The rise and decline of mainstream churches in Cambridge since the 1800s


Looking locally at a national trend over the decades – and how this was reflected in Cambridge.

I’m attempting to examine this from the perspective of an historian rather than through the traumatic emotional lens of my experience growing up and going to church every Sunday – and even less so from a ‘political’ disposition that leans towards Hashtag #SmashPatriarchy. But given my emotions are still strong in this field – in particular every time a senior cleric comes out with something like this, better to acknowledge my strong opinions against various teachings of the various institutions at the start than pretend they are not there.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to do a hatchet job. Actually I’m interested in the much longer historical changes that happened across the country from the start of the industrial revolution – in particular after the Napoleonic wars, and how this was reflected in Cambridge and the surrounding villages.

At the same time, it’s worth acknowledging the opening of a number of new independent churches that have set themselves up without their own premises, but through hiring or leasing of existing buildings, whether school halls or warehouses. Some of these churches too serve the spiritual needs of immigrants from different parts of the world, giving congregations a very different feel to perhaps what they were some 30 years ago. So while the totals may reflect a fall over time, it’s not the full picture.

“***Everyone*** went to church in the olden days didn’t they? That’s what we were taught at school!” 

Not at all. Nearly 200 years ago the parish of Barnwell – much closer to the centre of Cambridge than the Barnwell of today, was described as being in a ‘heathenish and dissolute state’ in 1827. (Ch 1 Pg 3 of Jesus Lane Sunday School). It was on the back of this that the Jubilee Chapel – now private flats, was built.


This building is just around the back of Fitzroy Street and the Tram Depot in the old Kite area of the city as you head towards the Grafton Centre.

In the 1800s there was a lot kicking off in Cambridge – reflecting what was happening across the country and the world too. I’m still trying to get through Josiah Chater’s diary of Victorian Cambridge, skilfully edited by Enid Porter, one of the founding mothers of the Museum of Cambridge/Cambridge Folk Museum. During the decades that Chater wrote, there were a number of significant changes that happened to and in the city. These included but were not limited to:

Methodist churches popping up everywhere

One of the things that struck me going through the photographic archives was the rapid growth of the methodist church and other non-conformist churches in Cambridge. One of the big ones (That’s no longer with us) is the Hills Road Methodist Church, built in the 1860s.


The above, from the Museum of Cambridge’s archives, was built because the older church on Hobson Street below was proving to be too small.


The local Church of England clerics tarnished by their roles in law and order

Whether the curious case of Edward Smith facing one of the last ecclesiastical courts on a charge of libelling the parson’s wife in Fen Ditton, to the heroic actions of 17 year old Daisy Hopkins which split the town, contesting the actions of Rev Wallis – a Proctor of Cambridge University that led to the metaphorical castration of both University and in part, Church, were two examples of how the actions of clerics made them and the Church of England deeply unpopular in various parts of the town. I can’t remember who it was, but one of the local historians here in Cambridge told me that it was these actions that helped increase the popularity of the non-conformist churches whose ministers tended not to take on roles of enforcing Cambridge University’s rules, or sitting on the benches of magistrates ruling against townsfolk hauled before them.

It was also in the late 1800s and early 1900s that Cambridge saw a number of schools constructed that were, one way or another linked with various churches in and around the town. Whether the Leys founded in 1875 to serve the sons of Methodist ministers (today, now one of the more expensive private schools in the city with boarding fees over £30,000 annually) to the state primary schools St Matthew’s and St Phillips linked to the local churches nearby. Furthermore, the Catholic primary school of St Alban’s primary school was established in 1843 – a few decades before the founding and construction of the huge Church of Our Lady & the English Martyrs that dominates main route into town from the South. And again not without some controversy at the time from the Church of England who noted that the spire/steeple would be (and still is) the tallest of all religious buildings in Cambridge. Despite its size, the bishop’s seat (the ‘cathedra’) for the Catholic diocese of East Anglia is in the Catholic Cathedral in Norwich, and for the Church of England the cathedra is in Ely Cathedral – not in King’s College Chapel as is sometimes erroneously stated.

Clerics in politics

If you look at the history of our local political parties, you will find a number of non-conformist ministers standing for election – and getting elected to the local council. One of the highest profile of individuals was Dr Alex Wood for the Cambridge Labour Party. Next time you receive an election leaflet through your door, look for the imprint that all party political materials must have – stating who published it and from which address. Cambridge Labour’s is all from ‘Alex Wood Hall’.


Not a meek and retiring type either – Dr Wood took part in a number of anti-fascism protests calling for an alliance with the Soviet Union in the run up to the Second World War. He was a preacher at St Columba’s on Downing Street.


I only found this out at a music rehearsal with We are Sound  a few weeks ago because I looked at the tablet dedicated to him on the wall of the main church hall.

The decline of church attendances and the sale of church properties

I mentioned earlier about the old Wesleyan Methodist Church that was sold off and demolished on Hills Road. I’m still astonished they allowed this to happen, but it did in the very early 1970s on the grounds that the Methodists signed a 99 year lease on the building and could not afford to renew it due to increasing repair bills and declining congregations. Accordingly that parish merged with the Wesleyan Methodist Church by Christ’s Pieces. There have been further sales since then – most recently the very controversial sale of the Sturton Street church.


The photo above from the Museum of Cambridge’s archives shows the ‘Finbow and Sons’ building on the far right – which used to be a Primitive Methodist Chapel on Newmarket Road – described by a contemporary of the time as one of the most miserable of buildings in the city when it was a chapel.

“So…why has church attendance collapsed across the country?”

A whole host of reasons can be put forward for that – but again the picture isn’t uniform. Since 1980 though, attendances across England for the Church of England and the Catholic Churches have collapsed.


Sorting myth from fact – what was the real story? What is the real data? (For example should we be using data on attendance collected at Christmas or Easter?) 

Established secularist and/or atheist opponents of the churches over the years have criticised religions for publishing data on attendances that coincide with peak attendances. This came to a head in 2011 with the 10 year census. The British Humanists launched a high profile campaign of ‘No Religion’ in order to encourage people to properly describe what religion or faith they had. The impact was striking.

When I look round Cambridge today and compare it to the city of my childhood, so you could say comparing the Cambridge of the mid-late 1980s to that of today, the one thing that strikes me is just how central Christianity was in our day-to-day lives as young children. We would sing carols at Christmas and sing church songs at school – though I never understood why some of my friends went to a big and more interesting church locally and I had to go to this crusty little satellite on the edge of town. (How would you explain the English reformation to a pair of six year olds as the reason why they couldn’t go to the same church?) We’d even sing a prayer before lunch at primary school before we all tucked in. We’d have Christmas concerts at church too – though looking back I don’t know how they managed to cram us all into the main church hall.

Then in the late 1980s we got a new headteacher at primary school and all of the church-related things got thrown out. One summer we were singing a prayer before lunch and then the following autumn after the summer break we were not – and all of the hymn books we had got chucked out.

During the 1990s I remember it being a time of huge social change – one where both religious and political authorities were really struggling to keep up with. Attitudes towards a whole host of things moved away from they established order to a more open-minded worldview. Note though that this does not mean that such attitudes are irreversible – as any student of Weimar Germany will caution you with.

One other thing to remember with the 1990s was the growth of saturation TV coverage – especially of sports and specifically football. One of the things that those who ran church-based youth groups often complained about was how Sunday morning youth sports leagues often took away children from church. Combine that with football on TV every night of the week on specialist sports channels, the growth of more flexible Sunday shop opening times (and the need to work in them in times of austerity), time out for church can seem less attractive in comparison – especially if going every Sunday feels like more of a chore than a chance to meet socially amongst other things.

Personally speaking the genie was out of the bottle with the growth of the internet – political and religious institutions could no longer control the messages or the means. In my experience, institutions are still struggling to cope with how people are using (and as we hear about every other day, abusing) this incredibly powerful medium. A message made up of less than 140 characters can cause the share price of a large multinational to collapse, or even change the headlines of all of the national newspapers.

From a local sociological perspective, Cambridge’s population has become much more mobile, and turnover much more rapid. Therefore the institutions (and the people within them) that used to be solid and rooted within communities found themselves on shakier ground. Put that with Cambridge now being in the middle of an international speculative property bubble and perhaps some of the familial continuity of certain community roles transferring from father to son, mother to daughter and so on, are disrupted because children can no longer afford their own places locally close to their parents.

Finally, the historical abuse scandals of religious institutions have become public in recent decades. The failure of institutions to properly acknowledge the suffering they caused, and to change their attitudes, systems, processes and even doctrines has had an impact. Christian communities in and around Cambridge have not been immune.


A more fragmented picture of Christianity (and of religion and faith generally) in Cambridge?

Difficult to say and make the comparisons because there are so many changing variables – even in such a short space of time as the mid-1980s to today. Have a look at this article from the student paper The Varsity from late 2016. Understandably it’s a very ‘university-centric’ article, but the statistic that our city has the highest number of religious ministers per capita is quite a striking one. But then dig below the headline figure and ask how many would survive self-financing if they were dependent on the offertory collections of parishioners only, and not on say the revenues from past investments or incomes from other/associated institutions.

We’ve seen various churches switch ownership/leasehold. The United Reformed Church on Cherry Hinton Road is now run by the Greek Orthodox Church. I’ve mentioned the old Methodist Church on Sturton Street. Just as we saw the URC on Trumpington Street build on the old Half Moon Pub, there have been one or two religious buildings that have taken over old pubs – such as the Sikh Temple. A reflection on the changing makeup of our city and also of the changing social habits too? For when one looks at the buildings on Cambridge’s streets in the late 1800s, the prevalence of public houses as well as churches and chapels is striking.

Some of the larger churches have diversified their properties and have turned their main church buildings into community centres for wider community use. St Paul’s on Hills Road, St Phillip’s and St Barnabas on Mill Road, and the Emmanuel United Reformed Church on Trumpington Street are some of the best examples of having done this. Essentially they have removed all of the pews and have polished or replaced the floors to enable a wide range of activities to take place in their buildings, ranging from concerts, theatrical performances, dances and discos to public meetings, workshops and exhibitions.

“To conclude?”

Although the numbers have been falling – and falling quite starkly at Sunday masses, that doesn’t mean the buildings have to be left underused. It also doesn’t mean that parishioners have no part to play in the life of local communities either. Indeed Christians in Cambridge have been conspicuous by their presence at the Cambridge Food Banks and with the Cambridge Food Cycle Project over a number of years. They’ve not sought publicity nor stood on soap boxes shouting offensive slogans like these guys did, but instead have been quietly getting on with ensuring some of the people most in need in our communities have got food and a hot meal on their plates. Then hitting representatives of big food organisations with a grilling when they come to town for what they think will be a nice laid back discussion.

…and as a postscript?

I wouldn’t have what it takes to write it, but given the wealth of material available I reckon there’s a Ph.D thesis waiting to be written by someone on the changing nature of [social and political] Christianity [as opposed to say ‘theological’] in Cambridge over the past 200 years.


One thought on “The rise and decline of mainstream churches in Cambridge since the 1800s

  1. Impressive and interesting post. You mention churches changing hands and reconfiguring themselves to meet modern community needs. Our local, St John the Evangelist, has done likewise, adding a suite of community rooms that are used by a host of different groups all through the week, and taking out the pews so the space can be used more flexibly, especially for the popular Messy Church events.

    Good point about how you count people when looking at church attendance. You could count people who attend during the week, such as parent/ toddler services and midweek services. You may find Christian Research’s stats of interest:— they have lots of different ways of counting.


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