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Finding faith in the urban archive

Did urbanisation and industrialisation cause religious faith to decline in eighteenth-century England? Correspondence from the Nicholson family of Manchester merchants suggests otherwise.

The 1794 poem The Task by William Cowper begins one verse with the statement ‘God made the country, and man made the town’. Cowper’s England of the late eighteenth century was one in which towns grew rapidly, fuelled by a boom in manufacturing and industry. Cowper envisaged these industrialising towns as temples to vice and greed, their noise and dirt in stark contrast to the natural simplicity of the countryside. In general, historians have agreed with this view. Urbanisation has been presented as a force for secularisation. The consensus has been that an older Anglican parish system was unable to cope with rapid population growth, and urban factory workers had neither the time nor inclination for faith.

Manchester’s Collegiate Church rising out of the industry on the banks of the River Irwell. Manchester Scrapbook, reproduced by permission of Chetham’s Library, Manchester.

A project based at the John Rylands Library is questioning this view. Faith in the Town: Lay Religion, Urbanisation and Industrialisation in England, 1740-1830, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is looking at the letters and diaries of ordinary people living in the towns of Northern England, for evidence of the place of faith in their daily lives. Unlike many histories of secularisation which focus on formal church organisations and their records, we argue that looking at the everyday practices of faith, and its relationship with how people thought about their family lives, their identities, their work and their use of urban and domestic space, provides a more vibrant picture of the continued importance of religion in this period. This is a history of faith from the bottom up, not the top down.

The John Rylands Library is full of the writings of ordinary people, who left their mark in letters, diaries and objects such as bibles. One example is the extensive correspondence of the Nicholson family of Liverpool and Manchester. The Nicholsons were prosperous linen merchants and mill-owners, and the records of church and civic institutions show that they were active in urban society. They subscribed to Liverpool’s new Lyceum library, attended the local Unitarian chapel, and patronised its Sunday school. Their letters, though, provide a more detailed picture of the ways in which their faith became entwined with their daily domestic life.

Liverpool in 1779, around the time that the Nicholsons were building their merchant business. Manchester Scrapbook, no. 363, ‘View of Liverpool in Lancashire’, reproduced by permission of Chetham’s Library, Manchester.

The Nicholson letters demonstrate the intersection between faith, domestic work and domestic objects. In 1808 Dorothy Nicholson was to be found ‘hemming 2 handkerchiefs that Miss Marsden gave me which is all the work I have done since I came here, they are printed, and have the ten commandments upon them.’

John Rylands Library: Eng MSS 1041/207, Dorothy Nicholson to Thomas Nicholson, 12 June 1808.

Needlework of all kinds was a central part of young women’s education and lifelong domestic work, but it was also associated with the development of virtue. As Lauren Winner and Ariane Fennetaux have argued, needlework inculcated a sense of industry, and when the objects being made carried religious messages, reminded them of their combined domestic and religious duty. In Dorothy’s case, her handkerchiefs could be kept in pockets or displayed in frames to act as visual prompts, reminding their owners to keep their minds on God whilst they went about their business. When gifted from one friend to another, they could be a sign of shared faith or an expression of the importance of friendship for support in achieving piety.

Printed handkerchiefs had been around since the 1760s, but other surviving examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum tend to be decorated with sporting motifs or commemorations of battles. Clearly, though, there was also a market for handkerchiefs with overtly religious illustrations. We know from historians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that domestic objects were often decorated with religious messages, as a means of encouraging or demonstrating the piety of the household. The Nicholson letters show that this practice continued at least into the early nineteenth century, and here within a dissenting family in the heart of the industrialising north west. The letters and diaries collected from those living in places like Liverpool and Manchester, Leeds or Newcastle-upon-Tyne, show that the ideas and practices of faith were not confined to church or chapel, but were alive in the homes, streets and workshops of industrialising towns. 

To find out more about our project, read the Faith in the Town blog.

1 comment on “Finding faith in the urban archive

  1. At the end of this period it was the churches that began to educate the urban poor, well before any British government saw a need or a right for the workforce to be literate.

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