The eighteenth century: Religion and education

A History of the County of York: the City of York. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1961.

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, 'The eighteenth century: Religion and education', in A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961) pp. 250-253. British History Online [accessed 21 May 2024].

. "The eighteenth century: Religion and education", in A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961) 250-253. British History Online, accessed May 21, 2024,

. "The eighteenth century: Religion and education", A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961). 250-253. British History Online. Web. 21 May 2024,

Religion and Education

From what has been said (fn. 1) it will be clear that in a city whose cathedral was dominated by whig churchmen, religious life throughout the 18th century followed the pattern eulogized by Archbishop Sharpe at the beginning of the century: 'both as to doctrine and worship the purest church ... in the world: the most orthodox in faith, the freest on the one hand from idolatry and superstition and on the other from freakishness and enthusiasm'. (fn. 2) Of the archbishops of this period only Herring was perhaps as vigorous a churchman as he was a politician; at his primary visitation he claimed to have confirmed 30,000 persons—a figure which, even allowing for exaggeration, shows unusual zeal. (fn. 3) The charges for Herring's visitation and those of Drummond (1761-76) are exceptionally comprehensive and some indication of the care that these prelates took to maintain and perhaps improve standards in their diocese. Drummond, too, is remembered for the improvements he made to the palace at Bishopthorpe; they included felling some of the trees in Bustardthorpe Closes that obscured his view of the minster from the palace. (fn. 4)

The corporation, representing the official policy of the city, kept in close touch with the minster and the occupants of the see. Each new archbishop was welcomed with the customary present of two silver decanters of the value of £25; (fn. 5) from time to time civic funds or materials were made available to help the few repairs to the minster that were made during the century. (fn. 6) In the first half of the century the corporation appear to have kept the furnishings of the city pews in the minster in order, but in 1785 seats were obtained for the council in St. Michael-le-Belfrey; services upon some public occasions were still, however, attended in the minster. (fn. 7) For the mayor's private use a pew in St. Martin's, Coney Street, was annexed to the Mansion House. (fn. 8)

Much information about the state of worship and religious life in the parish churches of the city is revealed by the returns to Herring's and Drummond's visitation charges in 1743 and 1764. (fn. 9) The 23 city churches were served by 18 incumbents in 1743 and one fewer in 1764. Pluralism could hardly be said to be rampant; in 1743 only two incumbents held other livings outside York and in both cases employed curates to serve whichever parish they were unable to attend. In 1764 two incumbents were in the same position; another held a Nottinghamshire benefice and had no curate, but in fact resided in York because he held office in the minster; and a fourth, who taught in a school in Wheldrake (E.R.), employed another incumbent as a curate. The opportunities for worship offered by these men were considerable. At both dates all but two of the churches held a service every Sunday; in 1743 a daily service was held in five churches and prayers twice or thrice weekly in another five; in 1764 there were fewer of these services but they were still to be found in three or four churches. It is clear, moreover, from the comments of some incumbents, that worshippers were prepared to visit churches in parishes other than their own; and by 1764, if not before, this had led, as one incumbent reported, to the arrangement that half the churches should hold their Sunday service in the morning and the remainder in the afternoon. And such an arrangement might be adjusted to meet special cases: St. Margaret's, which had always held its service in the afternoon, had in 1764 recently changed to the morning at the request of the parishioners because other churches on that side of Foss Bridge held theirs in the afternoon. It was one of the two churches—St. Lawrence's was the other—which in both 1743 and 1764 held only fortnightly services.

The struggle to make every parishioner a full member of the church was, if catechism is any index, pursued with moderate zeal. Catechetical teaching, sometimes with the aid of manuals and tracts, was usual only in Lent and some incumbents reported difficulty in persuading parents to send children regularly. In 17 of the churches Holy Communion was celebrated only 4 or 5 times a year, generally on the great festivals, but in the other 6 once a month. (fn. 10) Generally speaking, between a third and a half of the communicants, and occasionally more, received at Easter. In 1764 the incumbent at St. Denys's complained that many poor people in his parish were careless of communicating; the figures recorded for many other parishes at both dates suggest that he was not alone in this experience but no other complaint is recorded. In 1789 an unsuccessful candidate for the recordership upset the election and was eventually appointed by the Crown because he was able to show that two electors had not taken the sacrament for at least a year before the election and were thereby disqualified. (fn. 11)

The figures and information recorded in these returns, even allowing for the incumbents' anxiety to please a newly appointed and perhaps zealous diocesan, suggest that the parishioners were not, by the standards of the time, ill served. Of the priests' performance of the corporal works of mercy nothing is known, but most of them resided not only in the city but actually in or very near to their parishes, which hardly suggests they can have been entirely neglectful. The high standard suggested by the returns was perhaps partly due to the poverty of the York livings, for they were unlikely to attract the worldly churchman anxious for preferment. Four of the incumbents who made returns in 1743 made them again in 1764. That the livings were poor may be judged from the terriers quoted elsewhere and from the number of bounties attracted from Queen Anne's fund. (fn. 12) Poverty also accounts for the almost complete lack of rebuilding, even, indeed, of repair and redecoration. St. Olave's, it is true, was almost entirely rebuilt in the twenties but only because its use as a siege platform 80 years before had made it unsafe. And St. Olave's was one of the wealthiest churches of the city. The populous and wealthy parish of St. Michael-le-Belfrey managed to build a fine reredos in 1712 and a gallery in 1785, and the furnishings in St. Michael's, Spurriergate, and St. Martin-cum-Gregory are of the 18th century. But, for the most part, little could be done, and at All Saints', Pavement, the chancel was removed to enlarge the provision market and at Holy Trinity, King's Court, the chantry chapels to make the hay market. (fn. 13)

Of the conduct of the services there is no record. If the minster was a place of public recreation where irreverence was common, (fn. 14) the parish churches were probably no better. Some effort was made, however, to protect the sabbath. In 1711 the watchmen at the bars and posterns were ordered to prevent the movement of persons in or out of the city during divine service; in 1771 gaming on Sundays was punished by the stocks; and eight years later Sunday baking had become sufficiently common to warrant public notice of its prohibition. (fn. 15) The 18th-century city looked with disfavour, too, upon the burial wakes, common in the previous century, which had greatly delayed the carriage of the corpses to church. An order of 1694 regulating the hours of burial to stop the practice was repeated in 1718. (fn. 16)

The incumbents of 1764 reported as papists 51 families and 58 individuals in their parishes—perhaps 260 persons all told; these had been about 40 fewer in 1743. The Yorkshire Mission had been founded in 1742 and placed under the care of Thomas Daniel; a chapel had been built in Little Blake Street in 1760 and the congregation there in 1764 was said by one of its members to number about 170. Daniel was still priest and leader of the mission. The papists also assembled in a house in Holy Trinity, King's Court, parish; and in Blossom Street there was St. Mary's Convent, a boarding school, as Drake said, 'for young ladies of Roman Catholic families'. (fn. 17) Such a community was hardly large enough or vocal enough to arouse much enmity. It was subject, of course, to the disabilities of nonconformity—papists were refused freedom of the city at least in the early part of the century (fn. 18) —but does not appear to have been otherwise molested. (fn. 19)

Protestant nonconformists were about equal in number to the papists in 1764: about 22 families and 31 persons whom the incumbents called 'presbyterian', 24 families and 5 persons who were Quakers, and 6 Methodist families. The presbyterians comprised three groups: the independents and Unitarians of the St. Saviourgate Chapel, the congregation of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion in College Street, and some 60 Moravians. The presbyterians had declined in numbers since 1743, chiefly because of the doctrinal disputes that had weakened the College Street chapel and because the ministry of Newcome Cappe at St. Saviourgate had made that chapel an exclusive stronghold of Unitarianism. Cappe (1733–1800), however, was a divine of some distinction and laid the foundations at St. Saviourgate for Charles Wellbeloved in the early years of the next century. Like Wellbeloved, Cappe had literary interests and in 1771 founded a literary club. (fn. 20) The Quaker community, which had grown in the early years of the century, and had built its new meeting-house in 1717, changed very little between 1743 and 1764.

The six Methodist families recorded in 1764—there were none in 1743—were the first in the city. John Nelson had been preaching Methodism in and around York against considerable opposition since 1744 and Wesley had visited the city in the fifties; it seems likely that when Peaseholme Green Chapel was opened in 1759 the congregation numbered considerably more than the six families of the visitation returns. (fn. 21) Wesley preached many times in York during the remainder of the century and the membership of the congregation certainly grew, but the expansion of Methodism in the city took place in the early decades of the next century.

Neither the established church nor the nonconformist bodies did very much to im prove the opportunities for education in the city. (fn. 22) St. Peter's School was at its lowest ebb, housed in the derelict St. Andrew's Church and the Bedern; little or nothing is known of its activities. (fn. 23) Archbishop Holgate's had become a day school where, in 1764, 24 boys were taught English and Latin. (fn. 24) In seven or perhaps eight city parishes there were school masters who were licensed to teach in their own schools. (fn. 25) In St. Mary's, Castlegate, All Saints', North Street, and St. Saviour's parishes there were very small charity schools of 17th-century foundation; three more—the two Wilson's schools and Haughton's—were founded during the 18th century. The most ambitious project was the foundation in 1705 of the Blue Coat and Grey Coat charity schools for boys and girls. Though the schools received benefactions from many sources amongst the clergy and the gentry in the city, they were chiefly the work of the corporation. (fn. 26) The boys' school was intended to board and educate 40 boys who were either orphans or the sons of poor freemen, and the girls' school made much the same provision. In the first half of the century the schools were the corporation's constant care and the boys' school appears to have prospered throughout the century. The girls' school declined in the seventies and eighties but was reorganized by Catherine Cappe, second wife of the St. Saviourgate minister already noticed, and an ardent educational reformer. (fn. 27)

Catherine Cappe represents almost the only nonconformist interest in education during the century. A Roman Catholic school for girls had been founded at the Bar Convent in 1686 and a boys' school was established in Ogleforth in 1796, but the only Protestant nonconformist school was that founded by the Quaker, Esther Tuke, the second wife of the founder of the Retreat, in 1785. The school closed in 1814 but was the nucleus, as it were, from which the Mount School was formed in 1831. (fn. 28) It is to this period, the first few decades of the 19th century, that the foundation of nonconformist education in the city belongs.


  • 1. See above, Politics and Social Life.
  • 2. Johnson's England, ed. Turberville, i. 15.
  • 3. V.C.H. Yorks. iii. 71.
  • 4. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 44, p. 171.
  • 5. Ibid. 40, f. 148; 41, f. 156; 42, f. 62; 43, pp. 98, 101.
  • 6. Ibid. 42, ff. 136, 185; 43, p. 283.
  • 7. Ibid. 40, f. 204; 41, ff. 25-26; 43, p. 46; 45, pp. 198, 332, 337.
  • 8. Ibid. 42, f. 132.
  • 9. Herring's Visitation, vols. i-iii, passim; York Dioc. Regy. (St. Ant. Hall), Drummond's visitation.
  • 10. In 1743 St. Sampson's, St. Saviour's, St. Helen's, St. Martin-cum-Gregory, St. Mary's, Bishophill, Senior, and St. Mary's, Castlegate; in 1764 St. Martin's, Coney Street, had replaced St. Sampson's.
  • 11. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 45, pp. 348, 367, 370, 462.
  • 12. e.g. see pp. 372–3, 375. sqq.
  • 13. See pp. 371, 374.
  • 14. See pp. 351–2.
  • 15. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 41, f. 99; York Courant, 10 Sept. 1771, 5 Oct. 1779.
  • 16. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 41, ff. 187, 189.
  • 17. Ebor. 247.
  • 18. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 41, f. 204; 42, f. 119.
  • 19. Y.A.J. xxxviii, 82–85.
  • 20. D.N.B.; for Wellbeloved see pp. 405, 449.
  • 21. Two of the families still attended their parish ch. as well.
  • 22. For the history of individual schools see pp. 440–60.
  • 23. A. Raine, Hist. St. Peter's Sch. York, passim.
  • 24. York Dioc. Regy. (St. Ant. Hall), Drummond's Visitation.
  • 25. Ibid. R. IV and R. VI.
  • 26. Lady Hewley, Abp. Sharpe, and Lord Bingley were amongst their benefactors: D.N.B.; York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 42, f. 25.
  • 27. D.N.B.
  • 28. H. Winifred Sturge and Theodora Clark, The Mount Sch. York; the American grammarian, Lindley Murray (1745–1826), was living in Holgate after 1784 and probably took some interest in the school: D.N.B.; Pressly, York Miscel. 247 sqq.