Gloucester, 1660-1720: Religious and cultural life

Pages 117-119

A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 4, the City of Gloucester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1988.

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Religious and Cultural Life

At the Restoration the godly religious regime which had been established earlier in the 17th century was overturned. Some ministers conformed to the new Anglican order; others like James Forbes suffered ejection and harassment under the Uniformity and Conventicle Acts. (fn. 1) Most of the city's lectureships were phased out: that in St. Michael's church ceased in December 1661. (fn. 2) Pensions to puritan veterans like the widow of John Workman came to an end. (fn. 3) The cathedral and with it the city library was restored to the dean and chapter. (fn. 4)

In the late 1660s quarter sessions heard a number of cases against dissenters for non-attendance at church. (fn. 5) After the failure of Exclusion the Tory magistracy launched a systematic persecution of nonconformists. (fn. 6) Despite those onslaughts the evidence suggests that nonconformity survived as an influential force in Gloucester's religious life in the late 17th century. The Independent or Congregationalist church, led by James Forbes, had the largest following. In 1672 Forbes was licensed under the Declaration of Indulgence to hold a meeting at Sampson Bacon's house, (fn. 7) and in the late 1670s he was said to be 'preaching to at least a hundred auditors'. (fn. 8) About 1680 the Tory mayor arrested and imprisoned Forbes, but succeeded only in stirring up the dissenting interest. (fn. 9) Forbes was released after government intervention and moved outside the city, but continued to plague the authorities. Bishop Frampton denounced him in 1682 as 'the source of all the schisms that we have had in and about Gloucester'. (fn. 10) Forbes resumed his work in Gloucester in 1687 after James II's introduction of toleration. (fn. 11) As well as Forbes's group, there were several other Independent congregations in the city in the early 1670s, and the Baptists and the Quakers had small meetings after the Restoration. (fn. 12) About 1664 John Edmonds was charged with distributing Quaker tracts, and a few years later the wealthier Bristol meeting donated funds for the relief of the Gloucester Friends. (fn. 13) In 1670 a monthly meeting was established in the city and a number of Quakers were imprisoned in the early 1680s. (fn. 14)

The continuing strength of dissent after the Restoration was partly due to the decay of the church courts. (fn. 15) Also, one of the leading clergy in the cathedral, Edward Fowler, was an avowed Whig and supporter of toleration. (fn. 16) Effective persecution was impeded by the fact that dissenters were elected to parish office in considerable numbers and formed a substantial minority on the corporation. (fn. 17) Sudden reversals of government policy, with the proclamation of toleration in 1672 and under James II, also brought campaigns against dissent to a halt.

After the Revolution of 1688 and the final advent of toleration James Forbes was the leading figure in city nonconformity. He sought to bring together the different groups; he opened his vast library to other dissenting ministers; and he educated young men for the ministry. In 1699 the Barton Street meeting house was built for him. (fn. 18) Already before his death in 1712 there were strains in the congregation and by 1716 a large part had seceded to form a separate church. (fn. 19)

The established church remained in the doldrums after the Restoration. The dean and chapter devoted much of their energy to recovering control of property in and out of the city which had been lost during the Interregnum; (fn. 20) they regained their jurisdiction over the close in 1672. (fn. 21) The parish unions made in 1648 were reversed but the five demolished churches were not replaced and the inhabitants of their parishes continued to attend the churches of larger parishes; a sixth church, Holy Trinity, was demolished, except for the tower, in 1699. (fn. 22) Pluralism was widespread, (fn. 23) and other abuses also reappeared. The large parish of St. Mary de Lode, which was impropriated to the dean and chapter and was reputedly worth £500 per annum, had a meagrely paid vicar who engaged in litigation with the chapter to try and obtain a share of the great tithes. (fn. 24)

A more lively element in the city's cultural life in the later Stuart period was education. There is little evidence for the petty or primary schools, but there may have been a sizeable number. John Collier, for instance, kept a writing school in the 1680s with various writing tables and forms in his house and a small collection of teaching books. (fn. 25) A charity school started by subscription in 1700 was teaching basic learning to over 80 children in 1711. (fn. 26) In 1666 the Londoner Sir Thomas Rich endowed a more advanced, bluecoat school on the model of Christ's Hospital to teach 20 poor boys. (fn. 27)

The principal endowed schools in the city remained the College school in the cathedral and the Crypt school. Abraham Hague was master of the Crypt from 1656 to 1696 and was said in 1675 to have 'bred several scholars, some whereof are now eminent men in the university'; on occasions other schools tried to lure him away to teach in them. (fn. 28) After Hague's death, however, there was a considerable turnover of masters and by 1719 the school was in 'such a condition that … parents though burgesses are obliged to send their children to other schools for education at great charges'. (fn. 29) At the College school the master from 1673 to 1684 was Oliver Gregory, a former usher of the Crypt. Gregory was a rigorous teacher with a particular gift for teaching Greek: according to one account 'he became famous in Greek by reading all authors, prose and verse, occasioned by his being overdone [beaten] once by an antagonist in Greek'. (fn. 30) His successor Maurice Wheeler, master until 1712, was even better known, attracting numerous sons of the gentry to the school from a wide area of the county. (fn. 31) In the 1670s it was described as 'a long, spacious, lightsome school'; the library was very extensive with a number of historical, geographical, and mathematical works. (fn. 32) In addition to the endowed grammar schools there were also various private establishments. In 1677 at least five private schools were operating in the city. Between 1708 and 1712 there was a dissenting academy with a number of students. (fn. 33) In George I's reign Mrs. Shelton advertised her school near the cathedral where 'young ladies may be boarded at reasonable rates and taught several sorts of work'. (fn. 34)

Literacy rates seem to have been rising. In the case of Gloucester men appearing as witnesses in the church courts in the years 1660–85, 88 per cent could sign their own names; among women the proportion was a third. (fn. 35) Evidence from wills also shows a fairly high level of literacy; 74 per cent of male testators between 1660 and 1739 could sign their names; the comparable figure for women was 49 per cent. On the other hand there remained important variations according to occupational grouping. Among testators in the period 1660–1739 virtually all the gentlemen and professional men could sign; the proportion was 64 per cent for tradesmen and artisans and 41 per cent for yeomen. (fn. 36) Much of the impetus for educational expansion came from the growth of internal trade and rising living standards among the middling and lower orders. Also significant, however, was the growing influence of the county gentry. Gloucester by the early 18th century was a tolerably civilized city. In addition to the cathedral library it had several booksellers, most notably Gabriel Harris, who also published various books. (fn. 37) The earliest detailed history of the city and county was compiled by a Gloucester man, Abel Wantner (d. 1714), parish clerk of St. John the Baptist. (fn. 38) The city's first newspaper appeared in 1722. (fn. 39)

The emergence of Gloucester as a social centre led to an efflorescence of cultural activities to entertain the gentry and other well-to-do folk. There were concerts of vocal and instrumental music at the Tolsey and elsewhere in the city with soloists from Bristol and Bath. (fn. 40) A music club flourished, holding its annual feast on St. Cecilia's day attended by a large number of ladies and gentlemen; there were also monthly gatherings and private rehearsals which were sometimes held at the deanery. (fn. 41) City printers published works by local musicians with long lists of Gloucester subscribers. (fn. 42) By 1718 the music meeting (later the Three Choirs festival) had been established. (fn. 43) Other fashionable entertainments included balls and assemblies at the Tolsey, (fn. 44) plays, usually performed by touring companies, (fn. 45) and early scientific exhibitions and lectures. (fn. 46) Civic rituals were increasingly oriented towards the gentry. Thus the nomination day feast was frequently attended by prominent landowners. (fn. 47) By the 1720s Gloucester enjoyed the economic, social, and cultural buoyancy of a reviving county town.


  • 1. Calamy Revised, ed. A.G. Matthews, 204–5.
  • 2. G.B.R., B 3/3, p. 214.
  • 3. Ibid. p. 258.
  • 4. Eward, Cat. of Glouc. Cath. Libr. p. viii.
  • 5. G.B.R., G 3/SIb 2, pt. i, pp. 360–1, 369.
  • 6. Ibid. pt. ii, p. 196, et passim.
  • 7. Original Rec. of Early Nonconf. ed. G. L. Turner (1911), i. 600.
  • 8. G.D.R. vol. 221 (office versus Forbes).
  • 9. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1680–1, 45–6.
  • 10. Bodl. MS. Tanner 316, f. 251.
  • 11. Calamy Revised, ed. A. G. Matthews, 205.
  • 12. Original Rec. ed. Turner, i. 600; below, Prot. Nonconf.
  • 13. Extracts from State Papers Relating to Friends 1654–1672, ed. N. Penney (1913), 228; Minute Book of the Men's Meeting of the Soc. of Friends in Bristol 1667–1686 (Bristol Rec. Soc. xxvi), 33–4.
  • 14. Glos. R.O., D 1340/A 1/M 1; Cal. S.P. Dom. Jan.–June 1683, 133.
  • 15. Glos. Colln. 10633(76).
  • 16. D.N.B.; E. Fowler, Resolution of this Case of Conscience (Lond. 1683), 53–4.
  • 17. G.D.R. vol. 219 (churchwardens of St. Michael versus Freeman and Marshall); above, city govt. and politics.
  • 18. Calamy Revised, ed. A. G. Matthews, 205.
  • 19. Ibid.; G. F. Nuttall, 'George Whitefield's "Curate"', Jnl. Eccl. Hist. xxvii. 374 sqq.; below, Prot. Nonconf.
  • 20. P.R.O., C 6/155/110; C 6/230/73.
  • 21. Above, city govt. and politics.
  • 22. Below, Churches and Chapels.
  • 23. Glos. R.O., D 262, ff. 246–248v.
  • 24. P.R.O., C 5/140/19.
  • 25. G.D.R. invent. 1688/117.
  • 26. Below, Educ., elem. educ., Poor's sch.
  • 27. Ibid. Sir Thos. Rich's sch.
  • 28. Austin, Crypt Sch. 110–11; G.D.R. vol. 221 (office versus Littleton); for Hague, cf. P. Ripley, 'A Seventeenth-Century Consistory Court Case', Trans. B.G.A.S. c. 213–17.
  • 29. G.B.R., B 3/9, f. 57v.
  • 30. Bodl. MS. Rawl. D. 191, ff. 7v.–8, 18 and v.
  • 31. V.C.H. Glos. ii. 331.
  • 32. Bodl. MS. Corpus Christi 390/1, f. 142; 390/3, f. 205.
  • 33. G.D.R. vol. 220 (reversed); ibid. B 4/1/1056; below, Prot. Nonconf.
  • 34. Glouc. Jnl. 11 Feb. 1723.
  • 35. G.D.R. vols. 205, 211, 219, 221, 232.
  • 36. Ripley, 'Glouc. 1660–1740', 173.
  • 37. Glouc. Cath. Libr. MS. 71; Plomer et al., Dict. 1668–1725, 228, 246; H. R. Plomer et al., Dict. of Printers and Booksellers 1726–75 (1932), 116; Glos. Colln. NQ 4. 33.
  • 38. Trans. B.G.A.S. xcix. 170–2; his MS. hist., which was never published, is in Bodl. MS. Top. Glouc. c. 3.
  • 39. Below, Glouc. 1720–1835, social and cultural life.
  • 40. Glouc. Jnl. 10, 17 Sept. 1722.
  • 41. Ibid. 30 Nov. 1725; 1 Dec. 1730.
  • 42. B. Gunn, Two Cantatas … Set to Musick (Glouc. 1736); Glos. Colln. 26048; A.M. Broadley, Wm. and Phil. Hayes: Cat. of their Compositions (Bridport, 1900), 4–5, 7.
  • 43. Shaw, Three Choirs Festival, 1–2.
  • 44. Glouc. Jnl. 30 Nov. 1724; 23 Aug. 1725.
  • 45. Ibid. 2 Nov. 1724; 7 Mar. 1727.
  • 46. Ibid. 4 June 1728.
  • 47. G.B.R., F 4/7, passim.