Monday, 7 November 2011

A Question of Religion

Last week I made a research trip to Paisley Local Studies Library and among the sources I looked at were poor relief records.
Poor relief records are a fantastic resource often revealing not only why our ancestors had to resort to asking for help from the poor law authorities but also providing details of their births and families.

Paisley Museum & Library where the local studies collection is housed
When browsing a volume of poor relief applications I was particularly struck by the answers given in response to the question of ‘Religious Persuasion’.  These represented a wide range of religious denominations including Secessionists, Methodists, Baptists and Relief Church as well as reflecting Paisley’s large Irish population which included both Roman Catholics and Protestants (some described as Church of England or Episcopalian).
It seems to have been relatively common for husbands and wives to belong to different churches and what was perhaps surprising was the irregularity with which many people appear to have attended any church.  The following are a sample of answers found in volume B57/11/1 ‘Paisley Parochial Board: Statements of Cases’ which covers 1839-1842:
Mrs Archibald Gibson, aged 66
West Relief Church formerly, but never attended nor members for 30 years
Mrs Peter Docherty aged 31
Roman Catholic: self a member and husb[an]d is not
Walter Millar, aged 61
formerly in his younger days, he was a member of the Abbey Cl[ose] Independent
Widow William Cumming, 77
Church of Scotland: Once a Communicant but not so for some years
George Stewart, 40
Church of Scotland: but never has Communicated
Hellen Cavannah, 58
has a disposition towards the Roman Catholic faith; not a Member
Widow Thomas Campbell, 56
Protestant: Once attended but not so for many years
Widow Malcolm Turner, 76
neither herself nor husband were members of any church
It is worth noting that in Scotland, often only the fairly well-to-do were actually communicants or full members of a church (as opposed to simply attending) and it is not uncommon to find that a couple married in a particular church and had all their children baptised there without ever appearing on the communion roll.
However, given these answers, locating these people in any church records may well be a challenge and it is quite likely that many of them died prior to the start of statutory registration (1855).
I’ve often had the impression that my Scottish ancestors rarely darkened the door of any religious establishment.  Given this evidence, I may well be right!


  1. Very interesting - thanks for sharing that information.

  2. Another slant which might be worth considering and which I have come across particularly within evangelicalism in the north of Scotland is that some folk did not consider themselves worthy to be communicants...almost a false piety. Some of this may have stemmed from the conflict between the moderates and evangelicals which eventually led to the disruption.

  3. Interesting. Quite a difference between there and in rural England at that time where it was expected that you belong to a church preferably the Church of England attended by your employer. Self-employed and tradespersons were increasingly attending the Non-Conformist churches.
    I suspect that your people were more independent. Incidentally how was poor relief funded at this time?

  4. Helen,

    I think these answers definitely reflect the fact that at this time Paisley was an industrial area with a lot of incomers and a large number of different churches. Under those circumstances it was difficult for the church (or other) authorities to keep tabs on which church people were attending or indeed if they were attending any church. I'm sure you would find very different answers in a rural parish in Scotland.

    An explanation for this is provided in the 2nd (or New) Statistical Account for Paisley written in 1837 (a few years before these records):
    “About forty years ago, our people were reckoned among the most intelligent, moral and religious inhabitants of Scotland: and still a great many may be so considered. But various circumstances having concurred in causing a deterioration in these respects... and our population having greatly outstripped the means of moral and religious education, many have been left to grow up in ignorance of the first principles of Christianity; and too many, alas! have had their minds sadly imbued with prejudices against its sacred truths and institutions.”

    Prior to the 1845 Scottish Poor Law Act, poor relief was primarily the responsibility of by the church, funded by church collections and fees as well by the heritors (local landowners). However, due to the size of the town (and probably the size of the poor problem) Paisley seems to have had a more organised civil system and the out-door poor who were not in communion with the Established Church were the responsibility of the Town's Hospital and its managers. Again, a lot of detailed information on the management of poor relief is given in Paisley's 2nd Statistical Account which can be accessed from

  5. Interesting. I have only ever come across marriages and burials in OPR records for my folk. Baptism is something they seem to have missed out.

  6. A very interesting article - thank you. I am about to try and locate Poor Relief records for Perth (Scone) and will be very interested to see what they turn up. At this time as well is a huge period of change for Scotland with industrialisation and the loss of common land; the Irish Famine and "Clearances" - you could only imagine some of the odd bedfellows that would be thrown together. For me, 1745 - 1900 is one of the most fascinating periods of Scottish History. Thanks for sharing.