The Religious Census of 1851 and Adderbury


The first half of the nineteenth century saw an unprecedented expansion in the efforts of central government to gather information about aspects of national life that had previously been held to be matters for purely local concern. For example, listing only enquiries which gave specific results for Adderbury, Arthur Young had reported on the state of agriculture in 1809, there was an enquiry into charities in 1826 and there would be the report of a commission into Friendly and Benefit Societies in 1874.

What the government wanted to know in 1851, however, was more far-reaching than any of these other enquiries. First, there was the “ordinary” ten-year census, the sixth of its type. This time round, however, the census not only recorded the names and numbers of all household residents in the United Kingdom on the night of 30th March; but it also wanted more precise details about their place of birth, age and occupation, as well as new information about their marital status, their relations to the head of the household and any disability they might have. Then there was an educational census which aimed to ascertain how many boys and girls were being taught in classes on a specified day and the type and size of the schools they were attending. The third census, a census of attendance at religious services, was the most contentious.

There were two major areas of enquiry in the religious census. First, the government wanted an exact measure of the number of sittings in places of worship compared with the number of the local population; with the country going through substantial change, especially with the creation of new, urban areas, finding out about the availability of places to worship seemed a reasonable enquiry at the time. Second, however, the government wanted to know exactly how many people actually sat on the available seats on 30th March 1851. It was the answer to this second question that was most eagerly anticipated in the country as a whole. On the one hand, the Anglican church feared that the results of the religious census would threaten the status of their church as the Established Church. On the other hand, members of dissenting congregations looked forward to having their increasing status and legitimacy confirmed by the survey results.

The Results of the Religious Census: National Trends

Although the figures and tables published in 1854 proved difficult to interpret, at the highest level of generalisation a fairly clear picture emerged. Cannadine (2017) puts it as follows:

“… it was generally agreed that in the case of England and Wales only half of the population who could have gone to church on that particular Sunday in fact did so; that half of those attending (which meant one quarter of the whole population) were Anglicans who worshipped at the established Church of England; but that the other half (and thus another quarter of the whole population) attended dissenting chapels or (in much smaller numbers) Catholic churches instead.” (pp.253-4)

The Census Locally

At the time of the census, the parish of Adderbury consisted of the ‘townships’ of Adderbury East and Adderbury West, the chapelries of Barford St John and Bodicote and the hamlet of Milton. Taken as a whole, the parish contained Anglican places of worship in Adderbury, Bodicote and Barford St John and dissenting congregations in Adderbury West (Quakers and Independents), Adderbury East (Wesleyan Methodists), Bodicote (Baptist and Wesleyan Methodist Chapels) and Milton (Primitive Methodists). All of the dissenting congregations had reached the stage of maturity where they had a permanent building for their exclusive use. The wider Adderbury Parish of the time hence clearly shared with others in “Banburyshire” an openness to dissent which revealed itself in the percentage of “dissenter sittings” in the Banbury registration district for the census, which, at 44.29%, was far higher than the 31.34% returned for the county as a whole.

Results for Adderbury and Milton

The census results for Adderbury and Milton, as summarised by Tiller (1987) are as follows. It should be noted that the census asked how many seats in places of worship were free and how many were paid for by subscription (a large source of income for many congregations).

ADDERBURY EAST, Population 978

St. Mary the Virgin: Average attendance 240 (This is, according to Tiller, an “unsigned and extremely scant Anglican return”. The vicar at the time, Rev Charles Alcock, was apparently an extremely assiduous and hard-working parish clergyman (Allen, 1995, pp. 23-24); it has to be assumed that, in failing to give a satisfactory return, Alcock was following the lead of his Bishop, Samuel Wilberforce, who told the House of Lords shortly before the census was issued that “if consulted by the clergy of his diocese as to the course they ought to pursue, he should be inclined to advise them not to answer the queries”. In the event 27.1% of the Anglican returns in the Oxford diocese show clerical failure to answer compulsory questions or carry statements of clerical refusal compared with just 10% nationally)

Wesleyan Methodist Chapel: Erected 1829. A separate and entire building, used exclusively for worship. Free sittings 112; other sittings 60. On 30 March In morning General Congregation 51, Sunday Scholars 20; in afternoon, Sunday Scholars 19; in evening General Congregation 120. Average attendance during previous 12 months In morning General Congregation 60, Sunday Scholars 20; in afternoon Sunday Scholars 20; in evening General Congregation 100. Signed James Claridge, Local Preacher, Blenheim Place, Banbury

ADDERBURY WEST, Population 370

Independent Chapel: Erected 1829. A separate and entire building used exclusively for worship. Free sittings 112; other sittings 60. On 30th March In morning General Congregation 51, Sunday Scholars 20; in afternoon Sunday Scholars 19; in evening General Congregation 120. Average attendance during previous 12 months: in morning General Congregation 60, Sunday Scholars 20; in afternoon Sunday Scholars 20; in evening General Congregation  100. [Remarks on the National School omitted] Signed James Crockett, Minister, Adderbury West.

Friends’ Meeting House: Erected 1675. A separate and entire building used exclusively for worship. Admeasurement in superficial feet, floor area 561; in galleries 402. Estimated Number of persons capable of being seated 102 and in galleries 60. On 30th March In morning 16 attendants; no meeting held this afternoon…. A meeting is held at 3 o’clock p.m. during the six winter months, and one at 5 o’clock p.m. during the six summer months, but both are omitted one week in four. The average attendance at these for the last 12 months is 12 persons. Signed Henry Beesley, Adderbury West.

MILTON, Population 164

Primitive Methodist Chapel: Erected before 1800. A separate and entire building used exclusively for worship. Free sittings 200. On 30th March In afternoon General Congregation 35, Sunday Scholars 25; in evening, General Congregation 27. Average attendance in morning General Congregation 35, Sunday Scholars 28. Signed Thomas Tarver, Steward, Bodicote.

Commentary on Results

It is obvious that the sketchy nature of the Anglican return for Adderbury makes futile any attempt to replicate the national results locally. But it is clear, however, that in Adderbury as in the nation as a whole, fewer than half of the inhabitants attended any form of religious service on the census Sunday. Tiller (1987, p. xxx) suggests that for many there was nevertheless a “strong moral code”, a sort of “popular religion”, which was “a loose combination of unofficial Christianity and large elements of superstition and custom, selectively validated by institutional religion”.  In support of this view, Tiller quotes from Flora Thompson’s description of Cottisford:

“Many in the hamlet who attended neither church nor chapel and said they had no use for religion, guided their lives by the light of a few homely precepts, such as ‘Pay your way and fear nobody’; ‘Right’s right and wrong’s no man’s right’; ‘Tell the truth and shame the devil’ and ‘Honesty is the best policy’”

We can also see in the census returns a clear contrast between the different dissenting congregations. At the time of the census, the Independents were the most numerous, while the Quakers were in decline. The Wesleyan Methodists in East Adderbury were well established, in their first small chapel in Chapel Lane, but had not yet made the strides which allowed them by the end of the century to build a much larger church on the High Street itself.

On from 1851

On the Anglican side, it is sometimes said that the growth of dissent and the relative weakness of the numbers attending Anglican worship could be attributed to a failure in the first half of the nineteenth century to meet the needs for regular services and pastoral support for all parts of the parish. After 1851 the main developments seem to have been intended to address such issues. In Bodicote, after restoration of the parish church in 1854, Bodicote was made into a separate parish in 1855. A new church was built in Milton in 1856-7 and consecrated in 1857. Change at Barford St John, however, had to wait until 1890, when it was annexed to Barford St Michael.

On the dissenting side, there were a number of national developments, which have been summarised as follows:

“The nineteenth century witnessed a very gradual easing of the legislation which had continued to restrict nonconformists. Laws which excluded all but practising Anglicans from government and municipal posts were repealed in 1828-9, and in 1871 it became illegal to debar Nonconformists from teaching or studying in English universities. Unitarians gained freedom of worship in 1813 and the Dissenters’ Chapels Act (of 1844) effectively secured for them those chapels in which they had worshipped for the past twenty-five years. After 1836 Nonconformists had the right to conduct marriage ceremonies and in 1880 they were granted the right to conduct burial services in parish churchyards.”  Wakeling (2016), p.4.

The Independent Chapel in West Adderbury continued in existence. It was registered as a place of worship for marriage 1854-60. The adjoining manse was pulled down in 1870, perhaps because the chapel had by that time had two honorary pastors, retired men with homes elsewhere; the manse was replaced with a school. The chapel closed in 1955 and was sold in 1957.

Despite continuing problems over the financing of their 1810 chapel, the Wesleyan Methodists of East Adderbury founded a much larger church at the junction of Chapel Lane and the High Street accommodating 130 and featuring an attached School Room. Ashbridge (2004) suggests that the members wished to “build a new chapel in the centre of the village and remain no longer in the background” (p.16). This was opened in 1893 and thanks to generous donations was able to begin its life unencumbered with debt (Allen, 1995, p.19). The Methodist Church continues to flourish.

Despite the relatively large number recorded at the Milton Methodist Chapel, it would appear that this nonconformist congregation was absorbed into the corresponding chapel at Bloxham, with whom it shared a pastor. The chapel building was used by the Church of England until their new church was built.

The single exception to the generally optimistic picture for dissenting congregations is that of the Quakers, where the number of worshippers at the Adderbury Meeting House had fallen to an average of 12 at the time of the census. This mirrored a national decline: while the population of England trebled between 1715 and 1851, the number of Quaker adherents had more than halved. The Quakers came to acknowledge that the rules which effectively prevented Friends from marrying outside the Quaker community were a major cause of the decline. An 1859 report, quoted in Thompson, 1972, pp 163-65, says that “Within … the present century, the Society of Friends in England has disowned nearly one third of all its members who have married, a total of not less than four thousand persons”. It was also believed that a general movement away from the land had affected the Quakers disproportionately. An 1806 report said “Almost all the Quakers were originally in the country … but this order of things is reversing fast. They are flocking into the towns and abandoning agricultural pursuits.” At Adderbury the decline in numbers continued: they were down to 4 by 1909 and the Meeting House closed in 1914.

Phil Mansell


Ashbridge, P. (2004): Village Chapels. Some aspects of rural methodism in the East Cotswolds and South Midlands 1800-2000. Kershaw Publishing.
Allen, N. (1995): Adderbury. A Thousand Years of History. Phillimore.
Cannadine, D. (2017): Victorious Century. The United Kingdom, 1800-1906. Allen Lane.
Stell, C. (1986): Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting Houses. Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire. HMSO.
Thompson, D,M, (1972): Nonconformity in the Nineteenth Century. Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Tiller, K. (1987): Church and Chapel in Oxfordshire 1851. The Oxfordshire Record Society, Volume 55.
Wakeling, C. (2016): Nonconformist Places of Worship. Historic England.

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