The Ecclesiastical Census of 1851

A Collection at the National Archives

National Archives from enwikipedia
Image from Margaret Blewitt’s article “St. Peter's Church before the extension” (approx. 1961/2)
Image from Jon Stamp’s article "Old St. Peter's Church, Thundersley"

The Ecclesiastical Census was held on Sunday 30 March 1851 to coincide with the national Census of the same day. Forms were sent out to a variety of religious establishments including churches, chapels, meeting houses and synagogues to record their capacity and the number attending that evening.

The returns are kept on fiche at the National Archive and a pdf for each district can be downloaded free of charge from their website at

A limited number of the returns have so far been transcribed in part and the key details can be viewed on the website. Of additional interest is information in the Remarks column only shown in the pdf of the original documents.

Scrawly handwriting can be a problem, but, for example, the entry for St Peter’s Thundersley appears to say that the Church “much requires and is well worthy of restoration” and “– is distant (2miles away) from a newly arisen cluster of 36 cottages in the Parish”.
{Here is  Jon Stamp’s related article.}

It also notes that a “New Day School to be built here may possibly increase the Sunday scholars & finally the church attendants.”

Finally, the Remarks say that “The parish is in extreme poverty”.
Informant: William Howlett, Minister.

The church was then in the diocese of Rochester.
The remaining information on St Peter’s, “Thundersley, Rayleigh” is:

Estimated attendance on Sunday 30 March 1851: morning 57 (including 25 Sunday scholars), afternoon 108 (including 18 Sunday scholars).

There were 108 spaces, 78 of them in pews and 30 on loose forms plus 24 seats for children.

Turning to the other local churches and chapels, the information is generally more limited and can be most easily viewed and compared in a table:

InformantSpacesMorning AttendanceAfternoon AttendanceEvening Attendance
St James-the-LessUnreadable Signature70100
Hadleigh Wesleyan Methodist Preaching Room

(House used for public worship since 1849)

Jno Reacher, Minister, Leigh40 free sittings2436
Thundersley Baptists

(Erected 4 years)

(Average congregation 100)

William Westhorpe, Minister, Gt Wakering150 entirely free spaces17980


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  • Fascinating to me that Thundersley’s biggest church congregation in 1851 was the Baptists!
    Their chapel, it seems, was established in 1847 and their building was sited roughly where the current Fire Station is, opposite Kingsley Lane. Rayleigh Baptist church was less than a mile away and, as was well established at this time, it’s possible that the Thundersley Baptists had a strong connection or antecedence.
    The Thundersley chapel is depicted on old OS maps as a small and simply rectangular building but (surprisingly) there are no photographs of it in the H&TCA collection (or anywhere else?). Its history is completely shrouded in mystery and would make an interesting research project.
    Nowadays there is no Baptist church in Thundersley, though the congregations in neighbouring Hadleigh, Rayleigh and South Benfleet are in good heart.

    By David Hurrell (20/03/2021)

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