What were ‘Dissenting’ Churches?

Pilgrim Fathers boarding the Mayflower, painting by Bernard Gribble.

Pilgrim Fathers boarding the Mayflower, painting by Bernard Gribble.

Thanks to our researcher, David Matthew, for this week’s blog about dissenting or non-conformist churches, with special reference to the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, which we were asked about this week:

Background: unity under the Pope

Christianity was widespread in Britain—which was part of the Roman Empire—by the end of the third century AD.
In mainland Europe the western part of the Roman Empire soon came under serious threat from northern invaders and the last Roman legions in Britain left in 410 AD to defend Gaul and Italy from the invaders. With Britain undefended, pagan invaders from northern Germany poured in across the North Sea, destroying the church in eastern England and south-east Scotland. They were the Angles and Saxons.

British Christians fled westwards across the country from the invaders. This led to a situation where a belt of pagans down the eastern side of Britain cut off the British church at the western side—known as the Celtic Church—from the church in mainland Europe, which was centred on Rome and was effectively the Roman Catholic Church.

The two styles of Christianity in Britain developed quite separately, with the Celtic Church being overall simpler and less ritualistic in its approach than the Roman Church. Eventually, the Bishop of Rome, by this time known as the Pope, became unhappy with the Celtic Church’s isolation and in 597 AD sent Augustine to England to bring them into his fold. Augustine established a base in Canterbury and began evangelising the pagan Angles and Saxons, many of whom embraced Christianity.

In due course, as Roman Christianity spread in eastern Britain, the two styles of Christianity came to exist side by side and a confrontation became inevitable. This took place at the Synod of Whitby in 664, chaired by King Oswy of Northumbria. Representatives of both sides presented their cases, and Oswy declared the Roman Church the winner. After that, the Celtic Church faded rapidly and British Christianity in due course became all of the Roman Catholic variety.

The search for truth brings disunity: the Reformation

This state of affairs continued largely unchanged until the 16th century, when the Reformation took place. On the continent Martin Luther (Germany) and John Calvin (France and Switzerland) led many away from what they believed was a Roman Catholic Church too corrupt to change. They formed what soon came to be called Protestant churches—so called because they protested against the Pope’s attempts to dictate their doctrine and lifestyle.

In Britain at this period Henry VIII was on the throne. Piqued by the Pope’s refusal to grant him a divorce, he took the English church away from Rome’s jurisdiction and declared himself head of the church in his realm. Thus was born the Church of England. English Reformers, taking advantage of Henry’s action, quickly influenced the shape of church life in Britain in the direction of greater freshness and vitality. At the same time, Henry dissolved the many monasteries, seeing them as dangerous focus-points of remaining loyalty to Rome. The Church of England became the national church.

Further fragmentation: the Dissenters

All this gave English Christians an intoxicating taste of freedom, and some of them began to feel that the reforms under King Henry has failed to go far enough. Many, for instance, wanted the episcopal system of church government (a bishop over a diocese) replaced by a Presbyterian system (several ‘elders’ in each local church). They believed this to be more in line with the Bible’s teaching.

Others believed that the baptism of babies, practised by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, should be abandoned in favour of the baptism of believers only, that is, those old enough to make a personal commitment to Christ. In these and other desires these people dissented from the teaching of the mainstream, established church.

In the 17th century some of them withdrew completely and set up new churches where they could incorporate their preferred practices without interference. They were called ‘dissenters’, ‘separatists’ or ‘independents’, and many were severely persecuted for their stand, some even executed. Desperate for freedom to worship in line with the dictates of the consciences, without outside interference, some even left Britain for the New World—the Pilgrim Fathers left Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620. Over the next twenty years some 20,000 followed them to America.

Back in England, two groups managed to establish themselves as sizeable denominations on the basis of their form of church government, which they felt should come from every member having a vote. These were the Congregational Church, who practised infant baptism, and the Baptist Church (formed in 1611), who baptised only believers—and did it by full immersion. Gradually these and other groups became better tolerated and were allowed to exist alongside the Church of England.

As the 17th century drew on, more and more groups split away from the existing denominations to establish new ones emphasising some particular biblical truth or practice that they felt to be more important than unity with the existing churches. One of these was the Society of Friends (the Quakers), started by George Fox.

Revival and more new denominations: 18th century

The 18th century saw widespread spiritual revival in England, with two Anglican ministers as the key figures: George Whitefield and John Wesley. Wesley in particular became convinced that the Church of England was sadly in no condition to nurture the tens of thousands of ordinary Britons who were becoming committed Christians in the revival. Reluctantly, therefore, he established the Methodist Church to do the job.

George Whitefield, who had introduced John Wesley to the novelty of open-air preaching, saw equal success in terms of converts. In his work he enjoyed the support of an influential lady, Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (born 1707). As a member of the Church of England, she used her considerable influence to steer evangelical ministers into many parishes. She also appointed George Whitefield and others as her personal chaplains, a way of providing them with financial support to continue their wider work.

The Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion

As a peer of the realm, the Countess was permitted to open private chapels attached to her various residences, and she used these to the full for the propagation of the gospel. She also opened a college for training young men for the ministry, but the trainees found it increasingly difficult to find posts as ordained ministers in Anglican churches.
Indeed, many Anglican clergy, unhappy with all the Countess was doing, put pressure on her and she eventually left the Church of England. The churches linked with her and her colleagues thus became a separate denomination  called the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, and their first ordination service took place in 1783.
The Connexion’s articles of faith kept much in common with those of the Church of England, but also drew elements from other sources, such as the Westminster Confession. Their position was basically Calvinistic and they retained infant baptism. The Countess died in 1791. The denomination still exists today but is quite small—just over twenty congregations. It also has a branch in Sierra Leone.

If you want to see more of David’s writings, do check out his personal website: davidmatthew.org.uk

Finding Foundlings

tuffnell midland meckdenburgh brittain

Thanks to Family Detective researcher, Kassie Foran, for this blog post:

I stumbled upon a foundling one day in my research and it sparked an interest – in all our research, we rely on facts and accurate recordings to trace through family history, however in the case of a foundling, the family story typically starts with that one individual. Not only does the baptism record lack the usual information which we rely on for conducting our research – name of mother and father, profession, date of birth, place of birth, but in the case of foundlings, their very name is made up too.

I started saving the baptism records of foundlings – finding it both interesting, and incredibly sad that the baby was usually given the surname after the place they were found. Have a look at the records in the images above – you can see the exact details as to how they got their names.

Babies were typically abandoned due to illegitimacy or inability of the parents to care for the child. The welfare of the children was often administered by charitable organisations, most notably, the Foundling Hospital in London.

Back in the 18th and 19th century if a mother was led to abandon her child, she would often leave them with a scrap of fabric, keeping another scrap herself, thus proving their relationship to one another if they were ever reunited. In 2010 the Daily Telegraph ran a heart-breaking piece about the babies left at the Foundling Hospital, and the stories behind the scraps of fabric.

Whilst in the west today, children are abandoned much less frequently, we still continue to hear stories of adults who were abandoned as children now looking for their parents. On the Family Detective facebook page we recently shared details of Steve, dubbed ‘Gary Gatwick’ who was abandoned in Gatwick Airport in 1986.  He is utilising social media to help his hunt to find his family.

Although it’s incredibly sad that foundlings begin their lives with no known relatives, it’s heart-warming to know that they were rescued, looked after, and given a chance at life – and that’s a good thing.

9 Fascinating Facts about Ag Labs


The 1851 census records 1,460,896 people working as ag labs – farm servants or shepherds – more than in any other field of employment, [1] so it’s highly likely that some of your ancestors worked the land to earn their living. But what did they actually do and how did their lives compare to ours now? Here are 9 facts and figures about the humble agricultural labourer:

1. There were two types of agricultural labourer:

  • Labourers who worked for a particular farmer, and who stayed on the same farm or estate for long periods of time, often for many generations. They usually lived in a tied cottage, which was passed on to the eldest son of the family. Because of their permanency and greater knowledge of the farm and its workings these labourers had the opportunity to become more valued farm workers, such as herdsmen or ploughmen.
  • Hired men’ and ‘hired women’, who were more mobile and were given a temporary contract on a farm. Hiring normally happened once a year on 29 September (Michaelmas), at a country fair, or market. The fairs were called ‘hiring fairs’ and the labourers would stand on a platform, or in an enclosure, to be ‘looked over’ by the prospective employers for features such as strength, general appearance and character. [2]

2. The children of agricultural labourers would often start work as soon as they could walk. They would become bird scarers, gleaners, or cow boys. As they grew up the young girls would go into the dairies, or the farmhouse itself and undertake tasks such as butter-making and looking after vegetable and fruit plots.

3. A ‘lad’ got more money than a ‘boy’. While he was still at school he was a ‘boy’ until he was seventeen or eighteen, when he would be called a ‘lad’. A lad who had not long left school would be taken on at harvest time as a half-man. That is, he received half a man’s wages.

4. The typical weekly expenditure of a farm labourer, his wife, and three children in 1874 was:

  • Bread 6s 3d
  • ½ lb butter 8d
  • 1lb cheese 6d
  • 1lb bacon 8d
  • ½lb sugar 2d
  • Pepper, salt etc 1d
  • 2oz tea 4d
  • ½lb candles 3½d
  • Soap 2d
  • Soda, starch and blue 1d
  • Coals 2s
  • 1 faggot (bundle of sticks) 2½d
  • Rent and rates 1s 6d
  • Man’s sick club 6d
  • Boots 7d
  • Children’s schooling 3d[3]

This was a total of 14 shillings and 3 pence and didn’t include clothes or any luxuries.

5. The average wage for an agricultural labourer in 1874 was 13s 11½d[4]

6. Free beer was included as part of a farm worker’s salary until an Act of Parliament amendment in 1887.

7. There was no social welfare available for agricultural labourers. Work contracts could be ended at any time if the farmer fell on hard times, and if the labourer lived in a tied cottage, he would lose his home too. There were no pensions for the elderly or sick pay for the invalid.

8. Traditionally, the method of harvesting the grain crop was by hand, using a sickle. By 1850 the scythe had replaced the sickle.

9. Apart from the obvious tasks of ploughing, sowing, hoeing and reaping a crop, agricultural labourers would also be tasked with stacking, thatching, hedging, ditching, and looking after the horses.

Fascinating stuff, eh? And certainly not easy work. Our relatives will have worked hard all their lives, raising children and earning money to clothe and feed the family. Their jobs may not have been glamorous, but they certainly deserve our respect.

[1] http://www.whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com/tutorials/jobs/best-websites-agricultural-labourers

[2] http://www.cambridgeshirehistory.com/People/agriculturallabourers.html

[3] The Cornhill Magazine, Vol. 29 (1874)

[4] http://historyofwages.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/agricultural-labourers-wages-1850-1914.html

Why the British are such a mixed-up bunch

Arrivée d'Emigrés et de la duchesse de Berry en France, by Carle Vernet.

Arrivée d’Emigrés et de la duchesse de Berry en France, by Carle Vernet.

Thousands of refugees have arrived on the shores of Britain. Fleeing civil war and violence at home, they made the sea-crossing to Britain to find safety and a new life. In one week alone, 1,700 immigrants landed in Brighton and 1,300 in Eastbourne.

The year was 1789. The refugees were mainly from the wealthy, upper classes and they were fleeing the French Revolution. After arriving in England, the Marquis de Chevannes became a coalman, the Chevalier de Anselme a waiter and the Marquis de Montazet a window cleaner.[1]

Four years later, after Britain had taken sides against France during the Revolutionary Wars, and fearful that French spies were entering the British Isles unhindered, the Tory government, under William Pitt the Younger, passed the Aliens Act of 1793. Under the act, aliens were required to register at their port of arrival and, if they failed to do so, were fined for illegal entry. Violators of the act could be held without bail or deported as punishment. In effect, this was Britain’s first immigration act and it legislated between ‘them’ and ‘us’, between the insiders and the incomers.

After this act and the Naturalisation Act of 1844, you were either a British Subject, or you were not. A strange concept perhaps, when you consider that the vast majority of the population will already have had a mixture of German (Anglo-Saxon), French (Norman), Italian (Roman) and Celtic ancestry. You only have to sit in a modern primary school class to see that we are a very mixed up bunch indeed – not just black, white and Asian, but blonde, brunette and red-head; fair-skinned, freckled and olive-complexioned. There is no ‘British’ eye-shape, hair colour or body type. We are, and always have been a country of mixed racial heritage.

Both before and since William Pitt’s immigration crisis of the 18th century, Britain has seen the influx of thousands of foreign people who arrived on our shores needing refuge and help:

  • Between 1660 and 1714, it is thought that about 40,000 to 50,000 French-speaking Huguenots had made the perilous journey across the English Channel, fleeing religious persecution[2].
  • The century afterwards, a Parliamentary report noted that 11,600 aliens had landed in Britain during 1842 alone.
  • Britain became home to thousands of black African slaves, released after the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1843.
  • It saw a huge influx of Irish peasants during the Potato Famines of 1845 to 1849, when between one and one-and-a-half million people fled starvation and poverty in Ireland.
  • During the 1880s, after the assassination of Alexander II of Russia, thousands of Jewish people fled his anti-Semitic successor, and many of them came to the British Isles.
  • This happened again in 1935 when Nazi laws were passed in Germany.
  • Between 1939 and 1945, thousands of Poles fled to Britain after Germany’s invasion of Poland. Among them were 160,000 men of the Polish Army, who were attached to the British army, alongside British forces.
  • During the late 1970s, thousands of Vietnamese people fled their war-torn homeland by boat, many of them arriving on Britain’s shores.

And by allowing these thousands upon thousands of ‘aliens’ into Britain over the centuries, have we really lost anything? Have we become essentially less British or been forced to give up our laws, our language or our beliefs? Is it not rather that we have grown as a nation, embraced new thoughts and customs, and welcomed the differences that other cultures have brought with them?

A Polish friend once told me that Poles believe the Brits to have a great sense of humour. ‘And they are very brave and kind,’ she said. ‘Very kind.’ If we are ever afraid of losing our essential ‘Britishness,’ let’s hold onto these characteristics, rather than some other arbitrary concept of nationality. Let’s be brave, and let’s be very kind.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/familyhistory/bloodlines/migration.shtml?entry=aliens_act&theme=migration

[2] http://www.historytoday.com/robin-gwynn/englands-first-refugees