The Population Census of 1851 was unique as it included separate counts concerning Education and Religious Worship. On Census Sunday, 30 March 1851, Mothering Sunday, a representative of every place of worship was required to complete a form with full details of the building in which services were held, its date of erection, the number of ‘sittings’ and the number who attended. They were also asked whether there was a Sunday School, and whether the building was used exclusively as a place of worship.
The original returns for England and Wales are preserved at The National Archives in class HO 129, but can be downloaded from their website https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C8993
The National Archives have also, very helpfully, indexed the returns in their catalogue. Whilst not giving the number of sittings the catalogue entry for each return does contain address, date of erection, numbers attending, and details of the person who completed the return. This last piece of information often provides clues as to where exactly the place of worship was, and to which Circuit it might have belonged.
The official report on religious worship in England and Wales has sections on the Wesleyans, Methodist New Connexion, Primitive Methodists, Bible Christians, Wesleyan Methodist Association and Wesleyan Methodist Reformers. For each denomination there is a description of their history, doctrines, and distinctive features. A summary of the returns is provided, along with the latest statistics provided by the denominations.
|Denomination||Chapels||Sittings||Attendance morning||Attendance afternoon||Attendance evening|
|Methodist New Connexion||297||96.964||36,801||22,620||39,264|
|Wesleyan Methodist Association||419||98,813||32,308||21,140||40,655|
The attendance figures may be regarded as not entirely accurate, but the value of the returns is in recording the places where Methodist worship was taking place in 1851 even if it was someone’s back room rather than a dedicated chapel. The timing of the survey, at the very moment the Wesleyan Reformers were leaving the main body of Wesleyan Methodism, is also useful in that the process can be seen in action (although this sometimes requires knowledge of what happened later: as far as the reformers were concerned they were still the “real” Wesleyan Methodists and called themselves that on the returns).
As well as the information from The National Archives, transcriptions have been printed for many English counties and for Wales. Details may be found on the attached document.
Reference: Census of Great Britain 1851: Religious worship in England and Wales. London, 1854 pp30-35