Modern Beverley: Religious and Cultural Life, 1835-1918

A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1989.

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'Modern Beverley: Religious and Cultural Life, 1835-1918', in A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989) pp. 148-151. British History Online [accessed 25 April 2024]

Religious and Cultural Life, 1835–1918

Religion in 19th-century Beverley was inevitably affected by the architecture of the two churches, and in fact the maintenance and repair of the fabric of each was a main preoccupation. The townspeople valued their churches: a petition of 1840, signed by nearly 900 parishioners, described the minster as 'one of the noblest and most beautiful structures in the kingdom, . . . the possession of which fills them with the warmest gratitude'. (fn. 1) The minster underwent major restoration in the 1820s and again in the 1860s and 1870s under the direction of Sir Gilbert Scott. Its embellishment was a notable focus of public interest and included the construction of an ornate choir screen, carved by J. E. Elwell and completed in 1880. There followed works initiated and largely paid for by Canon H. E. Nolloth during his long incumbency (1880-1921): the making of new bells, the installation of stained-glass windows, the filling of the niches on the west front, towers, and north porch with statuary in commemoration of the Jubilee of 1897, and the erection of wrought-iron railings around the churchyard. (fn. 2) St. Mary's was restored in the 1840s and 1850s by the Pugins, and there were further repairs in the 1860s under Sir Gilbert Scott. The church also acquired one of Elwell's works, a new reredos, dedicated in 1881. (fn. 3) Those embellishments, which went far beyond what was structurally necessary, were in striking contrast to the community's unwillingness to spend money on sanitary improvements.

South-eastern Yorkshire in general was an area which was hardly touched by the Oxford movement. Beverley was nationally known in the 19th and early 20th century as a place with a strong and at times militant protestant tradition. That had been evident during the struggle for Roman Catholic emancipation in the 1820s. (fn. 4) It was reinforced by the sale of the advowson of the minster in 1837 to the Simeon trustees, (fn. 5) and appeared again in the agitation against 'papal aggression' in 1850-1, when the proportion of the population in the East Riding signing memorials and petitions against the restoration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy was one of the highest in the country. (fn. 6) Anti-Catholicism was revived strongly in Beverley in the 1860s and an Orange Society lodge was formed; it met in May 1864 and on several other occasions in the following years, and it held a demonstration in the assembly rooms in 1866. (fn. 7) Thereafter the agitation died down: with the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869-70 the battle had been lost. In that agitation a connexion with Edwards's electioneering must be suspected, antiCatholicism providing a natural rallying cry for parts of the electorate which his other methods could not reach. The anti-Catholic movement had its headquarters at St. John's chapel, Lairgate, where one of the minster curates, W. B. Crickmer, was noted for his militant sermons on the subject. (fn. 8) Trollope wrote of his proposal to attend the minster one Sunday: 'I was told that was quite useless, as the Church party were all certain to support Sir Henry. "Indeed", said the publican, my tyrant, "he goes there in a kind of official procession, and you had better not allow yourself to be seen in the same place"'. (fn. 9) Edwards, for his part, told voters 'plainly and frankly' that he believed Mr. Gladstone was 'a thorough Roman Catholic, and of the worst description, because he is a Jesuit'. (fn. 10) The political reasons for antiCatholicism were enhanced by the fact that two of the Liberal candidates, John Towneley (1841 and 1847) and Marmaduke Maxwell (1868), came from Catholic families. (fn. 11) The attitude cannot be connected, as is often suggested, with competition from Irish immigrant labour, since a mere 60-90 Roman Catholics were enumerated in the religious census of 1851. Later there was evidently some increase in numbers, and a new church, dedicated to St. John of Beverley, was opened in 1898. (fn. 12)

The protestant tradition survived into a period when these political and social considerations scarcely applied. It was shown again in passive resistance to the Conservatives' Education Act of 1902, which put the cost of denominational schools on the rates. In 1903 some 50 members of the Primitive Methodist chapel in Wednesday Market joined the Passive Resistance League. Twenty-one of them appeared before the magistrates in January 1904 and 18 were still making their regular half-yearly appearance in July 1907; each time some of their goods were distrained. (fn. 13) The tradition was, moreover, strengthened in 1902, when a proposal to exclude nonconformists from membership of the Church Institute, a society which had been formed in 1866, was overwhelmingly defeated. (fn. 14)

The relative strength of Anglicanism and nonconformity is hard to assess. The religious census of 1851 recorded a majority of nonconformists in the town but the figures may be suspect. (fn. 15) The largest numbers, 600 for the morning attendance, 100 for the afternoon, and 800 for the evening, returned for the Wesleyan Methodists at the Walkergate chapel, were evidently exaggerated. The total number of Wesleyan Methodists in the circuit, which included some surrounding villages, was only 565 in 1851, rising to about 900 in 1881. (fn. 16) The maximum number of communicants recorded at the Walkergate chapel in 1869 was 170; later it dropped from 182 in 1879 to 112 in 1899, and the amount raised in collections fell in a similar proportion. (fn. 17) For the Primitive Methodists, circuit figures are a better indication of numbers in Beverley, for the circuit was smaller; circuit membership was between 400 and 450 at the end of the century. (fn. 18)

Church of England attendances can be traced through returns to the archbishops' visitations. The figures for morning attendance in 1864 of 600-700 at the minster, 500 at St. Mary's, and 400 at St. John's chapel, Lairgate, compare reasonably well with the figures in the religious census. In 1877 the respective figures were 800 for the minster and St. John's chapel and 700 for St. Mary's; in 1884 they were 950-1,000 and 600. (fn. 19) Individual congregations may have grown or shrunk, but it seems that, down to the end of the century, the general pattern of church attendance remained stable.

Numbers fell after 1900, but the formal evidence of decline was less pronounced, and appeared later, than might have been expected. The number of members in the Primitive Methodist circuit fell from about 400 in 1912-14 to just over 300 in the late 1920s. (fn. 20) In the Church of England the morning attendance at the minster and St. John's was 800-850 and at St. Mary's 300-400. The numbers of Easter communicants at the minster were about 500 in 1917-20, and at St. Mary's and St. Nicholas's together they were about the same; in 1928-30, the last years for which figures are available, numbers at the minster were about 450 and at St. Mary's and St. Nicholas's nearly 600. (fn. 21) The fall in numbers came later: at the minster they are suggested by the numbers on the electoral roll, which fell from 1,203 in 1925 to 725 thirty years later. (fn. 22) Among the nonconformists evidence is provided by the closure and demolition of chapels. (fn. 23)

Nonconformity was strong in Beverley, but it could not be argued that the public life of the town was dominated by it. The leading industrialists, for example, had a variety of affiliations: Richard Hodgson was an Anglican, (fn. 24) the Cochranes, Crathorne, and Tigar were Congregationalists, and William Crosskill and the Sawneys were Methodists. (fn. 25)

Outside the churches there were various institutions that brought people together. There was a theatre in Lairgate until it was demolished in 1844. At least one race meeting was held each year on Hurn. The 18th-century assembly rooms were enlarged in 1840 and used for a variety of entertainments during the 19th century. (fn. 26) The uses to which they were put changed with the passage of time and tended to become more popular: among them may be found the Orange Society meetings of the 1860s, preaching by C. H. Spurgeon, the Baptist, flower shows and concerts, dinners and dances, and performances by the Christy Minstrels. (fn. 27) The Mechanics' Institute, founded in 1832, had its own hall from 1841-2, but it was virtually defunct by the 1860s. Several newsrooms and societies had similar 'improving' aims, (fn. 28) and early specialized groups included the Natural History Society (founded in 1859), the Chess Club (c. 1860), the Minster Choral Society (1865), and a cricket club which at first played on Westwood. (fn. 29) Between 1835 and 1870 another 15 friendly societies, not all of them long lived, were added to those already in existence. (fn. 30) Popular recreation was provided by some 50 public houses and beerhouses in the town; (fn. 31) in opposition the Beverley Total Abstinence Society maintained two Temperance Halls, one purpose-built in Well Lane from 1845 and the other in Holme Church Lane from 1856. (fn. 32)

Although the industrial structure and the population of the town were changing only slowly, social life underwent a substantial development between c. 1870 and the First World War. With the disfranchisement of the town the external pressure on local politics was removed. In religious life, while Beverley was widely known as a home of the 'low church', the aggressive anti-Catholicism of the 1860s faded and Canon Nolloth redirected the energies of his parish towards Bible studies, temperance, and the adornment of the minster. (fn. 33) The churches supported two coffee taverns designed to encourage temperance, the Market Cross Tavern in Saturday Market, opened in 1878, and the British Workman at Beckside, opened in 1882. (fn. 34) There grew up a host of varied new organizations, including the Musical Society (founded in 1874), the Gymnastic Society (1875), with its own hall in Mill Lane from 1889, the Photographic and Sketching Society (1893), the Choral Society (1896), the Debating Society (c. 1900), and the Rifle Club (1909), using a range presented to the town by Adm. Walker. (fn. 35) Various animal, bird, and flower shows were held (fn. 36) and sporting meetings organized; (fn. 37) sports clubs included the Golf Club (founded in 1889), with a course on Westwood, the Cycling and Athletic Club (c. 1886), and the Swimming Club (1889). (fn. 38) The long established local lodge of freemasons acquired the former dispensary in Register Square for its hall in 1886. (fn. 39) Another half dozen friendly societies were also established after 1870. (fn. 40)

The designation of Beverley as the county town of the East Riding in 1892 and the completion of new barracks in 1877, as the depot of the East Yorkshire Regiment, helped to augment a professional and prosperous middle class. Institutions which would make possible a cultural life similar to that in larger towns appeared with the opening in 1902 of a new building in Queensgate for the grammar school, which had been re-established in 1890, the erection of a large public library endowed by J. E. Champney in 1906, and the foundation of the girls' high school, in Norwood, in 1908. (fn. 41)


  • 1. H.R.O..PE/129/128, p. 166.
  • 2. Beverley Guardian, 9 Oct. 1880; below, Churches. For Nolloth see Beverley Guardian, 24 Sept. 1921; 23 Nov. 1929.
  • 3. Beverley Guardian, 5 Nov. 1881; below, Churches.
  • 4. Below, Rom. Cath.
  • 5. Below, Churches.
  • 6. D. G. Paz, 'Popular Anti-Catholicism in Eng. 1850-1', Albion (Texas), ii (4), 359.
  • 7. H.R.O., DDBC/21/104; Beverley Guardian, 28 May 1864; 14 July 1866.
  • 8. G. P. Brown, Minster Life, [10].
  • 9. Ant. Trollope, an Autobiog. ed. F. Page, 301.
  • 10. H. J. Hanham, Elections and Party Management, 215.
  • 11. Markham, Nineteenth-Cent. Elections, 11-12, 47-8.
  • 12. Below, Rom. Cath.
  • 13. Beverley Guardian, 27 June 1903; 16 Jan., 13 Aug., 3 Sept. 1904; 13 July 1907; Beverley Recorder, 27 June 1903.
  • 14. Beverley Guardian, 29 Nov. 1902.
  • 15. Below, Prot. Nonconf.
  • 16. H.R.O., MRB/1/121, passim.
  • 17. Ibid. MRB/2/6, passim.
  • 18. Ibid. MRB/3/1, passim.
  • 19. B.I.H.R., V. 1865/Ret. 1, nos. 47, 49-50; V. 1877/Ret. 1, nos. 44-5; Bp. V. 1884/Ret. 1.
  • 20. H.R.O., MRB/3/79, passim.
  • 21. B.I.H.R., Bp. V. 1912-22/Ret.; Bp. V. 1931/Ret.
  • 22. H.R.O., PE/129/133, pp. 53, 387.
  • 23. Below, Prot. Nonconf.
  • 24. Beverley Guardian, 18 Feb. 1911.
  • 25. Below, Prot. Nonconf.
  • 26. Below, Social Inst.
  • 27. H.R.O., DDBC/21/104.
  • 28. Below, Social Inst.
  • 29. H.R.O., DDX/397/1, s.v. 9 June 1854; DDX/397/2, s.vv. 8 and 16 Apr. 1869; Ward's Almanack, 1861; Beverley Guardian, 9 June 1860; 2 Dec. 1865; 15 and 29 May 1909.
  • 30. D. [R. J.] Neave, E.R. Friendly Soc. (E. Yorks. Loc. Hist. Ser. xli), 43-4.
  • 31. Directories.
  • 32. R.D.B., GD/124/132; H.R.O., EB/6.
  • 33. Beverley Guardian, 24 Sept. 1921; 30 Nov. 1929.
  • 34. Ibid. 23 Nov. 1878; 11 Feb. 1882.
  • 35. Ibid. 17 Oct. 1874; 1 Jan. 1876; 17 Feb. 1877; 18 Mar. 1893; 31 Mar. 1894; 11 Jan. 1896; 30 Oct. 1909; Debating Soc. programme, 1900-1 (in Beverley Pub. Libr.); Bulmer, Dir. E. Yorks. (1892), 351 (for Gym. Soc. hall).
  • 36. Beverley Guardian, 8 Aug. 1874; 19 Apr. 1879; 17 Nov. 1883; 22 Nov. 1884; 25 July, 7 Nov. 1885; 31 Oct. 1891; 26 Nov. 1892.
  • 37. Ibid. 11 Sept. 1875; 15 May 1886; 4 Sept. 1897.
  • 38. Ibid. 15 May 1886; 22 Mar. 1890; below, Common Lands.
  • 39. Beverley Guardian, 25 Dec. 1886; 23 Sept. 1893.
  • 40. Neave, E.R. Friendly Soc. 43-4.
  • 41. Below, Education; Social Inst.; Public Inst.