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Congregation and community: religious observance and identity in the south west woollen industry, c.1760 to 1860

By Susan Claire Strachan


The contribution of nonconformity to group collectivity and community identity has\ud received little attention within historical archaeology. Religion was an integral part of\ud socialisation during the industrial revolution, providing comfort and security, particularly in times of distress and instability. Durkheims’ Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) stressed the significant role which religious practice played in community solidarity, through shared history, ritual activity, and ceremony. Chapels were important locations for social interaction through worship activity, Sunday Schools, benefit societies and\ud fundraising events.\ud In the woollen industry of South West England, a domestic craft industry had existed since the twelfth century, and increased mechanisation during the industrial period created real concerns for the cloth workers, as the traditions of their trade were threatened with extinction. This attachment to old traditions was emotionalised through increased riotous and protest activity from the early nineteenth century, until the industry’s eventual decline in the 1850s.\ud Through analysis of the architectural elaborations and spatial locations of nonconformist chapels in seven case study areas, this research illustrates the significance of dissent in the expression of community identity. Detailed research into the social and economic contexts of this region within the time period reveals that nonconformist identities were not only visible in the built environment, but also in the social actions of the cloth workers,\ud influencing their behaviour, political beliefs and relationships with their employers.\ud This research demonstrates that a study of religious observance is not only a valuable tool in understanding the socialisation and identities of the working classes, but also provides a timely and necessary study of the social archaeology of the industrial period

Publisher: University of Leicester
Year: 2009
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