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The religious worship census of 1851

Edward Higgs

The 1851 Religious Census, or more correctly the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, was a unique feature of the decennial enumeration of that year. 1851 was the first year that census taking had been organised by Major George Graham as Registrar General, and he seems to have envisaged extending the process into a very broad series of statistical investigations. The population census was not only greatly expanded compared to that of 1841, but a census of educational institutions was also undertaken in addition to that on religion. Since there was no equivalent to the English General Register Office (GRO) in Scotland at this date, Graham's department undertook the enumeration of the northern kingdom as well (for a description of the organisation of the 1851 census, see Population Tables, 1851, Pt. I, xii–xiv). The extra work involved in the administration and analysis of these multiple investigations plainly overtaxed the limited resources of the GRO, leading to delays in producing the Annual reports of the Registrar General Of Births, Marriages and Deaths (Higgs, 2002). This, and the controversy aroused by the surveys, may explain why neither the Religious Census, or that on education, were ever repeated.

The idea for the Religious Census appears to have originated with Graham himself. The early nineteenth century was a period of general anxiety over the state of religion in the country. Industrialisation and rapid urbanisation were raising fears that religious provision was failing to keep pace with the growth and changing distribution of population. In an age of political conflict and mass popular movements such as Chartism, there was alarm that the working population were losing touch with organised religion, or swelling the ranks of anti-establishment denominations. But Graham also had more immediate concerns. His brother, Sir James Graham, had been responsible as Home Secretary for an abortive Bill on Factory Education in 1843, and had regretted the lack of information available on the provision for education and religious worship. The inadequacy of statistics on these matters had also become apparent during the debates on W. J. Fox's Education Bill in 1850 (Thompson, 1978, 241–2).

Although there was no provision for a Religious Census in the original Census Act, Graham relied upon a clause empowering the Home Secretary to take any additional enquiries he thought necessary as authority for it. He appointed a 28 year old barrister, Horace Mann, to organise the new survey, along with that on education. Mann, who was later the secretary to the Civil Service Commission, rejected the idea of asking individuals for their own religious affiliations because he felt this to be inquisitorial, and would lead to the recording of vague professions of faith rather than actual religious activity. Such considerations did not stop such a question being asked in Irish censuses in subsequent years. Instead Mann sought information on the number of places of worship belonging to each denomination, and the number of sittings and the number of people present at services on Census Day (30 March 1851). In order to collect this information the enumerators for the population census in England and Wales were to inform the local civil registrars of the names and addresses of ministers in their enumeration districts, or of the responsible nominee of the denomination. The registrar supplied such ministers and nominees with the relevant schedules, which they completed and returned to the enumerators on 31 March 1851. In Scotland the role of the registrar was taken by the superintendent of the parish (Snell and Ell, 2000, 28–35; Thompson, 1978, 241–2).

There were three differing schedules issued separately to the clergy of the Church of England, to Nonconformist ministers, and to Quaker meeting houses. The clergy of the Established Church were asked for the date of construction of the church or chapel of ease, if erected after 1800; the number of sittings (i.e. the space available for worship — seating spaces) contained in the building; the number of people at morning, afternoon and evening services on Census Day; the number of Sunday school pupils at the same times; and the average attendances over a stated period for both congregations and Sunday school children. There were additional questions on church endowments, and other sources of income. Those sent to Nonconformist ministers did not ask for information on income, but asked if the building was used exclusively as a place of worship. Those sent to Quakers were similar but asked for the measurement of the building, and the estimated number of seats (Snell and Ell, 2000, 28–32). The original returns for England and Wales can be found in the National Archives in London in record class HO129.

Mann collated the returns (34,467 in England and Wales and 3,395 in Scotland) and published the information they contained in two volumes: Religious worship (England and Wales): Report and tables and Report and tables on religious worship and education in Scotland, 1851. Much of the reports relate to the history of the various religious groups in Great Britain, rather than an analysis of data. The data for England and Wales were given at the level of the 624 registration districts but in Scotland (which lacked a civil registration structure comparable to that of England and Wales) for counties and burghs. This information showed that the population was greatly in excess of either the number of sittings, or attendance at services on Census Day, and was, in Mann's words, a situation of "spiritual destitution".

There has been considerable dispute over the quality of the returns to the Religious Census (Field, 1997). Filling in the census returns was not compulsory, and this led to under-enumeration, especially in Scotland. But in England and Wales the numbers of churches and chapels omitted were modest, and hopefully the omissions were randomly distributed across the country. The results of the Census indicated that the numbers present at the best attended Dissenting services exceeded the number at the best attended Anglican services, and led to accusations that the Dissenters had packed their services. There is, however, little direct evidence for this, and the high statistical correlation between sittings and attendances appears to refute it. Some congregation may have included Sunday School children in the number of attendances, and there was an inevitable degree of rounding figures and omissions of some fields of information. But most historians working on the returns have regarded them as fairly accurate, if needing to be used with some care (Snell and Ell, 2000, 35–51).


Census of Great Britain, 1851, Religious worship (England and Wales): Report and Tables BPP 1852–53 LXXXIX [1690]. [View this document: Religious worship, England and Wales, 1851]

Census of Great Britain, 1851, Religious worship and education. Scotland. Report and tables, BPP 1854 LIX (1764). [View this document: Religious worship and education, Scotland, 1851]

B. I. Coleman, The Church of England in the mid-nineteenth century: a social geography (London, 1980).

C. D. Field, 'The 1851 religious census of Great Britain: a bibliographical guide for local and regional historians', Local Historian, 27 (1997), 194–217.

Edward Higgs, 'The Annual Report of the Registrar General, 1839–1920: a textual history', in E. Magnello and A. Hardy, eds, The road to medical statistics (Amsterdam and Atlanta, 2002), 55–76.

Census of Great Britain, 1851, Population tables, I. Number of the inhabitants in 1801, 1811, 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851. Vol. II, BPP 1852–53 LXXXVI (1632). [View this document: Population tables I, Vol. II. England and Wales. Divisions VII-IX. Scotland. Islands, 1851]

K. D. M. Snell and Paul S. Ell, Rival Jerusalems: the Geography of Victorian Religion (Cambridge, 2000).

D. M. Thompson, 'The religious census of 1851', in R. Lawton, ed., The census and social structure: an interpretative guide to nineteenth century censuses for England and Wales (London, 1978), 241–88.