Modern York: Religious life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

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

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'Modern York: Religious life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries', in A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961) pp. 302-308. British History Online [accessed 19 April 2024]

Religious Life in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Little change can be detected in the conduct of the parish churches or in Anglican religious life in the city during the first half of the 19th century. But whereas the incumbents of the late 18th century seem to have been more or less content with things as they were, their 19th-century successors, stimulated not only by national reform but by the rapid changes in the nature of society in the city, found much to complain of. There were too many parishes and they were too small; dissent was spreading; there was no encouragement or example from the minster; and the churches themselves were falling into ruin. Most of these complaints had some foundation but building and repair were not entirely neglected, especially from the eighteen-forties onwards. (fn. 1) Before that decade, restoration and repair were often only incidental to the truncation of churches for street widening. This had happened at All Saints', Pavement, in 1782 but the fabric had to be extensively restored in 1835–7 after gale damage, and there were further alterations in 1847. The east walls of St. Michael's, Spurriergate, and of Holy Trinity, King's Court, were taken down in 1821 and 1829 for a similar purpose. Apart from these cases there were some renovations of a minor character, but decay was only dealt with on a large scale in three churches: St. Saviour's (1844), St. Sampson's (1848), and St. Margaret's (1852), each of which was almost entirely rebuilt. As might be expected, it was in these parishes that the greatly increased population was to be found; but these rebuildings were not the only response of the Church to the expansion of the city and its partial industrialization. Two churches were built in this period in the new suburbs. St. Paul's (1851) served the railway workers of Holgate and 'Foundry'; St. Thomas's (1853–4) was built in the centre of The Groves where at first railway workers, and later Rowntree's employees, lived. The York Diocesan Church Building Society was founded in 1861 and made small grants of money towards the building of the other two suburban churches erected during the 19th century at Heworth (1866) and Clifton (1867–9). The society also made grants to increase accommodation in some of the ancient city churches and to improve their endowments, but it was chiefly active in parts of the diocese where there were great new industrial communities. (fn. 2)

In other respects the Church seems to have been less responsive to the needs of the growing city and this must be attributed in part to lack of leadership and example in the minster and at Bishopthorpe. Under Dean Cockburn (1822–58) and Archbishops Harcourt (1808–47) and Musgrave (1848–60) reform was unlikely. (fn. 3) Nor does the city seem to have attracted many distinguished Church figures. William Richardson (d. 1821), who ministered at St. Michael-le-Belfrey for 50 years, was of strong evangelical convictions and is said to have suffered for his opinions almost as if he had been a dissenter. The foundation of the York Sunday School Committee was largely his work. (fn. 4) George Trevor (1809–88), the 'high-church' divine, did not begin his ministry at All Saints', Pavement, until 1847. He left York in 1850 for a chaplaincy at Sheffield but was never allowed to preach in the parish church there. His second period of residence in York lasted, with certain intermissions, from 1855 to 1868, and during this time he was largely instrumental in reviving Northern Convocation. (fn. 5)

Trevor was outspoken in his replies to the questions put to him at Thomson's visitation in 1865. (fn. 6) His congregation, he said, was decreasing and he attributed the decline to dissent, to the destruction of the parochial system in the city, and to the 'suffocating' influence of the minster. He was convinced, after eighteen years' struggle, that nothing would help but the 'revival of the parochial system'. Many incumbents said much the same and several added 'intemperance' as one of the impediments to their work. In the two new churches in Holgate and The Groves and in the newly built St. Margaret's in Walmgate there was no want of congregation, though in The Groves the incumbent of St. Thomas's complained of the inimical effects of pew rents. In some parishes there were special local impediments to the work of the Church. In Holy Trinity, Micklegate, parish, 'infidel propaganda' was said to be disseminated in the railway workshops; in St. Cuthbert's a large employer of labour failed to set a good example and there was 'radicalism' amongst the workers; and in St. Sampson's the prevalence of dram shops as well as public houses brought whores to a neighbourhood where there were already three brothels.

Some attempt to remedy paganism and intemperance was made not only by the philanthropic societies—which are noticed below—but also by some parish priests. In 1868 the incumbent of St. Cuthbert's began a monthly service in the large work-shed of an iron foundry; it lasted for twenty minutes 'between dinner and work' and he claimed that he had 'an attentive audience amongst men once notorious for drunkenness'. But, he added, there were in the parish 'eleven public houses versus one small church'. (fn. 7) Against this, only about half the incumbents in 1871 were prepared to meet their parishioners in parochial church councils though those few that had tried them had found them useful; the abolition of church rates in all but a very few parishes had no doubt made the way easier for such meetings between the priest and his congregation. But the councils could make only an indirect contribution to solving the problems of indifference and, like the classes for adult religious instruction held in some parishes, helped those already within the Church rather than those barred by poverty and ignorance from its ministration. The lack of suitable clothes is sometimes mentioned by incumbents as a reason for the absence of parishioners from church. (fn. 8)

In blaming the destruction of the parochial system as the greatest impediment to their work, Trevor and his colleagues probably had in mind two things. On the one hand the ancient parishes of the city no longer had within them populations representative of all classes in the city, and the great increase in the city's population had not been distributed equally over all the parishes. In its simplest form the problem was that wealthy parishioners who had lived in town houses and supported the church were supplanted by business men who worked in the parish but lived elsewhere. On the other hand—and this was frequently a specific complaint—the York Diocesan National Schools Society, which had been formed in 1812, had adopted a policy of founding district schools rather than parish schools. (fn. 9)

These related complaints could hardly have been remedied. The increase in and redistribution of population that was the common urban experience of the times fitted ill into a city that had always had too many parishes. In some respects it was easier to subdivide the great industrial parishes of the West Riding; and it could justifiably be said that the need for action there was greater than in a city that still had more than twenty ancient churches. (fn. 10) Clearly there could be no return to a parochial system that even in the 18th century, before industrialization, had been seriously weakened by the very nature of urban life; the custom of moving from parish to parish for worship had been recognized and catered for as early as the seventeen-sixties. (fn. 11) Moreover, not only were many of the parishes impoverished but the benefices were, as they had always been, some of the poorest in the diocese. (fn. 12) Even in 1884, when much attention had been given to this problem and many of the livings had been augmented from the Bounty fund and by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, the average net income of twelve benefices in the centre of the city appears to have been no more than £150 and some of the incumbents were without a parsonage house. (fn. 13) It was perhaps this poverty, with all its attendant evils, that most hindered the work of the parish priest in the city for much of the 19th century. In the matter of the schools it may be remarked that while the incumbents might justifiably deplore the lack of opportunity for an early influence upon the youth of the parish, little else could have been done in the circumstances of the times. In one respect, however, 18th-century trends had been reversed, for the number of services had been increased and it was uncommon for churches to share the work. But this change was not accomplished before the middle of the century. In 1830 only St. Mary's, Bishophill, Senior, held two Sunday services and the remainder were still known as 'fore-noon' and 'after-noon' churches as they had been in the 18th century; St. Saviour's and St. Helen's and perhaps one or two others did, however, have a Sunday evening service. (fn. 14) By 1843 the movement to provide a morning and afternoon or an afternoon and evening service had spread to about half the churches; (fn. 15) by 1865 most churches were holding two services on Sundays and six, including St. Paul's and St. Thomas's, held a regular week-day service. (fn. 16) But even in the provision of services some incumbents complained that their efforts were defeated by the special circumstances of the city—the minster, they said, drew away their congregations. There is no doubt that this did occur. A. W. Duncombe, a 'high-churchman', had been appointed to the deanery in 1858; in 1863 he introduced nave services and it was these that attracted the parish priests' sharpest censure. 'The cathedral mass congregations', said Trevor in 1868, (fn. 17) 'are simply sensational and destructive'; other incumbents complained of the minster in less stringent terms but to the same effect; twenty years later similar complaints were still being made. (fn. 18)

Apart from the decline of the parochial system, all incumbents agreed that the greatest impediment to their work was dissent. The nonconformists might feel some pride that such a criticism was voiced, for their achievement was considerable. (fn. 19) In the course of the century about 30 chapels were built in and around the city, most of them between the second decade and the seventies. In all, these buildings provided about 18,000 sittings for worshippers, though it is doubtful if the larger chapels like Salem Congregational or Centenary and Wesley were regularly filled for more than short periods. But it may be remarked that if they were but half-filled, their united congregations would have been larger than those attending the parish churches in 1884 when the incumbents reported a total of about 7,000 worshippers each Sunday in 24 churches. Many of the chapels were built by one or other of the Methodist connexions and there is no doubt that Methodism had the greatest number of adherents. But the congregations of St. Saviourgate Chapel and of Salem and the Society of Friends were of equal, perhaps at times greater, influence in the city.

Nonconformity, and particularly Methodism, no doubt attracted the middle and poorer classes of the population for much the same reasons as in similar urban conditions elsewhere. But it was fortunate in the presence of several outstanding figures. Charles Wellbeloved was not only minister of St. Saviourgate Chapel from 1801 to 1858 but at the centre of educational life in the city of his time. Manchester College was brought to York that he might direct it and to it came James Martineau as a student and John Kenrick as a tutor. Besides this, Wellbeloved extended his educational work into secular fields where he was prominent in the founding of the Philosophical Society, the Subscription Library, and the Mechanics' Institute. Nor were his sympathies narrow, for after the fire of 1829 in the minster it was he who led the subscription for restoration. (fn. 20) James Parsons (1799–1877) was not less influential in a narrower field. He came to Lendal Congregational Chapel in 1822 and soon attracted such large congregations that Salem Chapel had to be built to house them. He ministered at Salem until 1870 and has been called 'the most outstanding pulpit orator of his time'. (fn. 21) The influence of the Society of Friends is, by its nature, less easy to detect. The meeting-house that had sufficed in the 18th century was rebuilt and greatly enlarged in 1816 and membership of the York society was undoubtedly growing. Joseph Rowntree (1801–59) is typical of Quaker endeavour in the city in the 19th century. He came to York in 1822 and began business as a grocer; from that time education, especially within the society, was his chief interest and he was prominent in the establishment of Bootham and The Mount schools. Rowntree, too, was a friend of the Tukes whose educational and philanthropic work—which is described elsewhere—illustrates another aspect of the influence of the Quakers in the 19th century. (fn. 22) The Methodists, though so much stronger in numbers, produced no outstanding figure in the city. But they were to be found in civic government—Joseph Agar, Alderman Meek, and John Lyth, for example—and in the commercial world. (fn. 23)

Both churchmen and nonconformists took part in providing education in the city. The York Sunday School Committee was formed in 1786 under the strong evangelical influence of Richardson at Belfrey and the committee eventually opened 10 schools for boys and girls, some of them doing weekday work. (fn. 24) By 1841 there were 8 schools attended, it was said, by 1,000 pupils. The schools began to decline shortly after this and by the fifties their character was closer to that of the modern Sunday schools. The Sunday-school work was augmented by the formation of church societies of evangelical inspiration during the first three decades of the 19th century: the York Charitable Society (1801), the York Church Missionary Society (1814), the York Auxiliary Tract (or Bible) Society (c. 1823), and the Temperance Society (1830). (fn. 25) In all this work the nonconformists were equally to the fore. A Wesleyan Sunday School Committee was formed in 1791 (fn. 26) and every nonconformist chapel built in the 19th century included accommodation for Sunday schools—in such chapels as Wesley, Salem, and Centenary it was of a most extensive character. And in the fields of missionary enterprise, charity, and temperance each sect and chapel played some part. An interdenominational mission to the city was founded in 1848.

During the first half of the 19th century, therefore, as might be expected, nonconformity expanded very considerably in the city, building new chapels and establishing a congregation as large if not larger than that of the parishes. To this number must be added, too, the Roman Catholics of the city, a body much expanded by the Irish immigration of the thirties and forties. To meet the needs of these immigrants St. George's Church was built in Walmgate in 1850 and St. Wilfrid's was enlarged in 1864. By the eighteen-eighties the success of nonconformity was no longer a subject for comment by parish priests, although at St. Saviour's it was remarked that the then recently formed Salvation Army Corps drew away some of the congregation. (fn. 27) Moreover the destruction of the parochial system was now not only accepted but considered desirable and the call on every side was for a reorganization of the parish churches. The need for new provision was made the more urgent by the extension of the city boundaries in 1884. In the previous year the great increase of population that was about to occur, the number of small parishes and the presence of several over-large ones, and the continuing poverty of the livings had been pointed out by a layman to a meeting of the clergy at the York Church Institute—itself a body formed that year to bring the clergy together for concerted discussion and perhaps action. (fn. 28) In 1885 a commission of inquiry was appointed by the archbishop but despite wide agreement that something should be done, only two benefices, St. Crux and Holy Trinity, King's Court, were united with others. Apart from this over-all need for reorganization, smaller difficulties yet remained. Worshippers still moved from church to church or were drawn away by what the incumbent of St. Thomas's called 'special attractions got up in places of worship'. St. Thomas's in the eighties had Sunday congregations of 400 in a church that held just over 500; the population of the parish was 7,500. Many persons left for want of room in the free seats—an avoidable misfortune and a practice condemned by Archbishop Thomson in a charge to the clergy twenty years earlier. (fn. 29)

The problems inherent in the parochial organization were not alleviated until the thirties of the next century and may in some senses be said still to hamper the work of the Church in the city. But after the eighteen-eighties it is difficult to distinguish national from local problems. Nonconformity does not appear to have declined but much of it was concentrated in the Methodist connexions and their successor. To meet the demands of the expanding population five Methodist chapels or mission rooms were built in the suburbs in the eighties and four more in the first decade of the 20th century. Within the established church some diversity of practice may be observed by 1900. (fn. 30) The new churches of the suburbs tended to be evangelical or at any rate 'low' church. Canon G. M. Argles at St. Clement's, who maintained during his long ministry a reputation for forceful preaching, wrote to the archbishop in 1900 reiterating the old complaint that the 'musical performances' at the minster were very harmful; 'if they [the congregation] were drawn away', he said, 'for something profitable I should not so much mind'. In all churches the exhortation before Communion was either entirely omitted or said only in part on festivals but there seem to have been no more remarkable deviations from the Prayer Book. Two Sunday services were by now universal and daily prayer was said in seven churches. In 1931 a new commission of inquiry recommended the long-overdue amalgamation of parishes and the building of new churches in the suburbs. (fn. 31) Most of the amalgamations were eventually completed so that in 1959 only 13 remained of the 40 or so ancient parishes. But apart from two in Acomb, only four new churches were built in the suburbs in the 20th century and only one of them after 1931; three of these churches, moreover, were still incomplete in 1939. The commission's inquiry brought into prominence yet another problem, for although their recommendations were cautious it was clear that they involved the demolition of several churches. The possibility aroused strong opposition in many quarters on aesthetic and historical grounds. (fn. 32) Only one church, Holy Trinity, King's Court, was demolished; another, that of St. John's, Ouse Bridge End, was later adapted for a secular purpose.

By 1936 (fn. 33) 27 churches were providing sittings for about 12,000 worshippers and in most there was an extensive calendar of services and meetings. In 23 churches Holy Communion was celebrated each Sunday and in the remainder every other week. In 7 churches 'vestments' were in use and in 5 the Sacraments were always reserved. In most cases permission for these practices had been given by the archbishop but in reply to the question 'By whom and at what date was permission for such Reservation given ?' Patrick Shaw of All Saints', North Street, roundly answered, 'By no mortal men, and at no time, to me.' The influence of Shaw's high-churchmanship was still to be seen in the furnishings of the church twenty years later. The social conditions of the thirties influenced the work of some incumbents although unemployment does not seem to have been widespread. In St. Saviour's, however, where half the men were said to be out of work, the incumbent declared that his flock were nonconformists when they were well and parishioners when they were ill; a few days before he made this answer to the archbishop's inquiries he had given away 120 bags of coal to the needy. Nonconformity was, or at least had been, highly concentrated in his parish; in the later 19th century five different sects had meeting places in St. Saviourgate alone. By 1936, however, the parish had become one of the worst slums in the city and was about to be cleared by the corporation and it seems likely that the parishioners were not so much waverers as paupers, driven to find help where they could. In St. Barnabas's—the 'Foundry' area of the railway works—two working men's clubs dominated the affairs of the locality and although there was some measure of understanding the incumbent found himself faced with difficulties inherent in a tightly knit industrial community.

Only 1 church, St. Martin's, Coney Street, was damaged by enemy action in the Second World War. (fn. 34) After the war 3 other churches, St. Saviour's, St. John's, Ouse Bridge End, and St. Mary's, Bishophill, Senior, were no longer used for religious purposes, and in 4 others services were only held occasionally. In 12 other ancient city churches services were held regularly in 1959. The movement of population by rehousing after the thirties was chiefly to the Burton Stone Lane district, Heworth, Tang Hall, and Acomb. In all these places churches had been built to serve the new populations before 1939; in the southern portion of Acomb, which is remote both from the parish church and from another built in 1937, a mission church was built in 1955.


  • 1. For details of restoration, &c., see the sources quoted in pp. 365–404; see also Knight, Hist. York, passim, and directories for the period.
  • 2. York Dioc. Ch. Bldg. Soc. Eighth Ann. Rep. (York, 1869).
  • 3. D.N.B.; see pp. 353–4; Harcourt did, however, give much attention to the subdivision of populous parishes outside York. V.C.H. Yorks. iii. 76.
  • 4. Knight, Hist. York, 602.
  • 5. D.N.B.
  • 6. York Dioc. Regy. (St. Ant. Hall), R. VI. A. 49.
  • 7. Ibid. R. VI. A. 50.
  • 8. York Dioc. Regy. (St. Ant. Hall), R. VI. A. 51.
  • 9. Knight, Hist. York, 560.
  • 10. For the work in the W.R. see V.C.H. Yorks. iii. 76–77.
  • 11. See p. 251.
  • 12. William Thomson, Work and Prospects, A Charge to the Clergy (Lond. 1865), 4–5.
  • 13. York Dioc. Regy. (St. Ant. Hall), R. Bp. c.; in 1883 it was calculated that the gross endowments of 18 incumbents within half a mile of the Mansion House totalled £4,157 which gives an average of £231 gross for each incumbent; these 18 incumbents held between them 21 benefices in that area: F. J. Munby, The Future of the Church in York (priv. print. York, 1883 for the York Ch. Inst.).
  • 14. W. Parson and W. White, Dir. Leeds, York, &c. (1830).
  • 15. [Williams], York Dir. (Hull, 1843).
  • 16. York Dioc. Regy. (St. Ant. Hall), R. VI. A. 49.
  • 17. Ibid. R. VI. A. 50.
  • 18. Ibid. R. VI. Bp. c.
  • 19. For details see pp. 404–18.
  • 20. D.N.B.; see pp. 405, 449.
  • 21. D.N.B.
  • 22. Ibid.; see pp. 443, 472.
  • 23. See pp. 408–16 and the sources quoted there, in particular Lyth, Meth. in York, and Camidge, Olde Streete of Pavement; see also Skaife, 'Civic Officials' (MS. in York Pub. Libr.).
  • 24. John Howard, Hist. Sketch York Sun. Sch. Cttee. (priv. print. York, 1896), 5 sqq.
  • 25. Reps. of these bodies in York Pub. Libr.
  • 26. Knight, Hist. York, 562.
  • 27. York Dioc. Regy. (St. Ant. Hall), R. VI. Bp. c.
  • 28. Munby, Future of the Church in York; Yorks. Gaz. 9 June 1883.
  • 29. Thomson, Work and Prospects.
  • 30. York Dioc. Regy. (St. Ant. Hall), R. VI. Bp. e.
  • 31. See p. 367.
  • 32. See, e.g. [A. Raine], Five Anct. Chs. in Danger of Demolition.
  • 33. York Dioc. Regy. (St. Ant. Hall), R. VI. Bp. f.
  • 34. See p. 387.