more on the religious significance of mealtimes as times of sociability. A Wedgwood creamware teapot, shipped from Staffordshire and decorated with transfer printing by Guy Green of Liverpool between 1770 and 1780, combined an inspiring portrait of John Wesley, with a verse taken from Philippians 1:27: ‘Let your Conversation be as becometh the Gospel of Christ’. Although mottos such as these perhaps reflected the danger that conversation could easily turn to non-religious themes and that partakers would need reminding to return to pious subjects, they also suggest that the sociability of mealtimes could be a source of spiritual sustenance and support. The existence of such objects underlines the enduring faith of many ordinary people living in the towns of Northern England throughout the eighteenth century, as well as its integration into the rhythms and practices of everyday life.


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, pp. 210-39

Andrew Morrall, ‘Protestant pots: morality and social ritual in the early modern home’, Journal of Design History 15. 4 (2002), pp. 263-73.

[Richard Baxter], An Address to the Heads of Families on the Necessity of Family Religion (Leeds, 1797)

Stoke-on-Trent Museum: ceramics section, E11800, tea pot

Leeds Discovery Centre, Leeds.E.2015.1.74, early nineteenth-century Leedsware/creamware tea pot, 14 x 20.5 cm.

John Cennick, Sacred Hymns, For the Children of God in the Days of their Pilgrimage (London, 1741).

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool: creamware tea pot by Sadler and Green of Liverpool, c. 1770-1795.

Food and Faith, part 1

by Kate Gibson

Over the next two posts we’re going to be discussing the relationship between food and spiritual faith. Next time we’ll focus on the material culture of food and mealtimes, but this week we’re going to look at the ways in which the preparation and sharing of specific foods could express faith through rhythms of fasting and feasting throughout the calendar year.

Fasting and feasting have long been part of Christian devotional practice. Catholics envisaged practices such as fasting during Lent as a religious duty necessary for salvation, but even following the Reformation, food continued to be seen within a religious framework for Protestants, too. As Eleanor Barnett notes, seventeenth-century Protestants viewed fasting as a useful lesson in bodily abstinence and discipline. The sharing of food was a ‘spiritually rewarding activity’ and manifestation of religious community, particularly reflecting its association with the Eucharist.

Household manuals and cookery books suggest that food continued to be used to mark the fasts and feasts of the religious calendar in eighteenth-century England. Hannah Glasse’s bestseller The Art of Cookery (1747) included a recipe for ‘Plum-Porridge for Christmas’ and a ‘Yorkshire Christmas-Pye’, which Glasse envisaged could be ‘often sent to London in a Box as Presents’. As historian Sara Pennell argues, the most significant liturgical period for authors of culinary manuals was Lent. By far the biggest chapter in The Art of Cookery was the ‘Chapter for Lent’, which focused on dishes suitable ‘For a Fast-Dinner’ and therefore which did not contain meat. The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769), by Manchester confectioner Elizabeth Raffald, provided no particular recipes for Christmas, but included specific recipes such as ‘Pease Soup for Lent’ or a ‘Herby Pye for Lent’. John Thacker, cook to the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral, mentioned in his handbook of French recipes The Art of Cookery (1758) ‘some Dishes in Meagre for Lent and Fish Days’, referring to Fridays, alongside ‘Potage de Noël â faire’ and ‘a proper Standing Pye for Christmas’. Fasting appears only occasionally in the writings of ordinary people, suggesting either that it was not a common practice, or that diarists and letter-writers did not think that what they ate was worthy of note. Leeds manufacturer’s wife Elizabeth Gott, for example, bought herrings and oranges on Ash Wednesday 1811 in symbolic preparation for Lent.

There is far more evidence of feasting as a tool of sociability and religious fellowship, and as a way of marking particular festivals like Christmas and New Year. The association of specific foods with the festive season was widespread amongst Anglicans and Protestant non-conformists alike. In December 1812 Unitarian Hannah Hatfield, from a Manchester mill-owning family, wrote of her ‘bustleling day in preparing Mince Pies &c’. Joseph Robinson, the fourteen-year-old son of a Presbyterian cotton merchant from Manchester, recorded happily in a letter in 1766 that he spent ‘these Christmas holidays’ from the dissenting Warrington Academy at his uncle’s, ‘eating minced pies &c’. Notional Anglican Thomas Giordani Wright, was sent ‘a regular Christmas basket’ in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, by his parents, which in 1826 included ‘A Yule log, Yule candle, Yule cheese, Yule cake, Yule cordial and many other yule-ish appendages’. Yule candles and logs have been documented by historian Ronald Hutton across rural Tyneside and West Yorkshire, but in this case were transplanted to the town through Wright’s rural-urban migration. Particular foodstuffs accompanied festive socialising; Thomas accepted one invitation to spend Christmas Eve at a friend’s house ‘to sup… on Frumenty’, a kind of pudding particularly associated with Christmas, consisting of grain boiled in milk and often served with cinnamon or rum. Sunday schools also saw fasts and feasts as opportunities for communal piety and celebration. In the 1820s, the Congregational Hope Street Providence Chapel in Sheffield ‘set apart’ Good Friday ‘as a day of humiliation & prayer’, but organised a party with tea and buns for the children and teachers on Easter Monday. Food was provided by the landlady of the local Neptune Inn, for one shilling and sixpence per person.

George Cruikshank, ‘Kitchen Stuff’ from the series Comic Alphabet (1836), © The Trustees of the British Museum

It is difficult to work out the extent to which feasting and sociability were seen primarily as religious acts, or as secular customs. The two aspects may not have been considered separate, especially considering that rejoicing and sociability were considered to have theological functions. Hospitality and the sharing of food was associated with thankfulness and remembrance of God’s providence, and rejoicing at festivals marking events such as Christ’s birth was considered a religious duty. The fusing of religious and worldly motivations and practices should be seen as further evidence that faith was embedded in everyday life, rather than as proof of a creeping secularisation.


[Hannah Glasse], The Art of Cookery (London, 1747)

Elizabeth Raffald, The Experienced English Housekeeper (Manchester, 1769)

John Thacker, The Art of Cookery Containing Above Six Hundred and Fifty of the most approv’d Receipts heretofore published (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1758)

University of Leeds Special Collections: MS 194/3/8, Diary of Elizabeth Gott, 27 Feb. 1811

John Rylands Library: Eng MSS 1042/353, Hannah Hatfield to T. Nicholson, 18 Dec. 1812

Hull History Centre: C DFP/467, Joseph Robinson to Robert Pease, 9 Jan. 1766

The Diary of Thomas Giordani Wright, Newcastle Doctor, 1826-1829, ed. Alastair Johnson (Woodbridge, 2001), p. 137, 22 Dec. 1826.

Hull History Centre: C DCN/161, Hope Street Providence Congregational Chapel Sunday school minutes, meetings 7 Feb. 1826, 27 March 1827, 6 Feb. 1828, 1 April 1829.

Further Reading

Eleanor Barnett, ‘Reforming Food and Eating in Protestant England, c. 1560-1640’, The Historical Journal 63.3 (2020), pp. 507-27

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

Sara Pennell, The Birth of the English Kitchen, 1600-1850 (London, 2016)

Alec Ryrie, ‘The fall and rise of fasting in the British Reformations’, in Natalie Mears and Alec Ryrie (eds), Worship and the Parish Church in Early Modern Britain (Farnham, 2013)

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

Courtship, church and chapel

by Kate Gibson

As historian Sally Holloway has shown, faith was an important influence on individuals negotiating the emotional highs and lows of courtship. The bible provided models of loving couples, a language for understanding the commitments of love and marriage, and couples often spent considerable time and effort in debating religious opinions and working out their religious compatibility before tying the knot. This was the case in our evidence too; a previous blog post focused on Methodist Mary Parkin and Anglican John Wilson, a couple from Whitby whose letters before marriage reveal Mary’s concerns over John’s piety and his attempts to reassure her of his devotion and willingness to improve.

However, examining courtship can also provide significant evidence of the wider role of religious practice in people’s lives, particularly the importance of going to church as a social occasion, and Sundays as a day of sociability and leisure time. Religious space and religious time were opportunities for courtship as well as faith.

Courtship accounts show the significance of Sunday rituals of visiting and of places of worship as central meeting places. The suitor of Ann Prest (1748-), a currier’s daughter visiting York in the 1770s, regularly called on her to escort her to church, which was almost always followed by tea. Attending church together was perhaps a mark of attention and public attestation of their courtship, as well as precious time to walk alone or sit together. Anglican gentleman John Courtney used church as a courtship opportunity a number of times in York in the 1760s, by sitting in pews near women he admired or handing them into their coaches following the service. After pursuing the elusive Miss N- in this manner he finally ‘obtained leave to come on Sunday to drink tea’. It was after one Sunday visit that he was finally rebuffed: ‘This afternoon after Church went to Mrs G-s. Miss N- look’d something fluster’d’. A similar situation arose a few years later when he noted optimistically ‘I saw Miss Sally [Gorlton] at Church & she curtsy’d to me’, but the next Sunday her mother called to refuse him. For Courtney, church was a place where he could be sure to meet acquaintances again, engineer social contact as if by chance, and obtain an invitation to tea later that day. Courtney’s strategy was not unusual. Leeds merchant’s son Walter Spencer Stanhope (1750-1821) reportedly found a love poem written in a prayer book in which the author promised an assignation once worship was finished:

‘When at the church yard stairs you’ll stand

I’ll sure be in the way

In hopes that you’ll vouchsafe your hand

And ask me to drink tea’.

Anthony Devis, ‘A Courting Couple’ (1785-95), © The Trustees of the British Museum

The function of places of worship and of Sundays to young people’s social lives was not specific to Anglican churches, or middling or elite individuals living in centres of fashionable sociability such as York. In fact, Sundays had even greater significance for labouring people because it was for many their only day off, particularly for servants and apprentices who had very little agency over their time.

Key moments in the relationship between Manchester journeyman grocer George Heywood and his future wife, Methodist servant Betty Bowyer followed the rhythms of shared worship and post-chapel sociability, partly because this was a convenient time that both could be away from their work. In October 1814 he recorded that ‘B. Bowyer ask’d me to go with her to the new Chapel at Pendleton’, and when he took the important step of moving into his own lodgings the following July ‘I walked with B. Bowyer after Chapel time and told her what I had done.’ Sundays provided time alone for couples to discuss their future, and the timetable of public worship allowed lovers to opportunistically meet each other on the way to and from chapel. In October 1815, when he was thinking of suggesting marriage, Heywood ‘waited in Church St. to see B. Bowyer if she went to Chapel… after Chapel time we walked together I had a great wish to open my mind to her’. It was during Sunday tea after chapel that they met each other’s family. Significantly, they only began seeing each other before work on weekdays after they had agreed to marry, suggesting that Sundays were sanctioned as a time to get to know one another informally, without committing oneself or endangering one’s reputation. The spaces and times of worship were opportunities where young people could be sure of being released from labour and free to meet potential lovers. These examples indicate the importance of religious practice to the everyday life of people in this period, by providing a structure to the week and a communal sociable space. This community function remained even as the numbers and choices of churches and chapels multiplied in towns across the eighteenth century.


Sally Holloway, The Game of Love in Georgian England: Courtship, Emotions and Material Culture, (Oxford, 2019), pp. 22-7

Cadbury Research Library: MS52/4, Diary of Ann Prest, 10 November 1776.

Hull History Centre: U DDX/60/2, Diary of John Courtney, vol. 1, pp. 72-5; vol. 2, pp. 49, 111-2. 

WYAS, Bradford: SpSt/9/37, Memorial of Walter Spencer Stanhope, fol. 36v.

John Rylands Library: ENG MS 703, Diary of George Heywood, pp. 69, 88, 160, 162, 181-4.

Work time and worship time

by Kate Gibson

Working hours in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century England were long. Historians have calculated that the average working day was around 12 hours, a number broadly supported in our evidence from the diaries and letters of individuals living in industrialising Northern towns in this period. In Sunderland in the 1810s, Quaker and lawyer’s clerk William Bernard Ogden worked regularly from 9am to 8pm, with 90 minutes of breaks, whilst in the 1820s Sheffield stationer Robert Leader opened his shop at 8am and shut it at 9pm. Large workplaces which required synchronised working due to machinery – such as factories – worked 14 or 15 hours per day Monday to Friday, ending at 4pm on Saturdays. Historians have long suggested that disciplined working hours were crucial drivers of industrialisation, but with less consideration of how it affected other demands on workers’ time, such as opportunities to practise faith.

Contemporaries worried that long working hours would make the inhabitants of industrialising towns less receptive to faith. Witnesses testifying to an 1816 Parliamentary Select Committee on the State of Children Employed in Manufactories felt that children would be too tired after a week’s hard work to attend church or Sunday school, or more inclined to spend their Sundays playing outdoors. Thomas Whitelegg, a Manchester merchant, sympathised that ‘after being so long employed as they are, I do not think it any wonder that they play on Sundays’. Children were not the only concern. Other commentators worried that the working poor spent their Sundays doing domestic work, rather than attending church. Preston manufacturer John Swainson argued in favour of a reduction in the hours of cotton factories to make sure ‘that the poor should have sufficient time to go to market on Saturday’ and ‘an opportunity of cleaning their house upon a Saturday evening, without encroaching on the Sabbath’.

John Thomas Smith, 1766–1833, British, Hogarth Engraving His Master’s Shop-bill the Sign of the Angel, 1817, Pen and black ink, brown ink, brown wash and graphite on moderately thick, moderately textured, beige, wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1975.3.790

Churches and religious leaders recognised the competing claims of labour on their members’ time, and often tried to work around them by offering weekday and evening meetings as well as the usual Sunday morning or afternoon service. In 1758 Kendal Quaker Meeting House changed their usual weekday meeting from a Wednesday to a Tuesday ‘that it may be better attended as the 4th. day (Wednesday) is a Carrier’s day it is thought prevents some of our slack Comers’. Nonconformists were particularly keen to offer flexible worship times to attract converts from labouring and lower middling groups. On a visit to preach in Manchester in 1830, Quaker Elizabeth Robson routinely held morning meetings, but added additional meeting times in the evenings ‘for the working people’ employed in local dye works and factories. In the 1810s, Sunday Schools belonging to the Congregationalist, Unitarian and Church of Scotland churches in Manchester were also held on Saturday evenings, which along with Sundays, were the only other large block of free time for workers. The evening services held at the Fish Street Congregational chapel in Hull were regularly attended by Elizabeth Boddy in the 1790s and 1800s because it fitted with her work: ‘after delivering her milk, of an evening in winter, she used to leave her kit at the chapel door and regularly attend the lectures and church meetings.’

Thomas Rowlandson, 1756–1827, British, Quakers’ Meeting, ca. 1810, Watercolor with pen and gray-brown and red-brown ink over graphite on medium, slightly textured, blued white, wove paper, mounted on moderately thick, slightly textured, cream, wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1977.14.317

However, evening meetings could not be accessed by everyone. The young, especially those living in the same household as their parent or employer, faced restrictions on their movement at night. Teenager Maria Crossley was at first unable to attend evening meetings at Bennett Street Sunday School in Manchester in 1815 because ‘her Father forbid her to come to School at nights, and told her he suspected she never went’. Her classmates Mary Dean, the daughter of a cotton spinner, and Mary Slack, a throstle spinner, were also forbidden from week-day evening classes. Dean’s father said ‘that he wont have her out so late’ and Slack’s father disliked her attendance ‘because of the roughness of the streets, in going home.’ Manchester fustian merchant and Sunday School visitor George Gould argued in favour of shorter working hours for children to the 1816 Parliamentary Select Committee on the grounds that children had to walk to and from factories in the dark, by which ‘They hear the expressions of the worst characters, and perhaps are witnesses to some of their actions’. Gould felt that no responsible parent would allow their child out at night: ‘I think that there are no parents who have any regard for their children, but wish that they should be as little in the dark as possible, without observation’. Towns had an unparalleled range of opportunities for worship to fit around other demands of urban life, but they also brought their own set of hazards which disproportionately restricted the movement of women and children. Differences in working patterns according to socio-economic status, age and gender, were replicated in inequality of access to public worship.


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

Cumbria Archive Centre, Kendal: WDHCW/3/1/8, Thomas Rebanks to James Wilson, 1 January 1758.

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

Library of the Society of Friends: MS VOL S 138, Diary of Elizabeth Robson of Liverpool, 1830-1.

Manchester Archives: M103/18/6/1, Diary of Benjamin Braidley, 1815.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Ibid., p. 4.

The State of the Field: New Directions in the Social History of Religion, 1700-1900

by Jeremy Gregory

The ‘Faith in the Town’ project held its second workshop on the afternoons of 14 and 15 January. The aim of the workshop was to place some of the emerging findings and early conclusions of the project within a wider timeframe, to situate our project alongside the on-going work of others in the broader field, and to gain feedback on our findings so far.

An upside of having a virtual workshop meant that we attracted over 60 participants, drawn from all over the world (with two from Australia joining us heroically in the early hours of their morning). The nine papers – grouped thematically on Epistolary Narrative and Family and the Body; Histories of Childhood and Care; Language and Textual Analysis; and Civic, Sociable, and Religious Space – ranged chronologically from the late seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries, and geographically from England to America. We concluded with a roundtable, which I led, with stimulating contributions from Katharine Massam (University of Divinity), Carmen Mangion (Birkbeck, University of London), and Laura McCormick Kilbride (University of Cambridge), leading to a general discussion drawing together the findings of the project and the workshop.

The period 1700 to 1900 presents us with a somewhat unchartered terrain for the social history of religion. Though challenged, the still-dominant model influencing social history of the period 1700 to 1900 has been one of ‘secularisation’, where religion became increasingly marginal in social, cultural and political history, although there are debates about when and why it occurred. In Alan Gilbert’s still influential 1976 Religion and Society in Industrial England; church, chapel and social change, 1740-1914, for example, the northern industrial towns which emerged rapidly in the century after 1740 were prime incubators of secularisation. This has meant that, with of course some notable exceptions (such as Davidoff and Hall’s Family Fortunes), social historians of this period have usually seen ‘religion’ as a discrete and declining force, worthy only of mention rather than the focus of research.

A sampler by Maria Wood, 1832: Gallery Oldham

Researching alongside this, but almost on parallel tram lines which have rarely connected, are those historians working in what in some places is still known as ‘Church history’ or ‘ecclesiastical history’. As these terms indicate, the focus for these historians has been on the Churches as institutions and organisations, on clergy, and on formal theology, where the laity were studied by and large as (passive) recipients of these. There has been a great deal of research in this vein over the last forty years but little of it has made much impact on the way that social history has been written.

One of the starting points for our ‘Faith in the Town’ project was to further the dialogue between social historians and historians of religion. While not of course eliminating or marginalising the role of clergy, we wanted to shift attention to the lay perspective, looking outside churches and meeting houses to find evidence of faith in the workplace and the home, attitudes to time and space, and on issues of identity. We also wanted to explore the relationship between faith, urbanisation and industrialisation head-on, by focusing precisely on those northern towns which lay at the heart of Gilbert’s analysis.

One of the emerging contributions of our ‘Faith in the Town’ project has been to explore some ‘new directions’ in the social history of religion, questioning what the social history of religion is, and what sources we might use to study it. In some ways, our methodology and our findings will not surprise social historians of religion in earlier periods, and to a certain extent our conclusions suggest that some of the habits of mind, assumptions, and patterns of behaviour found between 1500 and 1700 continued well into the nineteenth century. But, we argue, this was more than persistence of older forms of belief and erstwhile types of activity. Rather, ‘faith’ could work with, and flourish in, the newer socio-economic and cultural contexts of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Twin handled patterned ceramic mug or loving cup, 1800-1850, Acc. 49.36: Gallery Oldham

To an extent that has even surprised us, our sources are much more imbued with lineaments of faith than we had assumed. Our northern towns were, and were frequently seen as, sites of opportunity for ‘Faith’, where religion both shaped, and was shaped by, patterns of sociability, work, domesticity, and business.  Historians of the Reformation have long studied the role of towns and cities as locales of religious activity in furthering (and sometimes hindering) the Reformation. Our ‘Faith in the Town’ project indicates how religion and faith continued to shape the lives of our urban dwellers well into the nineteenth century in ways which have yet been not properly appreciated.

Various issues and themes emerged in the workshop. One concerned source material, and how to read and interpret it. The project has investigated a wide range of material culture, including china and pottery, tapestries, prints and images, and household objects, and contributors to the workshop further showed how poetry and stained glass could reveal belief. We discussed how to interpret what might seem formulaic and conventional material and activity, evidenced for example in letters or routine acts of piety. These aren’t necessarily any less deeply held or significant than the religious pyrotechnics of overtly and obviously religious sources and behaviours.

One other area of debate surrounded issues of hermeneutics and theological literacy. Social historians of religion, of course, need to take the beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions of people in the past seriously, and on their own terms. This requires both an understanding of the theological distinctions and differences between religious groups as they existed in our period of study, and also imaginative empathy to understand the power of religion and faith to enable people to understand their lives and to interpret the world around them even when, and perhaps especially when, they don’t refer to it overtly.  

Image from the journal of Eliza Ann Morley, Borthwick Institute for Archives, MOU 5/3/1/1. Reproduced from the original in the Borthwick Institute, University of York.

‘such… a drunken Town I never before witnessed’: Piety and the Festival Calendar

by Kate Gibson

Some branches of Protestantism, such as Protestant dissent or Anglican Methodism, have often been characterised as having a sceptical view of concepts of holy time, and rejecting the older liturgical calendar of feasts and festivals as a hypocritical and popish superstition.  Many Protestant nonconformists and evangelicals argued that all times were equally sacred, and therefore that true piety lay in diligent daily practices of faith, not in occasional outbreaks of piety. Work on North American Protestant piety, by James Walsh and Leigh E. Schmidt, suggests that the reality may have been more complex, though. Schmidt argues that American evangelical Methodists did not entirely reject the concept of holy time and the liturgical calendar, but rather reappropriated it by substituting their own rituals and celebrations, which helped engender a sense of community and self-definition. New Year Watch Nights, in which the faithful gathered in chapels to pray together and mark the passing of the year, were particularly developed as a pointed alternative to impious festivities. This was also the case in Northern English towns, where for some groups, particularly Methodists, there was a pleasure in marking feast days in order to display their abstention from activities such as drinking. On a trip to Manchester on New Year’s Day 1828, hardware seller John Shaw, who had been brought up Presbyterian, married a Methodist and occasionally worshipped at a Congregational church, assured his wife that he had safely navigated ‘drunken folks’ and sought refuge in a Methodist Chapel, where he stayed for a missionary meeting ‘wch lasted till half past ten o’clock’. Shaw’s account indicates the perhaps polarised observance of feast days in Northern towns in the early nineteenth century when nonconformity was growing fast. Although Shaw depicted Manchester as ‘such… a drunken Town I never before witnessed being New Years day all the low orders devote that day to begging New Years Gifts’, he found that the Methodist Chapel was ‘lighted up’ and ‘quite cramed’ with people. Here we see two very different, but co-existing ways of celebrating the New Year; the older tradition of begging gifts alongside evangelical communal worship. Both groups marked the calendar by an absence from work – Shaw noted, after all, that ‘all the Shops’ were shut – but with very different senses of religious significance.

George Cruikshank, ‘January – New Year’s Eve’, etching in The Comic Almanack (1838), © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

These new incarnations were moments of religious and social significance that were not that far removed from the spirit of older festivals, particularly in their communal nature and the accompanying sense of witnessing divine power. Watch Nights, for example, can be interpreted as updated versions of older practices of fast and vigil before major festivals, such as those recommended in the Book of Common Prayer, and ultimately deriving from exhortations in the Bible and Protestant devotional literature that the pious practise spiritual discipline by staying awake, or ‘watchful’. Watch Nights were considered spiritually sustaining; it was the annual highlight for an anonymous Methodist diarist from Sheffield, who wrote at 1.30am on 1 January 1785 ‘Blessed be God he has Brought me to the Conclusion of another year and this has been a Good day to my Soul. we have had a Watch Night it was a Good time to me O Lord I praise thee that we concluded the year that is now Past and began the Present year in Prayer’. He emphasised the communal prayer and supporting solidarity of the Watch Night, stating that ‘I have this day along with his People Enterd into a Covenant with my God’, to improve his piety. Watch Night provided spiritual refreshment and motivation that would ideally sustain one’s faith until the next communal celebration. For the anonymous diarist, Watch Nights provided an intense, but temporary, burst of piety. On 16 January he reported being ‘troubled with Wandering thoughts this Morning at Preaching … I do not find that nearness in Prayer that I had on new Years day and a few days after’.

Other festivals, such as Whit and Christmas, were also appropriated and reworked by nonconformist groups. The journal of Methodist preacher R. Battersby indicates the similar combination of festivity and piety that marked Whitsun in 1821. On Whit Saturday he travelled to Oldham and ‘met with friends from Liverpool, Sheffield, Bolton &c exceeding comfortall [sic] and hapy to see one another’. On Whitsun the group got up early to attend a 6am sermon, at which ‘The congregation was good consisting chiefly of very hearty serious men and many full grown women very excellent singing’. This was followed by several more sermons, the last of which was ‘an awakening Sermon’ in Oldham market place, preached to ‘a very crowded congregation’. Battersby’s account dwelt most on the communal nature of the holiday; he enjoyed being in a crowd and gained sustenance and joy from meeting his friends. Holidays were an opportunity to hear visiting preachers, multiple sermons in one day, and to participate in a denominationally exclusive sociability that reflected the emphasis on spiritual friendship as a support to piety within many churches. Communal worship was considered helpful to both individual faith and the prosperity of a church, by invoking divine blessing. When Methodist stonemason John Nelson was invited to preach at Leeds at Christmas 1742, his coreligionists ‘advised me not to go till we had a day of fasting and prayer’. He went the day after ‘we humbled ourselves before the Lord’.

Anon., ‘The Rev. Mr Whitfield preaching at Leeds, 1749‘, © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Nonconformists use of particular days as designated times for prayer and reflection on God’s goodness and their own progress, is very similar to the function ascribed to holy days in High Church Anglican texts such as Nelson’s Fasts and Festivals, which argued that holy days were an opportunity for Christians ‘to humble themselves before God with Fasting and Prayer: Frequently to admire and adore the infinite Wisdom and Goodness of God in the Mysteries of our Redemption’. This suggests not only considerable similarity between denominations, but also a continuation of much older rhythms of piety. The temporal utility of feast and fast days – of allowing coordinated worship, a sense of support and inspiration from communal festivity, and acting as reminders of obligations to God – remained amongst nonconformists who placed a high value on communal worship and sociable piety, as well as on the relationship between faith and divine providence.


David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (1989)

Alec Ryrie, ‘Sleeping, Waking and Dreaming in Protestant Piety’, in Jessica Martin and Alec Ryrie (eds), Private and Domestic Devotion in Early Modern Britain (Farnham, 2012), pp. 73-92

Leigh E. Schmidt, ‘Time, Celebration and the Christian Year in Eighteenth-Century Evangelicalism’, in Mark A. Noll, David. W Bebbington and George A. Rawlyk (eds), Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles and Beyond, 1700-1990 (Oxford, 1994), pp. 90-109

James P. Walsh, ‘Holy Time and Sacred Space in Puritan New England’, American Quarterly, 32 (1980), pp. 78-95

Cadbury Research Library: Shaw/28, John Shaw, to Elizabeth Shaw, 6 Jan. 1828.

Sheffield City Archives: MD5716/18/1, Diary of an unknown Methodist, 1-2 Jan., 16 Jan. 1785.

Lancashire Archives: DDX 167/1, Journal of R. Battersby, ff. 1v-2v.

University of Huddersfield Archives, Heritage Quay: WHS/423, John Nelson, The Journal of Mr John Nelson, preacher of the Gospel…written by himself (London: J. Mason, n.d.).

Robert Nelson, A Companion for the Festivals and Fasts of the Church of England: With Collects and Prayers for each Solemnity (London, 1744, 18th edn)

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.