Missing from parish records: differences in the occupations of Anglican and nonconformist fathers in Wales, 1813-20

October 22, 2021 | Blog
Home > Missing from parish records: differences in the occupations of Anglican and nonconformist fathers in Wales, 1813-20

by Frances Richardson (Oxford University)

This blog is based on the authors paper presented to the Economic History Society annual conference 2021

There has been a growing interest in identifying the jobs people did in the past as a way of tracking important changes to the British economy.  A major contribution towards mapping the spread of new industries during the industrial revolution came from the construction of a database of adult male occupations for the period 1813-20, by Campop (the Cambridge Group for the Study of Population and Social Structure).  This database used records of fathers’ occupations drawn from baptism registers for all 11,364 parishes in England and Wales.  In Wales however, over a quarter of expected baptisms were missing from parish records due to a high proportion of religious nonconformists. To produce national adult male employment figures, Campop assumed that the missing nonconformists followed the same occupations as Anglican fathers. But did they?

This study investigates whether Welsh nonconformist fathers did in fact have a different occupational profile from the fathers found in parish registers. It uses a sample of seven contrasting areas covering the major sectors of the Welsh economy: agriculture, mining and quarrying, iron manufacture, the woollen industry, and a major borough, as well as areas of differing denominational strength.  The seven areas represented 12% of  the Welsh population. The method used is, firstly, to identify how many nonconformist chapels were in existence before 1821 and how good their baptism records were, and then to compare occupations from these registers with Campop’s parish records database.  Finally, I explore whether there were differences between the occupations of men in each of the four main nonconformist denominations.

I find that baptism or birth records are available for 82% of nonconformist chapels. These demonstrate widely varying levels of nonconformity in different communities. Some agricultural parishes were entirely Anglican, but in the south Wales coal and ironworking areas around the industrial town of Merthyr Tydfil, nonconformist baptisms were in a majority, at 57%.  Sadly, many Baptist and Independent chapels did not record fathers’ occupations, and occupations were identified for just  36% of nonconformist births and baptisms.

The results show significant differences between Anglican and nonconformist fathers’ occupations. Most dramatically, the proportion of nonconformists employed in mining and quarrying was over twice that of Anglicans.  Nonconformists were also over-represented among craft and manufacturing occupations, especially handloom weavers, other woollen industry workers, and ironworkers.  Conversely, men in agriculture were more likely to be Anglican at this date, before nonconformity spread widely throughout the Welsh countryside. This was especially the case for labourers, who formed a much higher proportion of Anglicans than nonconformists. Tertiary sector workers in services and professions were also predominantly Anglican, although there were localized pockets of nonconformity such as among north Wales mariners.

Figure 1. Sectoral employment of Welsh Anglican and non-conformist fathers in the early nineteenth century. Source: the author

The study also identifies some differences between nonconformist denominations.  Farmers and weavers were more likely to belong to the Calvinistic Methodists, who were just beginning their expansion in rural Wales, while colliers and miners were more strongly Independent, reflecting a more long-standing nonconformist tradition.

Because occupations were only found for 30% of nonconformist fathers, additional checks are made to assess how representative the sample is.  The first test reconstructs missing occupations for one area where all chapels kept baptism records, but only 59% of occupations were known. Using baptisms, tax, estate, and manor court records, and the 1841 census, 92% of nonconformist occupations were reconstructed. This confirms the pattern of occupational differences between Anglican and nonconformist fathers, although the scale of difference is not as prominent due to local factors.  A second check identifies the geographical location of chapels with missing records or occupations and compares them to the predominant types of work in the area.  This  later check shows that missing occupations were predominantly in mining and iron-working areas. If anything, therefore, the study may under-estimate the proportion of nonconformists in these sectors.

Finally, what difference would these findings make to our understanding of the occupational structure of Wales based on parish records?  The impact appears fairly muted because the sectors that were most strongly nonconformist – coal and other mining, slate quarrying and the woollen industry – were still  relatively small parts of the Welsh economy in the 1810s.  The major changes from adding nonconformist occupations to Campop’s Anglican figures affect the proportion of labourers, which decreases from 32.4% to 28.5%, and mining and quarrying, which increases from 6.7% to 10.2%. The Welsh economy turns out to have been less agricultural and with a larger mining sector than we thought, but the major period of industrialization was yet to come.


To contact the author: frances.richardson@conted.ox.ac.uk