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

by Kate Gibson

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Faith and the Festive Season

by Kate Gibson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

by Kate Gibson

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

by Kate Gibson

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


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


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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Record of the Week: Childhood and Church

by Kate Gibson 

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


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


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


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

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


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


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




Record of the week: A fickle and unsteady man

By Carys Brown

In November 1743, Joseph Farmer was in trouble. His older brother, James, had received a letter from Joseph’s master, John Hardman, Merchant of Liverpool, suggesting that Joseph had not only been very impertinent, but also appeared to be generally untrustworthy. Faced with the prospect of Hardman dismissing Joseph, James was left to pick up the pieces.

Historians have long acknowledged the importance of a credit-worthy reputation to success in trade in eighteenth-century England. If Joseph could not be trusted, he was unlikely to be able to enter into advantageous business relationships; this would have damaged not only Joseph’s prospects but also potentially those of the family’s gun-manufacturing firm. Two letters from James Farmer show his attempts to salvage the situation. He gave his brother a stern reprimand for his behaviour, encouraging him to keep ‘a good Harmony with thy Master’. He also wrote a letter to Hardman, detailing the advice he had given to Joseph to ‘act with discretion & gravity’.

Most interesting, however, is James’s discussion of the issue of Joseph’s non-attendance at divine worship. He advised Joseph that ‘attending regular Either at Chappel, or some place worshipp on Sundays as I know it would give in the End thee Sattisfaction’ and would improve his ‘Character amongst Men of Gravity’. He assured Hardman that he had spelled out to Joseph ‘the disadvantage, in regard to a future state as well as the Contemptious oppinion the generality of mankind had of Irreligiouss men’. James further said he had told Joseph that ‘in Commerce no person knowing his character would have to do with a fic[k]le & unsteady man’, and that if he appeared to be so in a matter ‘the utmost importance’ such as divine worship ‘he would be suppos’d to act no otherways in affairs of humane life’.

It is evident from James Farmer’s letters that church attendance of some sort was important not only for the soul but for temporal concerns. For the sake of his reputation, Joseph needed to be seen to go to some kind of place of worship. No man would be taken seriously in commerce if he showed himself to be inattentive to his own soul.

There is no further indication of whether Joseph heeded his brother’s advice. He does not, however, appear to have achieved success in business. In September 1750 Joseph complained to his brother-in-law, Samuel Galton, that he had ‘been greatly dissapointed in regard to receiving sundry Debts that are owing to me’, and that ‘Times were never worse…than at Present in Liverpool’. By February 1752 he had been forced to resign ‘all my Effects’ to his brother, having pulled out of trade ‘when I found how ill my Affair went on by a continual ser[ies] of bad Luck’. Perhaps it was bad luck. Or perhaps he really was ‘a fic[k]le & unsteady man’.


Records used:

Birmingham: Birmingham Archives:

  • MS3101/C/C/2/1/7 – James Farmer [brother of Joseph] (Birmingham) to John Hardman (Liverpool). 18 Nov 1743
  • MS3101/C/C/2/1/8 – James Farmer (Birmingham) to Joseph Farmer (Liverpool). 19 Nov. 1743
  • MS3101/C/D/15/6/1 – Joseph Farmer (Liverpool) to Samuel Galton (Birmingham). 5 Sept. 1750
  • MS3101/C/D/14/3/4 – Joseph Farmer (Liverpool) to Mary Galton (Birmingham). 25 Feb 1752/3


Image: Illustration from John Ashton, Chap-books of the eighteenth century (London: 1882), p.358, Public Domain via Internet Archive on Flickr (

Record of the Week: The Diary of John Burnthwaite

by Kate Gibson

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Record of the Week: The Diary of Ann Prest

By Carys Brown

Why did people in eighteenth-century towns go to church? The most obvious answer is that they were there to worship. However, church going had a broader significance for the life of a town. Churches were social and civic centres; religious observance was combined with meetings with friends, introductions to potential marriage prospects, and even discussions of business concerns.

The diary of Ann Prest, daughter of a currier from Bedale, North Yorkshire, illustrates how church going could be an important aspect of urban social life. Prest was not a consistent church-goer when at home in Bedale. On Sunday 8 September 1776, for instance, she made the diary entry ‘not at Church drank Tea went to visit the Bride (Mrs Moore) a good deal of Company mother Mrs Baxter & Sister B drank Tea at Mr Dawnays’. Two weeks later, on Sunday 22 September, she wrote ‘Not at Church had Mr & Mrs Moor & Miss Galland to drink Tea’.

Strikingly, this apparently relaxed attitude to church attendance was very different from her behaviour over the previous summer, when she had been in York visiting her future husband, Leonard Terry. While there, it appears that church going was complimentary to her social commitments. Her diary entry fro Sunday 28 July reads ‘Mr L Terry & Mrs Baxter called upon us in the morning to go to the minster Prayers Brother Edward & me went with Mr Terry & Mrs B to drink Tea at the Farm’. Both of the Sundays that followed appeared to be busy social occasions that began with a trip to church: on 4 August she was ‘at Church called at Miss Gibsons & Mr Terrys drank Tea at Mr Listers supped at Mrs Shaws Brother N Dined with us’; on 11 August ‘Mrs Baxter & Mr L Terry called upon me in the morning to go to Castlegate Church dined at Mr Silvers drank Tea at Miss Wilsons a rainy afternoon’.

Why then was there such a difference between Prest’s church-going patterns in Bedale and in York? We might speculate the presence of ‘Mr Terry’ at most of these occasions had something to do with it. Going to church was a respectable activity, and one that Prest was unlikely to decline to do when called upon by her future husband. But it was also the case that church was a useful place for her to meet up with other social contacts in York. Although she arrived at the minster on 28 July with Mr Terry and Mrs Baxter, for instance, the group left with her brother Edward in tow. On other occasions she went straight from church to the residence of other friends. Church was a place to see and be seen, and this was perhaps more the case for Prest in fashionable York than it was in Bedale.

None of this is to suggest that when Prest attended church, it was for purely instrumental reasons. There were many reasons, other than a lack of faith, that people failed to attend church, including poor weather, bad roads, illness, or poverty, and in such instances they might read and pray at home. Prest’s diary entries are brief, and she does not say why she did not attend church in Bedale, or indeed whether she ever worshipped at home. What her diary does emphasise, however, is the extent to which church going was integrated with the social life of the town, acting both as a measure of respectability and as a meeting point from which other social activities could spring.


Sources used:

  • Birmingham: Cadbury Research Library: MS52/4 – Diary of Ann Prest, 1776, entries for Sunday 28 July, Sunday 4 August, Sunday 11 August, Sunday 8 September, and Sunday 22 September


Biographical information about Ann Prest taken from the Cadbury Research Library catalogue:

Image: Unknown British Artist, ‘A Family Being Served With Tea’, c. 1745. Oil on canvas (106.7 x 139.7cm). Image public domain, courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection:

Record of the Week: The Diaries of William Beamont

By Carys Brown

William Beamont (1797-1889) was a solicitor, philanthropist and, from 1847, Mayor of Warrington. His diaries, letters, scrapbooks, and family papers provide a fascinating overview of many aspects of Warrington life. Particularly interesting for Faith in the Town are the insights his diaries and scrapbook give into how religious buildings affected an individual’s experience of the physical environment of a town.

Beamont’s diary entries were sporadic, but they included reasonably frequent reflections on how various aspects of urban space made him feel. On 13 June 1824, for example, he wrote how ‘Returning through the streets soon after midnight I was struck with their extraordinary quiet. The night was perfectly calm. Not [sic] sound excepting an footfall was to be heard. Not a being was to be seen. It was like walking through a city which all its inhabitants had deserted’. He added that ‘a city buried in sleep’ was ‘more dreary than a country highway’.

This attentiveness to the meaning of his surroundings was further evident in some of Beamont’s remarks relating to religious buildings in towns. A few days after his late-night walk through the town he wrote another diary entry describing his visit to a nonconformist chapel established in 1662, probably Cairo Street Chapel. Although he was himself a devout member of the Church of England, he was struck by the how the space of the chapel reflected its congregation’s history. ‘It stands in a places of privacy, or at all events not otherwise courting notice’, he wrote, ‘As if its plantees thoughthey would not shrink from persecution wisely did not wish to court it. One feels respect for the place where such a series of conscientious & excellent men here present the piety which themselves practised’. Beamont appeared to revere the space of the chapel because of the humble perseverance of its founders, who had built the chapel in a period when worship outside of the Established Church was illegal. This building was, for him, representative of their piety.

This reverence for a place of piety because of its humility was in contrast to Beamont’s response to seeing the church buildings of Liverpool. While travelling in August 1825 he wrote a letter to an unknown recipient describing his impressions of that city from afar:

the view of great commercial Liverpool extending as it were her broad arms to the waves brought to my mind the beautiful remark of Burke, which I think we have before admired that amidst all the moral contamination of the inhabitants the towers and spires of her churches pointing pointing [sic] towards heaven seem to act as conductors to avert the wrath of the Almighty from their guilty heads.

In this instance, as with his experience at the nonconformist chapel, the sight of religious structures prompted Beamont to reflect on the piety of those associated with the buildings. In contrast to the previous occasion, however, it was the ostentation of these buildings rather than their humility that struck him.

In both these cases the symbolism and meaning that Beamont ascribed to these buildings highlights the significance of churches and chapels to perceptions of the built environment of towns. Whether hidden away or soaring above the town, religious buildings were at the heart of urban space, and were therefore vital to how contemporaries experienced and gave meaning to their environment.


Records used:

  • Warrington: Warrington Archives (WALS): WMS 287 – William Beamont diary, 1820-1825, p. 25, 13 June 1825.
  • Ibid, pp. 30-31 17 June 1825
  • WALS: WMS 2794 – Scrapbook, n.d., 1821-1859, fol. 6r, 23 August 1825


  • Image taken from page 145 of ‘The Book of The Grand Junction Railway, being a history and description of the line from Birmingham to Liverpool and Manchester … By T. Roscoe, assisted by the resident engineers of the line’ (London: 1839), via The British Library on Flickr: The image shows the Grand Junction Railway, which opened in 1837 and passed through Warrington, where William Beaumont lived.

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

by Kate Gibson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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