By Ray Jones

On March 30, 1851 an official survey and count of capacity and atten­dance at places of worship in Great Britain was held. This religious Census was controversial and heavily criticised both before and after it was held but remains ‘ . . . unrivalled as a nationwide source of religious practice in the mid-nineteenth century.’1 The Returns from this Religious Census are held in the Public Record Office but a definitive book – The Religious Census of 1851: A Calendar of Returns Relating to Wales, Volume 1 South Wales, by Ieuan Gwynedd Jones and David Williams 2 (hereinafter referred to and referenced as the ‘Calendar’) provides invalu­able collated and tabulated Religious Census data for south Wales together with related information from the Incorporated Church Building Society (Grants Made to Welsh Parishes Between 1818 and 1851i), Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Wales (1848 edn.), Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the Ecclesiastical Revenues of England and Wales [PP 1850 XLII (4)] and Returns of the Names and Residencies of Curates and the Stipends of Each [PP 1850 XLII (226)]. The volume also incorporates parish populations, original spellings from the Returns and several ‘Remarks.’

The Whig Government of Lord John Russell had scheduled a decennial ensus in Britain for March 31, 1851. The Census Act empowered the Secretary of State to issue questions about any further particulars that might seem advisable and George Lewis, MP for Herefordshire and an Under-secretary at the Home Office, using this clause, decided it would be desirable to discover some religious statistics.3   Hence, questions on religion were put in the Census form, thus allowing for a penalty for fail­ing to answer.

This caused something of a furore in both Houses of Parliament particu­larly from Anglican bishops although no interventions from the Welsh dioceses could be traced (Welsh dioceses were part of the Church of England at this time). The legality and value of these religious questions was doubted and there were complaints that the questions were vague and impossible to answer and unwarranted because they sought information on people’s income. ie endowments.

In the event, the questions about endowments were withdrawn and the religious questions separated from the Decennial Census forms. The Registrar General senl a letter to clergy requesting them to co-operate 4 and very few Anglican clergy failed to respond. interestingly this letter was dated March 13, 1851, before the exchanges in Parliament. It can only be described as sycophantic in tone.

The criticisms in Parliament did not receive much publicity and none of the Welsh language newspapers and magazines referred to them. The exchanges in the House of Lords were principally objections from the Bishops. However it is possible to interpret these complaints as a pre­ emptive move. Should the returns be unfavourable to the Church of England, this would have been pointed out as fallacious prior to the data being known, rather than as post-event justification.

As an official part of the decennial Census, the Religious Census was the responsibility of the Registrar General. The topography of the Religious Census was exactly that of the ‘ordinary’ Census. The country was divided into Registration Divisions and some cut across county boundaries. Thus, some Pembrokeshire parishes are in Carmarthen Registration Districts. However, the Calendar records their geographical county. Three of the parishes under review [Kilrhedin (sic), Clydey (sic) and Llanfallteg] are partly in Pembrokeshire and partly in Carmarthenshire. The population of the Pembrokeshire component of these parishes is given separately in the Calendar, but the attendance figures cannot be differentiated. With a total of three parish churches and six Nonconformist chapels, these may slightly distort data given later.

The Registrar General delegated responsibility for the Religious Census to a senior official in the Census Office, Horace Mann. The brief was to determine ‘how far the means of Religious Instruction provided in Great Britain during the last fifty years have kept pace with the rise in population in the same period and to what extent these means are adequate to meet the spiritual needs of the increased population of 1851.’ 5

Two forms were used, one for Nonconformists and one for the Church of England. Only English versions were produced. They were distributed to the residences of the officiating minister, deacon or churchwarden by the (Census) Enumerators on March 29, 1851. The census was taken on March 30 and collected on March 31. Any omissions were to be completed by Enumerators by April 8 and forms, after checking and completion by Registrars if necessary, returned to London by April 22. Any further omissions were completed by correspondence with ministers by use of an ‘Informants Form’. This worked satisfactorily and there was a good return from Pembrokeshire as shown in Table l.

No. of Returns Informant Returns Registrar Returns No Return Parish Missing Parish not Listed


321 5 6 5 2

TablI: Religious Census Returns for Pembrokeshire. Source: Calendar.

One Independent Chapel Minister in Pembrokeshire complained of not having received the form in time 6 (although it appears to have been completed). All Informant returns were from North Pembrokeshire. Five of the Registrar returns appeared to be from military establishments at or near to Pembroke Dock. Four of the Informant and four of the Registrar returns were from the Church of England. All but one of the returns from Pembrokeshire shows below average attendances although it is not clear how these averages were derived. David Williams, writing about Cardi­ganshire,7 claims that the below average attendances reported were a sign of proof of reliability. It may equally be taken as a sign of exaggeration of the averages. Two Pembrokeshire chapels had attendances exactly equal to their quoted averages, a somewhat unlikely occurrence given the wide range of reported attendances. Many responders used the bad weather of the day as a reason for relatively poor attendances although Pickering reports ‘average to fine weather on the day of the Census.’ 8 Absence at sea and the demands of agricultural work were also given as reasons for low attendance and some claimed that servants could not attend as they would be visiting their families it being mid-Lenten Sunday. 9

Some Church of England responders did not fully complete the forms because, for example, they claimed not to know the nature and/or amount of endowment while others were not willing to give this information. The vicar of Whitchurch did give the information, but regarded the question as ‘impertinent’ .10 The vicar of Manordivy (sic) added to his return ‘a greater fallacy can barely be entertained than for anyone to suppose they will receive accurate information upon the several returns made under these enquiries’. The Calendar adds ‘. . . [he himself gave] information of questionable accuracy’.11 A Registrar, who was curate of the parish, notes for Cresselly Primitive Methodists (Jefferston Parish), ‘from my own knowledge Congregationalists seldom exceed 15 and there are only three persons in the parish who call themselves Primitive Methodists’.12 The returned response had given an attendance of 30-50.

A number of returns gave information that was clearly inaccurate, although no special comment appears to have been made. For example , St Mary’s Parish Church in Angle gives its capacity as 31 but its morning attendance as 50-100 and in the afternoon 100-120 plus 42 scholars, while Horeb Baptist Chapel in Henry’s Moat had a capacity of 39 and an attendance of 200. These data emphasise the apparent difficulties of interpreting the question which asked for information on ‘space available· for public worship;’ ‘free ‘ and ‘other’ and also asking for ‘Free Space or Standing Room.’ Several returns reflect these difficulties. A deacon of Bethabara at Pontyglasier reports ‘Gallery plus 26′ whereas Ebenezer, Llanfair­ Nantgwyn says ’34 plus gallery’. Carmel, Clarbeston Road, is ‘ all free’ and Llanllawer Parish Church was ‘ large enough’ (these. data all from Calendar).

 As stated, Horace Mann was given charge of the Census and reported in 1853. 13 In order to calculate attendance, he used a formula of counting all those who attended morning service plus half who attended afternoon service and a third of those who attended evening service. There appeared to be no rationale for this and presumably was done to reduce the effect of ‘double’ attendances. The formula has been criticised on the basis that it favoured the Church of England where most services were held in the morning unlike Nonconformists who often attended more than one service. Nonconformists were also alleged to have ‘packed out’ chapels on the dayl4 although this is not confirmed by the ‘below average’ atten­ dances reported.

Mann defended his calculations on the basis there was ‘no other collection of statistical material for comparing varying practice from place to place and from denomination to denomination’ 15 and it compensated for those who went to church in the morning and chapel in the evening. In a lecture to the Statistical Society he added ‘I am really unable to arrive at any other conclusion that the general facts are substantially correct . . . [any] errors [are] distributed equally over the country’ .16 On the other hand, he also said, when referring to the adjusted data, ‘these figures are mainly conjectural’ .17 Mann claimed he had had ‘the hearty cooperation of the clergy and ministers of all denominations’18 and this certainly seemed to be the case in Pembrokeshire.

Following the report, there was further criticism in the House of Lords, including claims that the data were ‘tainted with fraud ‘ and that errors were committed because ‘ … [Nonconformist] ministers were not often in the same rank of life as the Clergy of the Established Church’ .19 The then bishop of St. David’s, Connop Thirlwall, supported this claim.20 This may have specifically mentioned Pembrokeshire but unfortunately bishop Thirlwall’s exact contribution could not be traced.

A further criticism of the data was that varying ways of reporting children in Sunday schools were used. In some cases they are included in attendances but in others listed separately. It should also be noted that many adults attended Sunday schools and may have been listed as Sunday Scholars. This would have added to the inaccuracy and perhaps favoured Nonconformists. However the Times described the Census as ‘accurate and trustworthy’ and the Christian Remembrance says ‘… on the whole the Church of England may accept the general result as a not very untrue picture’ (quoted in Pickering). 21 There were other criticisms of the Reli­gious Census and its Report both at the time of the Census and afterwards some alleging that it favoured the Church of England and others Noncon­formists. These criticisms both contemporaneous and modem appear to be largely general in nature and no specific criticism of the Pembrokeshire returns could be found.

Horace Mann used his invented formula in an effort to eliminate potential misrepresentations in the Census Returns. More recently, other formulae have been used for this purpose including the best attended service of the day as a percentage of the population.22 Ieuan Gwynedd Jones in his introduction to the Calendar 23 reports using an ‘Index of Attendance’ in his studies of religious observance in Swansea, Caernarfonshire and Brecon and Radnor. It involves adding together the attendances at every service held at an individual church or chapel and expressing this as a percentage of the total population of the parish. This is used to compare the relative attendances of the chosen area. However Vickers 24 argues the most objective figure for comparisons is the total attendance. Therefore in the summary of data that follows (Table 2), both these sets of figures are given.

It should be noted that the figures are likely to be skewed by a number of factors. These include: errors in original data and transcription; missing or non-returns – these have been omitted from calculations; churches or chapels with no service on Census day – but where a return has been made this has been included; variations in including Sunday school scholars as attendees – where these are separately identified in the Calendar they are not included; some parishes are partly in other counties – in these instances Pembrokeshire population has been used but total attendances for calcu­lation. These would include attendees from other counties not included in the Pembrokeshire population quoted; some parishes are detached, e.g. Caldey Island – their (small) populations are included in total population but not in religious returns.

There are discrepancies in total population figures for Pembrokeshire viz Parliamentary Paper LXXXIV gives 84,472 and in a different place 94,140.25 Volume II of the Calendar based on Registration Districts gives 87,672.26 This figure agrees with that in Calendar, Volume 1. The com­puted figure from the returns in the Calendar is 89,285. This figure is used to calculate percentage attendances.

There are a few discrepancies in these data compared with the Census Report. For example, there are no Moravians in the Report but one in the data above, no Latter Day Saints above but one in the Report. There are also four ‘undefined’ denominations in the Report. Other discrepancies may largely be accounted for by the use of Pembrokeshire in Table Two, but the Registration districts in the Report.

Denomination No . of Places

of Worship

No. of


Total Attendance Index of


Church of England  








Baptist* 63 103 19917 22.3%
Independent** 52 75 12633 14 .1%
Calvinistic Methodist***  








Independent Congregational  







3. 1%

(Wesleyan) Methodis t****  








Unitarian I None
Mixed***** I 1 60 0.06%
Roman Catho lic 2 2 1 60 0. 18%
Brethren in Christ l l 60 0.06%
Quakers I 1 5 0.005%
United Brethren (Moravian)  








Total 323 460 62020 69.5%
Total Nonconformists  








Table 2: Attendances at Places of Worship in Pembrokeshire, March 30, 1851; computed from Calendar data·.

* Includes 12 ‘Particular,’ 3 ‘Peculiar’ and I ‘Unitarian free ‘

** Includes 4 ‘Independent Dissenters’ and l ‘Dissenter.’

*** Includes 1 ‘Welsh Methodist’ and 3 ‘Primitive’ Methodists

**** Nine places stated ‘ Wesleyan Methodists.

***** Seaman’s Chapel.

It is difficult to exactly compare the Pembrokeshire figures with evalua­tions of census data by other writers who do not usually state which method they use and comparisons may be distorted because of the Welsh­ speaking north of the county and the strong bias to English south of the Landsker. John Davies 27 gives 80% Nonconformists and 20% Church of England for the whole of Wales using ‘attendances’. In Wales there were 25% Calvinistic Methodists, 23% Independents, 21% Anglican, 18% Baptists and 13% Wesleyans using the attendances at the largest congregation in the denominations. Anglicans were the strongest single denomi­nation in Pembrokeshire.27 In St. David’s diocese, the following ‘attendance figures’ have been given:28


Church of England – 14 % Independent – 17.8%

Calvinistic Methodist – 12.4% Baptist –   l I .1%

Wesleyan – 3.1%

Primitive Methodists – 2.3% Unitarian – 0.4%

Roman Catholic – 0.05%

In fact, very little notice of the Report and results of the Census were taken in Pembrokeshire, or indeed in the whole of Wales.29 There was something of a rekindling of interest in the data by the Liberationists in their campaign for Disestablishment a few years after the Report and that was virtually all. However, the contemporaneous opposition to the Census was successful in preventing further formal and official religious Censuses and questions on religion in subsequent years. The 1851 effort remains the only example of its kind in the UK.

There has been more enthusiasm about the religious census by twentieth century writers. Many have criticised its methodology and accuracy and some argue that ‘its results were sufficiently inaccurate as to damn the census as worthless’ while at the same time saying ‘the [Census] Report is of value to sociologists as well as historians’.30 The Census has been called a ‘useless experiment’ .31 It is difficult to share the view that it was an experiment, as there is no evidence that it was a trial for anything more elaborate or that any hypotheses were being tested, the usual prerequisites for experiments. It merely seems to be part of the development of social statistics, surveys and parliamentary reports dealing with many aspects of national life during the mid-nineteenth century.

Ieuan Gwynedd Jones in his introduction to the Calendar regards the Census as a major source for the study of the history of religion in Wales but bemoans the omission of a question about the language in which services were conducted. He also believes that some chapel officials might have had some difficulty in understanding the questions because there was no Welsh version, 32 and regards the ‘ remarks’ column as often providing important and interesting information about particular congregations and regions, some being long and detailed statements.

The general view of historians seems to be that despite its faults, the Census data do a great service. No other document , before or since , has revealed the demographic state of religion at a particular and specific time. And regarding religion in Pembrokeshire on March 30, 1851 , this writer can do no better than slightly modify Ieuan Gwyn Jones, writing in 1976. 33 The Census, if it has any significance at all, is eloquent of the fact that by the 1850s the pattern of religious adherence in Pembrokeshire (and indeed in Wales) which was to survive in its main characteristics for over a hundred years, had already been established.


 The research work on which this paper is based was originally developed as part of assessment for the MA in Local History Course at Trinity College, Carmarthen.

  1. J. Vickers, The 1851 Religious Census (London: The Historical Associa­tion, 1995), 2.

2. Ieuan Gwynedd Jones and David Williams, The Religious Census of 1851: A Calendar of Returns Relating to Wales, Volume 1: South Wales (Cardiff, 1976).

3. Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church (London, 1966),

4. Parliamentary Papers, 1851 , Vo XLVIII (1339), 41.

5. Unpublished Notes. MA Local History, Trinity College, Carmarthen,

6. Calendar, cit., xvi.

7. David Williams, ‘The Census of Religious Worship of 1851 in Cardiganshire,’ Ceredigion, IV. 2 ( 1961) , 116.

8.    W. S. F. Pickering. ‘The 1851 Religious Census – a Useless Experiment?’ British Journal of Sociology, XVIII, 4 (1967), 38

9.    David Thompson. ‘The 1851 Religious Census: Problems and Possibilities,’ Victorian Studies, XII (1967), 94

10. Calendar, op. cit., xvi.

11. Idem.

12. Calendar, op. cit., xix.

13. Parliamentary Papers, 1852-1853, XXXXIX (1690).

14. J. A. Vickers, op. cit., 4.

15. Horace Mann, Journal of the Statistical Society, XIII (1855), 147 quoted in David Thompson, op. cit., 91.

16. Owen Chadwick, op. cit., 365.

17. Census of Great Britain 1851 Religious Worship (Abridged Version), London, 1853, 2.

18. W. S. F. Pickering, op. cit., 389-390.

19. Hansard, 3rd Series 185I, CXXXV 1851, 35.

20. Hansard, 1860 CLIX 1717 quoted in Owen Chadwick, op. cit.

21. W. S. F. Pickering, op. cit., 387.

22. Idem., 396

23. Calendar, xviii.

24. J. A. Vickers, op. cit ., 3.

25. Parliamentary Papers, LXXXIV, xviii and xxiii.

26. leuan Gwynedd Jones and David Williams, The Religious Census of 1851: A Calendar of Returns Relating to Wales, Volume 2: North Wales (Cardiff, 1981) (Un-numbered frontispiece).

27. John Davies, A History of Wales (Harmondsworth, 1994), 422.

28. Unpublished Notes. MA Local History, Trinity College, Carmarthen, 2004.

29. Calendar, xxxiii.

30. W. S. F. Pickering , op. cit ., 382-383.

31.   Idem., 406.

32. Calendar, xxxiii.

33. Idem, XXV