- More about the Census of Religious Worship, 1851

Context and further reading


Every ten years since 1801 (with the exception of during the Second World War) a Census of Population has been held in Great Britain.  The Census of 1851 was unique as it included separate counts concerning Education and Religious Worship.  On Census Sunday 30 March 1851, Mothering Sunday, a representative of every place of worship was required to complete a form with full details of the building in which services were held, its date of erection, the number of ‘sittings’ and the number who attended.  The original returns are preserved at The National Archives in class HO 129, but can be downloaded from their website https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk.

The purpose of the Census of Religious Worship was to ‘discover how far the means of instruction had kept up with growing population over the previous half century, and to what extend the spiritual needs of the population were being met’ 1.  To achieve this, information was sought on:

‘1. The amount of Accommodation which the people have provided for religious worship; and, 2. The number of persons, as Attendants, by whom this provision is made use of’ 2.

The Report found that, although there were 34,467 places of worship which could accommodate 10,212,563 persons, there was a need for a further 1,644,734 sittings and an additional 2,000 churches and chapels.  The total number of attendants were 4,647,482 in the morning, 3,184,135 in the afternoon, and 3,064,449 in the evening.  Nevertheless ‘5,288,294 persons, able to attend religious worship once at least, neglected altogether to do so’.

According to the Report it was the ‘labouring myriads’ (the working classes) where the increase in attendance was not matched by the huge increase in numbers.  Various reasons were given for this – social distinctions; lack of awareness of the needs of the poor; the conditions in which they lived; the salaries received by the clergy; and the lack of attractiveness of existing church buildings.

Primitive Methodism

There were found to be 2,871 Primitive Methodist places of worship with sittings of 369,216 and attendances of 98,001 in the morning, 172,684 in the afternoon, and 229,646 in the evening.  The denomination was present in over 70 per cent of Registration Districts in England and Wales.  The Report included a brief description of the denomination as well as approving references to its activities – the membership of lay people of the Conference; who were also responsible for helping to ‘penetrate most deeply through the lower sections of the people’; and its work among the poor, ‘numbers of whom, no doubt, who probably would never venture to the formal meetings of the other sects, are found attending the out-door preaching or engaging in the cottage services conducted by the Primitive Methodists’ 3.

1K. D. M. Snell and Paul S. Ell Rival Jerusalems: the geography of Victorian religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) p. 30.

Census of Great Britain, 1851 Religious worship: England and Wales: Report and tables (London: H.M.S.O., 1853).

Religious worship pp. lxxxiii, clxv.

Further reading

Census of Great Britain, 1851 Religious worship: England and Wales: Report and tables (London: H.M.S.O., 1853).


Edward Higgs The religious worship census of 1851.


Clive D. Field ‘Methodism in the 1851 Religious Census of England and Wales: a methodological reappraisal’ in Methodism in its cultural milieu: Proceedings of the Centenary Conference of the Wesley Historical Society … 1993, edited by Tim Macquiban (Westminster Wesley Series no. 2) (Oxford: Applied Theology Press, 1994).  pp. 169-190.

K. D. M. Snell and Paul S. Ell Rival Jerusalems: the geography of Victorian religion(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Comments about this page

  • Transcriptions and commentaries for many counties have been published. Clive Field’s annual bibliographies of Methodist historical writings are a good guide to what is available,

    By Philip Thornborow (17/05/2019)

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