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Religious Census of 1851

Generally known as the ‘Religious Census’, the 1851 Census of Places of Worship records the ‘accommodation and attendance at worship’ across Britain as it stood on the 30 March of that year. This census was intended to find out whether the ‘means of religious instruction’ had kept pace with the rapidly increasing population, and whether current provision was adequate. The exercise proved controversial, as established church leaders felt the results favoured dissenting worshippers, and it was never repeated.

The Religious Census returns for Staffordshire are held at Staffordshire Record Office on microfilm (MF/6), and relate to Anglican, Roman Catholic and Nonconformist churches across the county. The information includes the locality of the church or chapel, date of erection, size of congregation, whether there is a Sunday School and whether the building is used exclusively as a place of worship. Each return is a pre-printed form into which handwritten entries have been made.

Whilst this census can be useful for studying the denominational make-up and religious activity of a community in the mid-19th century, the figures cannot be regarded as completely accurate. In some cases, ministers and enumerators rounded up congregation sizes for ease of calculation. Variable factors –such as weather or illness – may have impacted on the number of people attending their place of worship on that particular day, whilst established church leaders accused dissenting churches of boosting their attendance figures with ‘extra’ congregation members for the day of the census. For some congregations, the census returns were left partially or completely blank.

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