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Our village webmasters are regularly contacted by people from all over the world asking for help in researching their ancestral roots. In the case of Filkins, it is surprising how many Americans named Filkins have suddenly and delightedly found that there is actually a place called Filkins, and they are determined that, going way back, this must be their true home from home. It seems that Filkins is the 12,428th most common surname in the United States, although in England it is a relative rarity: certainly no-one of that name has lived in the village for a very long time.
The huge interest in genealogy that has developed over the last few years, no doubt helped along by the internet and successive publications of the official ten-year censuses going back now to the mid-nineteenth century, has given rise to an industry of quite considerable value. Commercial publishers as well as the National Archives have rushed to meet demand, and one of the busiest sections of the Central Library in Oxford now is the Family History Centre.
The Oxfordshire Family History Society has contributed to this fascinating pool of information by working its way gradually through all of our parish registers, putting all of the local baptisms, marriages and burials in order and publishing them on CD-ROMs. Available so far for our benefice are Alvescot, Filkins, Holwell, Westwell, Kelmscott, Langford, Kencot and Little Faringdon.
Details from the 1851 Census were opened up recently, and the year reminded us not just of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in London but also of an almost forgotten but nevertheless unique event in British census-taking.
On Mothers Day in 1851, which in that year fell on 30th March, the authorities decided to count the number of people attending places of worship in England and Wales, either in the morning, afternoon or evening.
Out of a total population of about 18 million, it was – but when the figures were analysed there was consternation within the establishment.
The Nonconformist church and chapel-goers actually outnumbered those attending Church of England services.
The general picture looked like this:
Church of England 2,971,258 Nonconformist 3,110,782
Roman Catholic 249,389 Sectarian 24,793
Presumably, members of the Jewish and Islamic faiths did not get counted because their special days were not Sundays. But in nineteenth century Britain their numbers were relatively few and would not have made anything like the difference that would occur if we were able to carry out a similar exercise now.
However, even within the broad categorization of people’s attachment to one church or another there were several important sub-groups. The Church of England had its High, Broad and Low persuasions, of course, but it was the distribution of Nonconformists which presented the most interesting geographical patchwork.
In 1851, it should be remembered, half of all Nonconformists were Methodists of some kind, a quarter were Congregationalists and about twenty percent were Baptists. The rest were mostly Quakers, Unitarians and Plymouth Brethren. The Latter Day Saints and the Seventh Day Adventists had only just been founded and various other sects (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists) came much later.
Nonconformism, especially Wesleyan Methodism, was dominant in Wales, Cornwall and in many Midlands industrial towns but only weakly supported in London, where the old time religions still held sway. Primitive Methodism was strongest in the East, particularly in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk. Lancashire was most influenced by Roman Catholicism (Liverpool was the main entry port for many Irish immigrants), but further north, approaching Scotland, the historical strength of the Scottish adaptation of Calvinism became more and more evident.
But what makes the 1851 religious census doubly fascinating is a comparison with the results of the full civil census, which allowed for the first time a breakdown of the population by occupation. It seems that there were then 18,587 Clergymen of the Established Church and 9,644 Protestant Dissenting Ministers. This gives a ratio of one Establishment clergyman for every 160 churchgoers but one Nonconformist minister for every 323 souls attending Sunday service.
Whether this statistic is simply a reflection of the size of their respective congregations or a comment on how organizationally efficient they were in deploying scarce preaching resources is neither known nor judged.
Today, sadly, of the 16,000 parish churches in Britain, more than half have less than fifty members. Their average weekly attendance in 2003 was 1,187,000, which, divided by the 9,400 Church of England clergy, gives us a ratio of 1:126. The ratios are broadly comparable, although the totals on which they are based have clearly declined catastrophically over the past hundred and fifty years.
But in 1851 at the coal face, as it were, the early Victorians were already aware of the growing challenge and popular appeal of Nonconformism; it was abroad in rural areas as well as amongst the urban poor. Some scholars have noted a remarkable social class divide appear and widen through the preaching of the Wesleys and their followers.
Whilst the lords of the manor, the squires, the yeoman farmers and the newly prosperous middle classes sat in their reserved pews in the parish churches, small unassuming places of worship were being built nearby, dedicated and filled with a resurgent devotion that was itself remarkable.
In the Oxfordshire benefice of Broadshire & the Shill Valley, there had been a Quaker hall in Alvescot since 1708, and the Methodists had built a chapel there in 1823. But the Baptists established chapels in Filkins in 1832, in Alvescot in 1833, and in Shilton not long afterwards, whilst the Congregationalists established one in Langford in 1848. Demand was evidently such that they were soon followed by the Methodists in Filkins (1853) and eventually at Langford (1877). In between times, the Methodists also built a handsome and very visible chapel at Black Bourton in 1861.
Indeed, it is said that one of the factors in the decision to build St Peter’s Church at Filkins (leading eventually to the creation of Filkins as a separate parish in 1864) was the competition to the established churches posed by the new chapels, which seemed to be springing up everywhere, two of them actually in Filkins. It is just conceivable that the walking distance for Filkins folk who did not own carriages to take them to church at Broadwell or Broughton Poggs on a cold wet Sunday morning in the bitter winters of the 1840’s and 1850’s might have had something to do with it as well. But there is no doubt that the social as well as the theological messages that were preached from the pulpits of the Nonconformists resonated with their new congregations just as powerfully as the parish church bells had done for hundreds of years for the Establishment.