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Parish magazine of Saint John’s Limehouse Fields, 1861

​Parish magazine of Saint John Limehouse Fields, 1861, aimed at the prevention of ‘deaths that arise from bad air, bad drainage, or overcrowded rooms. Ref: P93/JN1/064 

London Anglican Parish Magazines 1860-1918

Dr Jane Platt, Hon. research associate, History, Lancaster University

Researchers at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) will need no introduction to Anglican parish magazines of the long 19th century; they occur in over one hundred and seventy parish records, while more recent parish magazines may be found in many more, all of them providing a rich resource for family historians exploring the lives of family members, or local historians studying parochial changes over time. While information contained in these magazines has also been appropriated by scholars investigating such topics as the First World War or the secularisation debate, few have paused to consider their history, despite the vast numbers held in archives, not only in Britain, but also in the countries of the British Commonwealth. This article sketches the early history of London parish magazines while providing some examples of the riches the historian may find within them.

Early Parish Magazines

The British Library holds an example of a very early London parish magazine, the Hackney and Parish Reformer of 1833 (British Library P.P. 3612k no. 1), but parish magazines truly emerged at the end of the 1850s, a pivotal period in publishing, when, as a result of technological innovation and the repeal of government taxes on newspapers, a cluster of family magazines appeared. It was an equally pivotal period for the Anglican Church, its parish reforms and church building programme paving the way for the parish magazine experiment. One of the earliest parish magazines was that of Saint John’s Limehouse Fields, 1860-61 (LMA P93/JN1/064). Hand-written in large script, this was a magazine specifically for poor people with developing reading skills, in which the illustrations had all the directness of a comic-book. It was concerned with the condition and health of the poor, the editor urging vaccination against smallpox and promoting the importance of clean water. An article entitled ‘Murder Done Here’ aimed at the prevention of ‘deaths that arise from bad air, bad drainage, or overcrowded rooms.’  Thrift was another major concern, the magazine advocating savings-banks, living within one’s income and the ultimate economic value of sending children regularly to the church school. Strikes against employers were criticised as useless in a magazine which taught obedience and duty in an economic system deemed immutable.

The style and content of any parish magazine depended on the views of its incumbent. Saint John’s Limehouse Fields magazine changed when Henry Whitehead became vicar in 1870. Having previously co-edited a parish newspaper in Clapham, he aimed to produce more than a simple parish magazine, encouraging contributions from friends like the author George MacDonald. Though Whitehead is primarily remembered as a campaigner in moves to rid London of cholera, his magazine (1871-73, P93/JN1/065-066) was decidedly literary, and though it cost a halfpenny and was theoretically within the economic reach of the poor, it was not designed to interest them unless they were enthusiastic autodidacts. Unsurprisingly, the magazine was a financial failure, but it encouraged other clergymen to seek advice on starting their own magazine, which delighted Whitehead because he saw parish magazines as a means of spreading the same liberal education as the evening classes he ran for men, in the tradition of F.D. Maurice and the early Christian Socialists.

Parish Magazine Insets and ‘Church Parties’

During the 1870s parish magazines spread throughout London, aided by the invention of the parish magazine inset. In 1859 John Erskine Clarke (vicar of Derby, then of Battersea), published the first family magazine to be fitted into the centre pages of local parish news. His Parish Magazine, containing sermons, secular stories and illustrations, combined the traditional content of the evangelical tract, the appearance of the middle-class religious periodical and the appeal of the popular family magazine: all for the cost of one penny (See Saint Jude, Gray’s Inn Road, 1867-78, P90/JUD/015-018). Other religious publishers followed suit, so that by the 1890s Anglican parish magazines and their insets had become almost ubiquitous. In 1890, for instance, the vicar of Holy Trinity, Newington, urged his richer parishioners to buy more than one magazine so that some old people, who were too poor to pay, could read it. They were very interested in the stories, he said, ‘so spend a penny and give a copy to a poor neighbour’ (P92/TRI/070-095, January 1890).

The fissiparous nature of Victorian Anglican worship led to the emergence of insets devoted to Church parties; indeed, the researcher may use the parish-magazine inset as a clue to the opinions of the incumbent. Home Words (started 1871) was popular with evangelical parishes (see Saint Mark, Tollington Park, 1882-1918, P83/MRK/143-158); the S.P.C.K’s The Dawn of Day (started 1878) was of the ‘high and dry’ variety (see Saint Mary’s, Newington, P92/MRY/273-282), while the mildly High-Church, Church Monthly, became London’s best-selling inset  from its inception in 1888 to approximately 1910, perhaps because it was devoted to the financial support of the clergy. The strength of ritualism, particularly among London’s ‘slum priests’, led to the publication of a plethora of Anglo-Catholic insets in the years leading up to the First World War, the febrile nature of Anglo-Catholicism ensuring that some parishes changed their inset frequently. Over a period of forty-five years Saint Columba, Haggerston, successively took seven different Anglo-Catholic insets (P91/COL/102-133). Ritualist editors of local magazines were prepared to take a forceful stand when their beliefs clashed with those of their parishioners, as seen below, in a description of the trials of the subeditor of Saint Matthias, Stoke Newington, during the 1890s (P94/MTS/038-045).

Clergy of St. Matthias, Stoke Newington, 1895

​Clergy of St. Matthias, Stoke Newington, 1895. Ref: P94/MTS/38-45/106-8

Socialism and conflict in Saint Matthias, Stoke Newington, parish magazine

Saint Matthias was a ritualist church, judged by Charles Booth’s social investigator to be ‘useful and active’, its population ‘tending to squalor in many streets’. According to Booth, the rector was feeble and lacking in influence (LSE, Charles Booth, Religious Influences, Vol. 1, p. 131; Manuscript Notebooks B196), but the approach of the anonymous magazine sub-editor was more robust. Correspondence was encouraged, much of it on ritualist matters. One of the first of London’s Anglo-Catholic churches, Saint Matthias was the scene of anti-Tractarian rioting in the 1850s - a memory celebrated by correspondents.

Controversy appeared in 1894, when the rector contributed an article on ‘the model parish’ to which Frederick Verinder responded negatively. Secretary of the Guild of St. Matthew and author of at least 16 books on socialism, Verinder believed that cooperation in the parish and equality at the altar were not enough; the model parish could be realised only when socialist principles were enacted and complete social equality achieved. The correspondence which followed included the promotion of Robert Blatchford’s socialist polemic, Merrie England, published that year in a cheap edition. As a result, the subeditor was called to a meeting of the magazine committee, accused of ‘grossly abusing his trust’, and sacked. It was also announced that ‘due to a severe indisposition’, Verinder was unable to contribute his promised paper on ‘Church Reform’, and that the following month the magazine would appear ‘under new management’. Later numbers were bland, their few printed letters no longer airing opinions likely to inflame readers. As in many parish magazines, contributions were confined to such unifying issues as church history, club reports, the hiring of domestic servants and bazaars.

The strains at Saint Matthias produced a surprisingly multi-vocal magazine, which became a site of conflict and contradiction, but hidden in the vast collection of parish magazines at LMA there is a huge amount of equally fascinating material just waiting to be uncovered by the assiduous researcher.

Further information

If you enjoyed reading this, you might be interested in reading another article: Parish Magazines, 1914-1920, by the same author.

  • You can explore our parish holdings in depth by searching the LMA Catalogue.
  • For more articles on archives relating to religion, visit our collections pages.
22 October 2013
Last Modified:
26 September 2019