Counting the Christians

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Written by Dr Jack Binns

On Sunday morning and again that evening, December 4, 1881, the Mercury conducted a census of attendance at all Scarborough’s and Falsgrave’s places of religious worship. Sunday school children were also included in the count.

Nearly all the clergymen and ministers had replied favourably to the Mercury’s advanced request and filled in the printed forms; where they did not, “enumerators” were employed to check numbers at the doors.

It rained heavily that winter’s morning, but only after the services had already started, and the date of the count, out of season, meant that virtually all of the worshippers were permanent residents. Nor was the choice of year 
accidental: the national 
census had recently recorded that Scarborough’s population was now 26,238 and Falsgrave’s 4,266, making a total for the borough of over 30,000 potential Christians.

The Mercury had been able to secure the approximate number of “sittings” at nearly all the town’s churches and chapels, but could not in all cases distinguish between those who had attended either morning or evening and those who had been twice on that Sunday. So, for instance, the total number of Anglican places for only 5,660 was said to have been occupied by 6,297!

Nevertheless, though clearly only approximate rather than precise, the Mercury’s unique survey provides us with a useful snapshot of the state and 
balance of denominational attachment in Christian Scarborough.

Predictably, the Anglicans outnumbered any other denomination. In order of attendance size for both services their churches ran from St Martin’s with 1,598, Christ Church with 1,157, St Mary’s with 1,092 and All Saints’ with 1,011, down to Holy Trinity registering 760, St Paul’s Mission, 436, St Thomas’, 202, to Bow Street Mission rooms which had 41 evening visitors.

Least well-attended was St Thomas’ in East Sandgate: of its 900 free seats, only 121 were taken that Sunday morning and only 81 in the evening. The established church could still draw in the upper town’s people, but had lost much support amongst the seafaring community since the 1850s.

Next in numbers came Scarborough’s Wesleyans, with nearly 4,000 places and 3,588 worshippers. Of these, Queen Street with 1,750 seats occupied by 1,525, and Westborough, with 1,250 taken by 1,139, were by far the biggest chapels. Falsgrave (304), Nelson Street (353), the Bethel on Sandside (80, evening only), Durham Street (145) and South Cliff Mission (42, evening only) were relatively minor satellites.

The Primitive Methodists had five chapels. Both St Sepulchre and Jubilee in Aberdeen Walk each had more than a thousand seats, Falsgrave more than 500, Gladstone Road Mission 270 and Seamer Road 110. However, whereas Seamer Road was full to capacity that evening, two thirds of the places in St Sepulchre and Jubilee were empty at both their morning and evening services. Obligingly, the Mercury explained that the large numbers present that Sunday at the Salvation Army meetings “materially affected” the congregations at several of the Nonconformist chapels, especially those belonging to the Primitive Methodists.

To describe those attending Salvation Army meetings at the Circus in St Thomas Street and at St George’s Hall as “a large number” was no journalistic hyperbole: together they attracted no fewer than 2,660 to their two evening gatherings, more than all of the five Primitives combined.

After the Methodists came the Congregationalists at the Bar church (on the corner of Aberdeen Walk and Westborough), South Cliff, Eastborough, Seamer Road and the Free Dwellings on Dean Street. Like the Primitives their numbers seem to have been eroded by the new popularity of the Salvation Army, who still had no building of their own. The Bar and South Cliff managed to fill only a third of their seats at each of their morning and evening services.

Even smaller congregations were found at the Baptist chapels: only 240 were recorded at both meetings held at Ebenezer on Longwestgate and 431 at Albemarle. Yet these were still considerable compared with the 117 at Westborough Unitarian; the 93 Presbyterians who were at the Mechanics’ Institute (now the public library); the same number at Batty Place Mission; and the various groups of minority Nonconformists such as Christian Brethren who met at Swan Hill. The Quakers had room in their Meeting House in St Sepulchre Street for 200, but only 43 came in the morning and 21 in the evening, whereas 95 attended their morning Adult School in Springfield. Finally, up Castle Road, St Peter’s Roman Catholic church 
welcomed 403 that Sunday morning and 238 for the evening mass.

Some interesting and significant facts emerge from these findings. Unlike almost every other town and city in England, the percentage of church-going Scarborians had actually increased since the national religious census of 1851, from 26 to 32 per cent. In seaports such as Liverpool, Newcastle and Hull and in industrial towns such as Sheffield and Leeds, there had been a marked decline where attendance lagged behind the rapid rise in populations. In general terms, outside rural areas, poverty and paganism went hand in hand.

In one important respect, however, Scarborough had followed the national trend: the Church of England had lost its dominant position. Scarborough’s Anglicans had belatedly restored St Mary’s and to it added half a dozen new churches, but their accommodation and their congregations had not kept pace with the town’s phenomenal increase in inhabitants from fewer than 7,000 in 1801 to more than 30,000 80 years later. But in Scarborough’s case, the deficit was not pagan but Protestant Dissent. On that Sunday in 1881 there was a total of 6,297 Anglican and 13,192 non-Anglican attendances at Christian ceremonies.

After some Anglicans disputed the results, in self-defence the Mercury denied the “contemptible insinuation” that it had deliberately falsified the figures. It seems that in Scarborough “the strife between Church and Dissent” was still strong, but as one triumphant Baptist declared: “...the Church of England, with all its many honours, excellencies and advantages, is not the church of Scarborough; for its worshippers are outnumbered by more than 100 per cent”.