Late Georgian and Victorian Chester 1762-1914: Religion

A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003.

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'Late Georgian and Victorian Chester 1762-1914: Religion', in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography, ed. C P Lewis, A T Thacker( London, 2003), British History Online [accessed 21 July 2024].

'Late Georgian and Victorian Chester 1762-1914: Religion', in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Edited by C P Lewis, A T Thacker( London, 2003), British History Online, accessed July 21, 2024,

"Late Georgian and Victorian Chester 1762-1914: Religion". A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Ed. C P Lewis, A T Thacker(London, 2003), , British History Online. Web. 21 July 2024.


Despite being a cathedral city and a magnet for the region's Anglican establishment, Chester was fertile ground for religious nonconformity from the later 18th century. (fn. 1) The growing strength of dissenters was not much due to continuity with earlier traditions. Old Dissent had largely withered away by 1750, leaving only small groups of Baptists and Quakers besides the larger Matthew Henry congregation. The last was riven by doctrinal factionalism and in the 1760s the orthodox Congregationalists seceded, leaving the chapel in the hands of Unitarians.

From the 1770s, however, the Congregationalists were growing rapidly in strength and respectability. Methodism, too, had taken hold in the 1740s and continued to widen its appeal, not least through John Wesley's frequent visits to Chester on his journeys between England and Ireland. By 1800 it had probably overtaken the older sects. The Church of England, in contrast, was at quite a low ebb. Between 1752 and 1828 eight bishops served Chester in rapid succession, several being driven to seek preferment elsewhere because the see was so poorly endowed. The cathedral was also still hampered by poor finances. Musically it improved, housing a series of music festivals between 1772 and 1829, but by the 1820s its liturgical standards appear to have been dismal. Among the parish churches, the main alternative to Methodist and Congregationalist enthusiasm was at St. Peter's, where there were daily services in 1778. (fn. 2) Some of the city's dissenters had a high social profile and in the later 18th century their leaders were thought worth cultivating for their influence over freemen voters in parliamentary elections. (fn. 3)

In contrast to Anglican torpor, Dissent in Chester was greatly boosted by the religious revival of the late 18th century. The main development apart from the growth of Methodism was the secession from the Congregationalists in the 1790s of the evangelical Philip Oliver, who had earlier been driven from the Anglican communion by Bishop Cleaver. He soon forged links with Calvinistic Methodism and formed a small connexion in the Chester area. In the same decade the city witnessed a Particular Baptist revival, and the more liberal Methodists in the chapel at Trinity Lane split from the Wesleyan mainstream at the Octagon to form one of the first branches of the Methodist New Connexion.

The greater diversity of worship on offer by 1800 must have been fuelled in part by the increasing number of migrants to Chester. In particular, Roman Catholicism in the city was almost exclusively an Irish phenomenon. The first purpose-built chapel was opened in 1799 and numbers rose slowly before the Famine and rapidly afterwards, reaching an estimated 2,000 by 1889. By then there were some prominent Catholic families of English origin in the city, including partners in the legal firm of Hostage, Tatlock, and Hostage, and the Tophams, best known as clerks of the Chester and Aintree racecourses. (fn. 4) For the large number of newcomers from Wales, the equivalent national church was what became the Presbyterian Church of Wales, which sprang locally from Philip Oliver's connexion. From the early 19th century there were separate chapels for services in Welsh and English, the former being the largest Welsh-speaking congregation in the city in 1854. (fn. 5) By then all the other main denominations represented in Chester except the Primitive Methodists provided Welshlanguage chapels or services, starting with the Wesleyans before 1804 and the Church of England from 1826, and spreading to the Congregationalists and Baptists probably in the 1840s, when migration to the city from north-east Wales began to quicken pace. (fn. 6)

The Evangelical movement began to affect the Established Church in Chester during the episcopacy of J. B. Summer (1828-48). (fn. 7) Its stronghold was St. Peter's, where an incumbent appointed by Summer, Charles Taylor, built on firm Low Church traditions. In 1845 he helped to form the Chester City Mission, the first of several interdenominational or undenominational evangelical missions in the city. An important role in the City Mission was played by the local banker and councillor William Wardell.

Tractarianism was held back in Chester by the hostility of Summer and his successor, John Graham (1848-65), but gained a hold under William Jacobson (1865-84) and William Stubbs (1884-9). (fn. 8) Holy Trinity, where the advowson was owned by the earls of Derby, was High Church from the 1860s, at St. Thomas's the dean and chapter appointed an AngloCatholic vicar in 1909, and High Church services were introduced at St. John's in 1915. The other parish churches were moderate in their Anglicanism. Four besides St. Peter's had the bishop as patron, while the advowsons of St. John's and St. Mary's belonged to the Grosvenors from 1810 and 1819 respectively. Both the latter served parishes with a large working-class population, and both saw missionary efforts in workingclass districts in the later 19th century. The diversity of churchmanship represented in Chester as a whole, and the moderation of most of the parishes, probably explain why an anti-ritualist Protestant Episcopal Church founded in the 1880s made little headway. The cathedral itself played a more prominent role from the time of Dean Howson (1867-85), who began Sunday services in the nave and permitted the revival of the music festivals in 1879. (fn. 9)

By 1851, in the midst of an economic boom and with heavy inwards migration from Cheshire, Wales, Ireland, and elsewhere, levels of religious worship in the city were relatively low. (fn. 10) Probably not much more than two fifths of the population went to church or chapel on Census Sunday, (fn. 11) rather fewer than in most medium-sized county towns and resorts but more than in industrial towns and cities. (fn. 12) A little more than half of worshippers were Anglicans. Attendance at Anglican morning service, amounting to 15 per cent of the population, was comparable with that in other county towns of Chester's size but less than in cathedral cities such as Exeter, Oxford, and Worcester. (fn. 13)

The largest nonconformist denominations in 1851 were the Wesleyans and the Congregationalists, whose best attended services drew 1,000 and 900 people respectively, to the Anglicans' 4,250. Their total attendance perhaps amounted to 1,500 and 1,300. Roman Catholics were in fourth place, with perhaps 700-800 worshippers, while the Primitive Methodists and the Calvinistic Methodists each probably had over 300 attenders in total, the Methodist New Connexion over 200, and the Particular Baptists and Unitarians over 100. There were also small or very small congregations of English Presbyterians, Quakers, Scotch Baptists, and unsectarian Christians (the last probably a branch of the Church of Christ).

The various nonconformist churches appealed to different social constituencies. In the 1790s the Methodists at the Octagon chapel were believed by their rivals at Trinity Lane to be reluctant to force a breach with the Church of England because they thought it would undermine their social standing among their Anglican neighbours. (fn. 14) The Unitarians were regarded as 'highly respectable' as early as 1822, and later included several of Chester's wealthiest business and manufacturing families. The Frosts (millers), Moulsons (tobacco manufacturers), Woods (chain and anchor makers), Brasseys (ironmongers), and Johnsons (Hydraulic Engineering Co.) were all long-standing members, and Sir John Brunner of Brunner, Mond & Co. was a trustee in 1900. (fn. 15) They and the small English Presbyterian church offered no free sittings in their chapels in 1851. (fn. 16) The Catholic Apostolic Church established later may have had a similar appeal. The Wesleyans, Calvinistic Methodists, Methodist New Connexion, Particular Baptists, and Congregationalists each had about a third of their sittings free in 1851, broadly in line with Anglican provision, whereas well over half the seats in the Primitive Methodist chapel were free. (fn. 17)

There was clearly an appetite for grass-roots working-class revivalism in Chester throughout the 19th century, from the Primitive Methodists in the 1820s to the Salvation Army in the 1880s. Small congregations of Scotch Baptists and Brethren appeared in mid century, the former helping to launch the Church of Christ, an evangelical sect with strong Chester associations. Most strikingly, a Mormon service on Census Sunday in 1851 drew 250 people, a very large number for a city of Chester's size. (fn. 18)

The Church of England, the Wesleyans, and the Congregationalists, as the three strongest denominations in Chester, were best placed to respond effectively to the challenges of population growth and suburban dispersal. In the city centre the Anglicans retrenched by closing churches in 1839 and 1842 and by reorganizing the parishes in 1882. They were also quick to build new churches in the suburbs, starting in Boughton and Newtown in the 1830s and extending to Hoole and Saltney in the 1850s and north Chester and Handbridge in the 1880s. The Wesleyans and Congregationalists started building suburban chapels in the 1850s, each eventually having four or five. The Calvinistic Methodists and the Church of Christ concentrated on Saltney, the Baptists on Hoole and Newtown, and the Primitive Methodists on Hoole and Boughton. The more mixed residential areas of Hoole and Boughton were thus the ones best served for variety, whereas working-class Newtown and Saltney each had an Anglican church, a Wesleyan chapel, and one or two others.

All the principal chapels except the Quakers and Unitarians joined forces to form the Chester Evangelical Free Church Council in 1897. Its main activities before 1914 were campaigns against the races (specifically gambling) and Sabbath-breakers, and an ambitious plan to divide the city into nonconformist 'parishes' for a common missionary effort. (fn. 19)

The main nonconformist groups may have peaked before 1900. Membership of the Wesleyan Methodist circuit fell from 588 in 1883 to 429 in 1910 and a mission to Hoole collapsed in the 1890s. (fn. 20) In contrast, fringe groups were proliferating between 1900 and 1914: a second Mormon missionary effort was begun, the Brethren fragmented, and for the first time there appeared small groups of Swedenborgians, Spiritualists (of two varieties), and Christian Scientists.


  • 1. Except where stated otherwise, what follows is based on the fuller treatment in V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches; Modern Parish Churches; Roman Catholicism; Protestant Nonconformity; Other Churches.
  • 2. V.C.H. Ches. iii. 58, 61, 192; A. T. Thacker, Chester Cath.: Music and Musicians (Chester, [1981]), 15-16; V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Cathedral Music and Music Festivals.
  • 3. Above, this chapter: Politics, 1762-1835.
  • 4. Sturman, Catholicism in Chester, 56-9. Plate 38.
  • 5. G. Borrow, Wild Wales, ed. D. Jones, 25.
  • 6. For migration trends: above, this chapter: The Economy, 1841-70.
  • 7. V.C.H. Ches. iii. 60, 63.
  • 8. Ibid. iii. 67, 69.
  • 9. Ibid. iii. 70, 74, 194.
  • 10. This para. and next based on Census, 1851, Religious Worship, p. cclv.
  • 11. Calculated by adding for each denomination the attendance for the best attended service, half that of the next best, and a third that of the third best.
  • 12. Cf. Census, 1851, Religious Worship, pp. cclii-cclxxii.
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. Hist. Methodist Ch. in G.B. ed. R. Davies and G. Rupp, i. 309.
  • 15. J.C.A.S. xxii. 192-4; H. D. Roberts, Matthew Henry and his Chapel, 1662-1900, 225; Trans. Unitarian Hist. Soc. v. 191.
  • 16. Rest of para. based on Census, 1851, Religious Worship, p. cclv.
  • 17. No figs. were returned for the chapel of Lady Huntingdon's connexion.
  • 18. Census, 1851, Religious Worship, pp. cclii-cclxxii.
  • 19. C.C.A.L.S., ZCR 55(2)/141; ZCR 572/1-3.
  • 20. Ibid. ZCR 55/21, no. [2]; ZCR 55/33.