Religious Census of Berkshire in 1851

On 30 March 1851, for the first and last time, a government survey of religious accommodation and attendance was undertaken throughout Great Britain as part of the decennial census of population. Information was gathered from the minister or lay official in charge of each place of worship, who was asked to complete a manuscript schedule.

Although the outcome of the religious census was published at the time, in separate reports for England and Wales and Scotland in 1853-54, results were only disaggregated to registration district, county and large town levels. Moreover, some questions in the schedules were not tabulated at all, while replies about the numbers in the general congregation and Sunday schools were unhelpfully conflated. Many returns also included valuable remarks.

These manuscript schedules therefore contain much information not available in the printed reports. Embargoed for 100 years, they are now increasingly appearing in modern scholarly editions. With the recent publication of Berkshire Religious Census, 1851, ed. Kate Tiller (Berkshire Record Society, Vol. 14, 2010), the returns for 20 English counties are now available in this way, in addition to the whole of Wales.

The appearance of the Berkshire volume also means that the schedules for all three counties forming the Church of England Diocese of Oxford have been printed, Tiller being responsible for the Oxfordshire edition (Oxfordshire Record Society, Vol. 55, 1987) and Edward Legg for Buckinghamshire (Buckinghamshire Record Society, Vol. 27, 1991).

Oxford is an especially interesting diocese since its energetic and reforming bishop from 1845 to 1869, Samuel Wilberforce, was the most vociferous critic of the taking of the religious census, inside and outside Parliament. His opposition extended right up to the eleventh hour before census day and was reactivated by the publication of the report for England and Wales in 1854.

Tiller’s edition of the Berkshire returns follows the pattern of her Oxfordshire volume and, indeed, the model of several other county editions. A transcript, arranged alphabetically by place name, of the 448 returns for Berkshire churches and chapels fills 104 pages. It is preceded by 60 pages of introductory material covering the background to the religious census and its results in the county, although there is limited quantitative analysis. An index, running to 25 pages, completes the book.

Excluding some duplicate returns, there were 435 places of worship in Berkshire in 1851, of which 202 were Anglican, 86 Old Dissent and 122 Methodist. Based on the experience of other counties, it seems certain that some Methodist services will have been missed by the census machinery, and it is a pity that Tiller has not been able to check for omissions against contemporary circuit plans and other documents. A distinguishing feature of Berkshire is that Primitive Methodism was the largest Nonconformist denomination in terms of attendances, a dominance which it had achieved in just 20 years.

The volume can be purchased from the Berkshire Record Society, Berkshire Record Office, 9 Coley Avenue, Reading, Berkshire, RG1 6AP for £25.00 plus £2.50 postage and packing.

Tiller’s research for this edition has led to two spin-off publications: ‘The place of Methodism: a study of three counties in 1851’, Methodism and History: Essays in Honour of John Vickers, eds Peter Forsaith and Martin Wellings (Applied Theology Press, 2010); and ‘Chapel people in 1851: the example of Berkshire’, Chapels and Chapel People, ed. Chris Skidmore (Chapels Society, 2010).

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