The 1851 Religious Census

The first half of the 19th century saw increased anxiety about Anglican Church attendance, especially with the growth of dissenting religions. The Anglican Church, being the State Church, assumed that it should be the denomination for everyone and was concerned about its popularity. Since the Act of Toleration in 1689, which no longer made church attendance compulsory, the size of congregations had decreased. Certainly there was a feeling among the Anglican clergy that if individuals were given the licence not to attend church so that they were able to go to a service of their choice, they might not go to any. Anglican anxiety culminated in 1850 with the restoration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and in 1851 Horace Mann, a civil servant, whose primary motivation appeared to have been the spiritual provision of the poor, undertook a census. The year 1851 is unique for having three separate censuses – the population census, the education census, and the religious census


The administration of the religious census was the same as the decenial population census.  Enumerators distributed forms to every place of worship, collected them after completion, sent them to local registrars, who in turn sent them onto London. Mann then used the collated information as the basis of his report, Census of Great Britain 1851 : Religious Worship, England and Wales – Reports and Tables. The returns recorded the name and denomination of each place of worship, the date of consecration or erection (if after 1800), the total accommodation available for members of each religious denomination and the total attendance at the morning, afternoon and evening services in each registration district for the 30th March 1851, as well as the average attendances for the previous year. The returns often include information about buildings and endowments as well as remarks by the minister. There were three slightly different types of forms, one for Anglicans, one for non-Anglican (including Catholics and all types of dissenters except for Quakers), and one for Quakers only. The main problem with the religious census relates to the incompleteness of the returns. Because enumerators explained that it was a voluntary census many forms were only partially completed and so out of 34,467 completed forms, 2,524 contained no information about sittings and 1,394 contained no information about attendance.1


Mann thought the easiest way of compiling the data was to count the number who attended church rather than asking individuals whether they went to church. A crucial point about the figures is that they record the number of attendances, not the number of attenders, therefore the same person could be counted more than once. There is no possible way determining whether the 240 afternoon attenders at the Anglican Church at Madeley (Staffordshire) were also present at the morning service, or whether they were two completely different sets of people. Similarly, it is impossible to determine whether any of the evening attenders at the Methodist chapel had also been to the Anglican service in the morning. Because of this Mann used a system of estimating that 50% of those who attended an afternoon service had not been to a morning service, and that 33% of those who attended the evening service had not been to church earlier in the day. In one sense this gives a bias towards Anglicans who were more likely to attend in the morning, rather than non-conformists who were more likely to attend in the evening. Mann’s report lists 39 different denominations in 1851, and some of the very small and localised ones have now disappeared.


The Index of Sittings adds together all the available sittings and when compared with the Index of Attendances can reveal the under and over provision of Anglican churches. The Percentage Share adds together the total attendance of one church or denomination, which is then divided by the total attendances in the area and multiplied by 100. The Best-Attended Service compares the best-attended service of each denomination. Understanding local variations can highlight why some regions have a higher proportion of evening attenders, such as those which were predominantly dairy farming. There may also be seasonal variations, particularly in arable areas, with fluctuations at harvest time, although not necessarily a decrease. An import of labour may have given the figures a temporary boost.


It is generally assumed that the census was fairly accurate, only very occasionally is a chapel omitted, and these tend to be the more obscure denominations. Comparisons with sources such as trade directories and Methodist circuit plans, as well as topographical work (a chapel which survives with a date) can be used to cross-reference information. There was widespread fear amongst the Anglicans over the deliberate falsification of figures. They saw the dissenting denominations as lower class and therefore untrustworthy. Not as extreme as a lot of cases, the return for the New Methodist Connexion chapel at Wolstanton shows the chapel being capable of seating 70, yet the evening attendance records 72. However inflating the figures slightly no doubt occurred across all denominations. The return for the Anglican Church at Madeley records suspiciously rounded figures for each of its entries, suggesting that these figures were estimates rather than an actual headcount. As well as over-estimating the attendance figures there would have been attempts to inflate the figures with clerics stressing the importance to their congregations of attending on that one day.


The Anglicans claimed that they were not used to counting people. Their philosophy was that the church existed for everyone and that in a sense everyone was a member of the church unless they deliberately opted out. The dissenting philosophy was that you deliberately had to opt in. Therefore the Church of England did not keep membership records, as it did not have a concept of membership the same way that the dissenting denominations did. Also, dissenting congregations were generally smaller and therefore easier to count, which is also true of the Catholic Church.


The remarks column is usually the most interesting as it can reveal details about local practices. The census was held on mid-lent Sunday, now known as mothering Sunday and the custom in many areas during the 19th century was, if you were a servant, to return home, which is one in a long line of excuses as to why the attendance was lower than usual. The fact that it was in the lambing season, severe weather, the lack of heating and lighting (which explains why some places only had morning and afternoon services) all contribute to why the attendances were supposedly lower than normal. At Somerton in Somerset, a congregational minister claimed that his eyesight was so bad that he was unable to count the number present beyond the front benches.3


The results of the census have generated a significant amount of primary and secondary literature, especially around the time of their publication in 1853-54, and since 1951 when the schedules were opened up for scholarly research.2 Modern patterns suggest that you might go to church regularly but not necessarily every Sunday, whereas it is often assumed (without evidence) that those who went in the past went every Sunday. In theory an Anglican during the 19th century would attend both morning and evening service on a Sunday, although some just went in the morning rather than both, or even attend a different denominational service in the evening. One argument is over whether or not church attendance is a constant decline. The little evidence that does exist suggests that it goes both down and up, especially in the 19th century, although some historians agree that the peaks of the 19th century were a freak occurrence, and that generally it does steadily decline. The declining numbers of the poor may have been the result of the hierarchy of seating, where most, if not all pews, were owned by people. The poor would have been made to sit in an obvious place, which would have proclaimed their social status. No doubt some preferred not to attend at all, or chose a different denomination. One result was a great drive during the 19th century to build new churches with seats for the poor, yet despite the increase in the number of churches the number of seating did not keep pace with the rise in population. One theory, particularly for Anglicans and Methodists, is that they built too many churches, which they then had difficulty filling and consequently had a demoralising effect. The new growth of church building during the second half of the 19th century was partly a response to the census and partly because denominations wanted to compete against each other. The census provides a good deal of information about the pace of chapel building in the 19th century and the type of buildings which were erected and used by dissenters. The returns also give some insight into the social composition of local non-conformist communities. Although some returns were signed by the full-time minister, others were completed by local officials who often gave their occupations.2


Church attendance was higher in rural rather than urban areas, with the exception of the Black Country. There is no known reason why the Black Country should differ from the national trend although it may be that moving from a small rural community where church attendance was the custom as there were fewer rival alternatives, and moving into a larger industrial there may have been a sense of isolation, and joining a church provided a readymade community. In a small rural area absence from church would have been noticeable less than in an industrial area. Industry in the Black Country consisted of a lot of small workshops where someone was known to their employer who might have expected that person to attend church or chapel, which does not apply to other industrial areas where workshops tender to be larger.


Christian religious pluralism had existed since the mid-17th century, bringing with it, to a certain extent, freedom of choice over which denomination to choose, although choice may have been influenced by a landlord or employer. It is also clear that what socio-economic class an individual was influenced their choice of denomination. Broadly speaking Primitive Methodists catered for the lower end of the working-class spectrum, Wesleyan Methodists tended to be upper working-class, and gentlemen tended towards the Anglican faith. A few did attend their particular denomination because they felt an affinity to it and were not influenced by class. Within this hierarchical structure it is not uncommon to find if someone’s social status changed, so too would their choice of denomination. These patterns changed towards the end of the 19th century and class differences began to disappear. Religious pluralism was higher in towns. Out of the 73 largest English towns only eight had less than then denominations, while seventeen had sixteen or more, meaning that large Victorian towns will had wide range of churches and chapels. Broadly the Index of Attendances reveals that the Church of England was stronger in the south and east, while weaker in the north and west, as well as the expanding industrial areas.







methodist new connexion









Consecrated before 1800






868 feet

capable of seating 200, no gallery












































The day was stormy & in consequence the attendance at church was small but having no data on which to found an average for six months I am unwilling to give a statement of such an average which must in a great [debate] be arbitary

The chapel is used as a school on the Sabbath morning – divine service in the afternoon & evening. The scholars are requested to attend divine service in the afternoon. Free sittings age forms not pews. (With regard to other sittings): are pews that will seat 50 persons. No free space only one aisle in the centre of the chapel – all on the ground floor, no gallery.



J W Daltry

Abraham Barrow senior

Joseph Wright






31st March

31st March

7th day of 4th month




1. Clive D Field

2. R W Ambler The1851 Census of Religious Worship in The Local Historian vol. 27 no.4 Nov 1997]

3. Stephen Friar The Companion to The English Parish Church Chancellor Press 1996