Thomas Sowell and the Misrepresentation of Old South Culture

In 2005, Thomas Sowell, the renowned American economist and conservative social theorist, published a collection of essays entitled Black Rednecks and White Liberals. In the title essay (which can be read in full here), Sowell contends that negative behavioural traits and patterns found among ‘ghetto’ blacks in contemporary America – such as violence and murder carried out over ‘disrespect’, base pleasure seeking, and many children being born to unmarried mothers – arose not within the black community itself but, rather, through blacks in the Old South coming under the influence of lower class white ‘rednecks’, who came from the border regions of northern England and brought a unique and uncivilised culture with them. In making these claims, Sowell misunderstands and misrepresents the culture both of the Old South and of England.

Sowell argues:

More is involved here than a mere parallel between blacks and Southern whites. What is involved is a common subculture that goes back for centuries, which has encompassed everything from ways of talking to attitudes toward education, violence, and sex — and which originated not in the South, but in those parts of the British Isles from which white Southerners came. That culture long ago died out where it originated in Britain, while surviving in the American South. Then it largely died out among both white and black Southerners, while still surviving today in the poorest and worst of the urban black ghettos.

Sowell can’t quite seem to make up his mind as to whether there is a direct line between ‘rednecks’ of the past and ghetto blacks of today. At one point he states that ‘contemporary black ghetto culture in the United States is not, however, a simple linear extrapolation from the culture of Southern whites’, only to go on to state later in the essay: ‘Whether black redneck values and lifestyle are a lineal descendant of white redneck values and lifestyle, as suggested here…’ Essentially, the overall argument in ‘Black Rednecks and White Liberals’ is indeed that poor white Britons, who came to the South from the border regions of northern England (as well as from Scotland and Ulster), brought with them a degenerate culture that is the root of modern ‘ghetto’ culture:

What the rednecks or crackers brought with them across the ocean was a whole constellation of attitudes, values, and behavior patterns that might have made sense in the world in which they had lived for centuries, but which would prove to be counterproductive in the world to which they were going — and counterproductive to the blacks who would live in their midst for centuries before emerging into freedom and migrating to the great urban centers of the United States, taking with them similar values. The cultural values and social patterns prevalent among Southern whites included an aversion to work, proneness to violence, neglect of education, sexual promiscuity, improvidence, drunkenness, lack of entrepreneurship, reckless searches for excitement, lively music and dance, and a style of religious oratory marked by strident rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and flamboyant imagery.

Leaving aside Sowell’s uncritical reliance on sources that were hostile to the South, there are a number of problems with Sowell’s argument, including a lack of understanding of English culture and the use of irrelevant material to supposedly strengthen his case.

I take no issue with the observation that there was drunkenness, violence, reckless behaviour, and premarital sex in the old South, but Sowell’s claim that this was derived from a marginal culture found in the lawless border regions of England fails to understand the nature of England and its culture in general. Indeed, the notion that this was a uniquely ‘redneck’ phenomenon is undermined by Sowell himself, when he also cites the behaviour of the Southern aristocrats to show that the old South was a terrible, violent place. Let’s look at each of these phenomena in turn.

Drunkenness

There is no doubt that ‘redneck’ culture (or that of ‘poor white trash’, as they were commonly referred to) was often reported to include a love of drinking alcohol, often to excess. In Daniel R. Hundley’s Social relations in our Southern States (1860), for example, we read of hill-dwelling poor Southern whites as follows:

Another evil which prevails greatly among the Sandhillers… is the iniquitous practice of drinking alcoholic beverages to excess. And then, too, such vile stuff as the poor fellows are wont to imbibe! Too lazy to distill honest peach or apple brandy, like the industrious yeomanry, they prefer to tramp to the nearest groggery with a gallon-jug on their shoulders, which they get filled with “bust-head,” “rot-gut,” or some other equally poisonous abomination; and then tramp home again, reeling as they trudge along, and laughing idiotically, or shouting like mad in a glorious state of beastly intoxication…

Yet the same book also refers to heavy drinking among rich Southerners:

When the rich Southern Bully comes into the possession of his estates, his first care is to fill his cellars (in case he has any, otherwise his store-room) with barrels of Old Eye, as well as brandy, gin, rum, and other kinds of strong waters, but rarely with any thing in the shape of wine. Wine may do for babes, but not for such a puissant gentleman as he fancies himself to be. Having laid in his stock of liquors, he proceeds immediately to gather about him a set of boon companions like himself — idle loafers, drunken over-seers, and may be one or two other fellows of like kidney; and now he devotes his nights to gaming, drinking, and coarse libertinism, and his days to fox-hunting, horse-racing, and the like.

In his essay, Sowell cites Frederick Olmsted’s Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom as an authoritative source. That same book also refers to drunkenness among wealthy Southerners, in this case planters Olmsted encountered on a steam boat in Alabama:

They were, generally, cotton-planters, going to Mobile on business, or emigrants bound to Texas or Arkansas. They were usually well dressed, but were a rough, coarse style of people, drinking a great deal, and most of the time under a little alcoholic excitement. Not sociable, except when the topics of cotton, land, and negroes, were started; interested, however, in talk about theatres and the turf; very profane… very ill-informed, except on plantation business; their language ungrammatical, idiomatic, and extravagant… I was perplexed by finding, apparently united in the same individual, the self-possession, confidence, and the use of expressions of deference, of the well-equipped gentleman, and the coarseness and low tastes of the uncivilized boor.

Elsewhere, we read of the wealthy of Alabama:

Traditions of aristocracy are deep-rooted in Selma, for most of the early settlers were well-to-do. The wealthy planter class was strong, and grew stronger as they built magnificent mansions, cleared 1,000-acre plantations, and planted cotton… Cotton was king. The planters enjoyed a halcyon existence, spiced with a taste for politics and liquor…

Significant alcohol consumption was common among wealthy Southerners from the earliest days:

Beverage consumption was deeply woven into Virginian social gatherings and hospitality, especially for elite planters. Almost every occasion was commemorated with alcohol, which was regularly consumed at funerals, weddings, court days, and elections. This common, regular consumption demonstrates how alcohol and other beverages were entrenched in one’s public appearance.

The Old South was awash with alcohol:

There can be little doubt that antebellum southerners drank too much. Temperance societies arose here and there, but they accomplished little… Most people, in fact, looked upon moderate drinking of hard liquors as beneficial, and “moderate” before the Civil War would probably be considered “heavy” today. Not long after the Louisiana Purchase a young Creole woman in Opelousas, Louisiana, criticized American men because they were always willing to take another bottle, even though they were already drunk. She seems to have been fairly accurate observer.

There is a good reason for this widespread alcohol consumption in the Old South, which was practiced by every class, from planter aristocrats down to ‘poor white trash’ (Sowell’s ‘rednecks’). The reason is that the South was populated by settlers from England and the descendants of English settlers. The notorious English drinking culture goes back many centuries – as explored here – and it is this, not simply the presence of northern English borderers, that explains the drinking culture of the old South.

Violence

Sowell makes much of Southerners being quick to resort to violence in the face of a perceived insult, and he links this to contemporary black behaviour:

Centuries before “black pride” became a fashionable phrase, there was cracker pride — and it was very much the same kind of pride. It was not pride in any particular achievement or set of behavioral standards or moral principles adhered to. It was instead a touchiness about anything that might be even remotely construed as a personal slight, much less an insult, combined with a willingness to erupt into violence over it.

Further on in the essay, Sowell again writes of ‘the many fights and deaths resulting from some insult or slight among people “touchy about their honor and dignity”‘, and claims that: ‘Again, all of this went back to a way of life in the turbulent regions of Britain from which white Southerners came’. Sowell’s ‘turbulent regions’ theory of violence in the Old South refers to his notion that it is from ‘rednecks’ that a culture of violence came, and that this culture then entered into the culture of Southern blacks. The problem with this theory is that much of the evidence cited by Sowell in support of the idea that the South was a particularly violent place actually refers to the upper classes.

On violence based around perceived insults, Sowell writes:

The history of the antebellum South is full of episodes showing the same pattern, whether expressed in the highly formalized duels of the aristocracy or in the no-holds-barred style of fighting called “rough and tumble” among the common folk, a style that included biting off ears and gouging out eyes… During the era when dueling became a pattern among upper-class Americans — between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War — it was particularly prevalent in the South… Most duels arose not over substantive issues but over words considered insulting.  At lower social levels, Southern feuds such as that between the Hatfields and the McCoys — which began in a dispute over a pig and ultimately claimed more than 20 lives — became legendary…

Sowell also cites an example of Southern violence taken from Olmsted’s book – the case of an armed duel which ended with the loser being killed with a knife. The problem for Sowell, here, is that he explicitly undermines his own thesis on the ‘redneck’ origins of Southern violence by pointing out the equally prevalent violence among wealthy planter aristocrats. Both rich and poor in the Old South were prone to violence, including violence over perceived insults. This clearly, then, contrary to Sowell’s overall thesis, was a Southern phenomenon, rather than a ‘redneck’ one, and cannot therefore be simply explained as dating ‘back to a way of life in the turbulent [border] regions of Britain’. And, again, it was also an English phenomenon.

The English in general have long been known as a violent people. In the medieval period, the southern counties of England were ‘more dangerous than Mexico today – and four times as dangerous as the United States’. The onset of modernity did little to change the violent nature of English culture, as quotes from nineteenth century books attest. James Anthony Froude noted that: ‘Invariably, by friend and enemy alike, the English are described as the fiercest people in all Europe (the English wild beasts, Benvenunto Cellini calls them)’. Similarly, the French critic and historian Hippolyte Taine wrote:

Here the temperament is different, more violent and more combative; pleasure is a brutish and bestial thing: I could cite twenty examples of this. An Englishman said to me, “When a Frenchman is drunk he chatters; when a German is drunk he sleeps; when an Englishman is drunk he fights.”

To this day, foreign visitors to England make similar observations. John Fleming quotes an Italian historian as follows:

The British fight in a totally different way.

If someone is offended, he turns suddenly and the most he says is “Fuck you!” then he immediately hits the other guy in the face with his fist. No-one has time to separate the two because, by the time they get there, a full fight has started. I saw it happen in a pub the second day I was in England and I have seen it many times since. Very few Italians have broken noses, but lots of English and Scots do because, with their sudden fights, there is no time to protect your face from the first punch.

The other facet which confuses foreigners is that so many British look like losers. They dress casually and shabbily, they don’t repair the legs of their spectacles for years and they look like they are past caring but, at some point, this apparently laid-back loser will turn round and break your nose. It is not a country where you insult someone lightly.

In 2014, the Portuguese academic João Magueijo wrote of his experiences in England and concluded:

I have never met such a group of animals. English culture is pathologically violent.

As with the drinking culture of the Old South, its culture of violence can also be far more adequately explained not through a flimsy argument based on the supposedly uniquely violent nature of the ‘redneck’ borderers, but rather by the fact that – again – the old South was largely founded by English settlers and their descendants (from the South and South West of England, the Midlands, and the border regions of northern England) and therefore exhibits strong similarities with the culture of England.

Reckless behaviour 

According to Sowell, ‘even where there was no conflict or hostility involved, Southerners often showed a reckless disregard for human life, including their own’. He continues:

For example, the racing of steamboats that happened to encounter each other on the rivers of the South often ended with exploding boilers, especially when the excited competition led to the tying down of safety valves, in order to build up more pressure to generate more speed.

It is unclear what this has to do with the ‘redneck’ culture of the border regions of northern England, which Sowell sees as the root of Southern (and black) recklessness. Indeed, the steamboat racing phenomenon has nothing to do with the culture of poor Southern whites and every to do with the gambling culture of the South, especially that of the wealthy:

The dominating vice of the antebellum period was gambling. Wagering was an exciting way of spending leisure time. In the early days, gambling among the social elite was essentially private. Isolated wagers would be made on a cockfight, the turn of a card, a steamboat race, or a horserace. Many of these activities were also orchestrated for public wagering, but no formal wagering authority existed. Steamboat racing was particularly popular, but the strain placed on the boats was blamed for boiler explosions and other river disasters.

Steamboat racing, then, had nothing to do with ‘redneck’ culture, and was one aspect of a far wider gambling culture – a culture arguably derived from the gambling culture of England, and brought to the South by English settlers. Steamboat racing may have involved a degree of recklessness, but so do motorsports today, for example. The case for a uniquely reckless Southern culture is very weak.

Premarital sex

Sowell writes:

Southern whites were as different from Northern whites when it came to sexual patterns as they were in other ways. Widespread casual sex was commented on by outside observers in both the American South and in those parts of Britain from which Southerners had come . Here again, the greatest contrast is with New England. While pregnant brides were very rare in seventeenth-century New England, they were more common in the Southern backcountry than anywhere else in the United States. A missionary estimated that more than nine-tenths of the backcountry women at whose weddings he officiated were already pregnant. In this, as in other respects, the “sexual customs of the southern backcountry were similar to those of northwestern England.”

Here, the contrast between the sexual activity of rural Southerners and that of the sexually puritanical New Englanders is used to illustrate the supposedly aberrant nature of ‘redneck’ sexuality and its purported geographic uniqueness within England itself. It is worth noting that this is a false comparison: The fundamental difference between New England culture and Southern culture is that the former was an ‘American’ culture, while the latter was essentially the continuation of the culture of mainstream England on foreign soil. The New England culture was deeply concerned with sexual morality and its transgression in ways the South simply wasn’t.

Most importantly, was the sexual behaviour of poor Southern whites – especially the tradition of women being pregnant prior to marriage – solely a ‘border’ (‘redneck’) phenomenon? The simple answer is no. The following observations, for example, were written in the nineteenth century regarding the sexual customs of the people of rural Devon, in the South West of England (very far indeed from the northern border regions):

If a little may be said in favour of the poor girls, not a word can be said in favour of the agricultural men, who are immoral almost without exception, and will remain so until a better-educated generation with more self-respect arises. The number of poor girls, from fifteen to five-and-twenty, in agricultural parishes who have illegitimate offspring is extremely large, and is illustrated by the fact that, out of the marriages that take place—and agricultural poor are a marrying class—scarcely any occur until the condition of the girl is too manifest to be any longer concealed. Instances could be mentioned where the clergyman’s wife, with a view to check the immorality around her, has offered a reward of a piece of furniture to the first married woman who does not bear a child till nine months after marriage; the custom being within three months.

The sexual behaviour of poor rural whites in the South was patterned on the sexual behaviour of poor rural workers throughout England, then, and was not, therefore, uniquely a phenomenon of a ‘redneck culture’ derived from the border regions of northern England.

The drinking, violence, recklessness, and sexual behaviour found in the Old South were not, as Sowell would have us believe, rooted predominantly in the ‘redneck’ culture of people who came to the South from the border regions of northern Britain. They were, instead, well-established parts of the mainstream English culture of the period. When Englishmen and women came to the South from England (from a number of different counties and regions, and from a variety of social classes), they brought with them attitudes and patterns of behaviour that very often cut across class lines. White Southerners of all classes drank to excess, gambled, and got into violent altercations. Whatever moralists may make of it, this was not redneck culture – it was English culture.

The English Origins of Chitlins

Pork chitterlings, or ‘chitlins’, along with items such as pigs’ feet and hog’s head cheese, are commonly associated with the diet of poor Southerners in the United States. They are also strongly associated with African American ‘soul food’. In 1966, the radical civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, coined the term ‘black power’ and his organisation put out a position paper on ‘The Basis of Black Power’. This paper claimed:

[T]he white people coming into the movement cannot relate to the black experience, cannot relate to the word “black,” cannot relate to the “nitty gritty,” cannot relate to the experience that brought such a word into existence, cannot relate to chitterlings, hog’s head cheese, pig feet, ham hocks, and cannot relate to slavery, because these things are not a part of their experience.

The notion that chitterlings, hog’s head cheese, pig feet, and ham hocks are not a part of the experience of white people is a strange one, but one can still encounter such views today. When the origins of chitterlings and associated foods of the South are examined, however, what emerges is that these are foods that, far from originating in African American culture – or even the wider Southern culture – are derived from the foodways of England.

References to chitterlings, brawn/souse (hog’s head cheese), and pig feet can be found in numerous English sources. Chitterlings appear in the 1761 Royal English Dictionary, for example, where they are referred to as ‘the guts or bowels, generally applied to those of beasts fit for food’. Similarly, ‘chitterlings’ is listed in A General Dictionary of Provincialisms (1838) as a word referring to ‘the small guts of hogs’. Hannah Glasse, in her deeply influential (in both Britain and the United States) book The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) includes a recipe for calf’s chitterlings, with the instructions: ‘blanche and boil them like hog’s chitterlins’ (note the spelling) [p.43]. Glasse’s book also includes recipes for pickled pig’s feet and ears [p.82], as well as pig’s feet boiled in half a pint of water, a blade of mace, a little whole pepper, a bundle of sweet-herbs, and an onion [p.35]. Elizabeth Raffald’s book The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) includes recipes for boiled pig’s feet with fried battered pig’s ears [p.280], as well as ‘Pig feet and ears to souse’, which also calls for battering and frying [p.305]. Charles Francatelli’s book A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852) features recipes for baked pig’s head and pig’s feet, as well as a recipe for a ‘Pig’s Fry’, which ‘consists of the heart, liver, lights, and some of the chitterlings; these are to be first cut up in slices, then seasoned with pepper and salt, rolled in a little flour, and fried with some kind of grease in the frying-pan’.

As in the American South, chitterlings in England passed from being a delicacy enjoyed by the wealthy to being seen as a poverty food. In Britain, the epicentre of chitterling consumption has traditionally been the South and South West of England, and this continues to this day. While many in Britain today have never heard of chitterlings, specialist meat suppliers in Devon, Gloucestershire, and Wiltshire all offer chitterlings to their customers. In a 2012 BBC Magazine piece entitled ‘Forgotten food: 25 foods readers would like to revive’, a reader is quoted as offering: ‘Chitterlings, sweetbreads and fat bacon – my childhood foods in Gloucestershire’. A 1992 BBC report on the aftermath of riots in Bristol states: ‘It seemed the only people up and about that morning were heading for the butchers and mostly to buy strings of chitterling’. A 2015 Telegraph article on ‘Britain’s oldest family business’ (located in Bridport, Dorset) reports that its owner speaks with ‘a Dorset accent steeped in brawn and chitterlings’. ‘Shock as 200-year-old Bristol “institution” announces closure’ was a recent Bristol Post headline (September 2018). In the article, we read:

J.D. Brittan’s shop was a local institution which dates back to 1814, and was one of the few remaining traditional pork butchers in the region… The shop had some very loyal customers, some of whom would even walk or cycle for miles to buy Brittan’s faggots, pork ribs, cooked ham and chitterlings (cooked intestines which the firm supplied to butchers from Cornwall to Birmingham) as well as Bath Chaps [cooked pig’s cheek].

Reading accounts of the lives of elderly English men and women, we find chitterlings and other associated meats making an appearance. In his autobiography, Fred Slater writes of his childhood in the West Midlands:

On Friday afternoons in Darlaston there were queues of people carrying pots and basins outside Bailey’s Pork Butchers, waiting for hot tubs of chitterlings to arrive. Anatomically these are the cleaned and boiled small intestines of pigs, delicious eaten with really hot English mustard… Cow’s udder, chickens’ feet and pigs’ trotters were always for sale in the 1940s and 1950s…

Meanwhile, Storytelling with UK Centenarians (July 2010), includes the following account:

I was born into very poor circumstances in Smethwick, on the outskirts of Birmingham… I lived on bread and dripping, I don’t know how mother made the dripping but she used to put rosemary seeds on the top. It was called rosemary lard. Then she used to buy a pig’s face and boil it and scrape all the meat off the bones, press it and have it cold. It was called brawn. Mother would buy the cow’s udder- it’s a big piece of meat- and she’d boil it and boil it and boil it and then slice it. This is the sort of thing we lived on. This was how we survived. My parents didn’t grow their own vegetables. How they managed, I just don’t know. I remember the chitterlings. We ate eat things that we wouldn’t touch today, brains and very cheap offal. And you never left anything on your plate.

Clearly, then, there is an English tradition of chitterling-eating which dates back many centuries. The key locations in which chitterlings and other ‘variety meats’ were historically enjoyed include Devon, Bristol, Gloucestershire, Dorset, and Wiltshire. Looking at the areas from which servants were drawn in the colonial South (of which there are 17), we find that they came from Bristol (1st place in the list), Gloucester (3rd), Wiltshire (4th), Dorset (8th), and Devon (9th). So, a large group of white servants came to Virginia (and then the wider South) from areas that are strongly associated with chitterlings consumption. In these areas, to this day chitterlings are seasoned with vinegar and pepper, hot mustard, or a combination of both. That ‘chiltins’ in Southern cooking and African American ‘soul food’ are served with cider vinegar and hot sauce can hardly be a coincidence.

While chitterlings came to be seen as a food of slaves and poor whites in the American South, and likewise became a poor man’s food in England, this was not always the case. As Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, notes:

There are instances in slave narratives where you come across masters beating slaves because they didn’t make it well enough for the master’s table. After Emancipation, chitlins eventually loses its prestige factor and is seen more as a poverty food.

While chitterlings did indeed take on the status of poverty food, this was far from a uniquely African American phenomenon. In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 7, for example, we read:

White, rural Southerners of the 20th century celebrated chitterlings as both cultural emblem and nourishment. Active chitterling eating clubs like the Royal Order of Chitlin Eaters of Nashville, Tenn., and the Happy Chitlin eaters of Raleigh, NC, emerged by the middle of the century. The traditional song “Chitlin Cookin’ Time in Cheatham County” indicates the importance of chitlins to regional identity.

That song includes the lines:

Of all good things put before me
I think chittlins are the best
And when I press that dying pillow
Let chittlins by my last request

Meanwhile, the 1971 English song ‘Chitterling’ by Adge Cutler & The Wurzels includes the lines:

Chitterling, chitterling, chitterling
Chitterling is all I crave
Fill me up with chitterling
Think of all the cash you’ll save

Chitterlings, and associated variety meats, then, were firmly established on both sides of the Atlantic as a food of working class whites. Indeed, the white association with chitterlings is indisputable.

For example, according to Gov. Kerr Scott of North Carolina (1949-53), any man worthy of the honourific title ‘Country Squire’ (similar to a Kentucky Colonel) must have ‘a natural hankerin’ for chittlins’. Liz Williams of the The Southern Food & Beverage Museum notes:

If you’re Southern it is food. It’s not soul food. Whether you were a redneck or poor white trash, everybody ate that food. I still eat a lot of my greens with pickled pork and pig’s feet. It might have been poor people’s food but it was food.

Peyton Shepherd, a white Southerner from Alabama, writes:

We eat some questionable things on this side of the Mason-Dixon Line that others would balk at—pickled pigs feet, boiled peanuts, hog’s head cheese, gator meat—but nothing is quite as quintessentially Southern as chitlins. Chitlins are the intestines of a pig, boiled down, fried up, and served with apple cider vinegar and hot sauce.

In an article on Ernest Matthew Mickler, author of White Trash Cooking, we read:

Born at the edge of the swamps of northern Florida, Mr. Mickler said, he ”was raised without electricity until I was 18.” He acquired his appreciation for food from his mother, who, when she wasn’t pumping gas at her Edna Rae’s Grocery Store, was cooking up ”a big dinner of fried chitlins, a mess of turnip greens, enough hoe cakes for a Bible story, a wash pot full of swamp cabbage stew and two large Our Lord’s Scripture cakes.”’

Whites have long prepared and eating chitterlings, or ‘chitlins’, on both sides of the Atlantic. In both contexts, chitterlings have fallen from grace, having been originally a prestigious dish enjoyed by the wealthy, but now more associated with the poor. It is indeed the case that ‘chitlins’ entered into the canon of African American soul food, but these were neither a slave nor African American invention. Chitterlings exist in the South (and by extension, in ‘soul food’) because they were an English dish, brought over by the Englishmen who originally settled the South.

The British Origins of Greens and Potlikker

In Southern and soul food cooking, a much-loved combination is greens cooked with pieces of pork such as ham hocks for seasoning, with the liquid left at the end of cooking (the pot liquor or ‘potlikker’ as it is generally known) being ‘sopped up’ using cornbread. This practice is commonly linked back to slavery, for, as the slave narratives tell us, slaves (especially children) were given potlikker to eat and they crumbled cornbread into it or dipped cornbread in the liquor and sopped it up. Many slaves were also allowed their own vegetable gardens, and were particularly fond of leafy green vegetables such as collards. The following is a brief summary on the topic from the book What the Slaves Ate:

One of the staples of the slaves’ vegetable diets was ‘pot likker’. Pot liquor was the liquid left over from boiling vegetables, occasionally adding meat (pork) to add flavour to the vegetable broth. It was one of the most common meals. It was especially a primary food eaten by slave children. Many of the WPA narratives mentioned ‘pot likker’, usually in a favorable tone; for most slaves, ‘pot likker’ and cornbread was a delicious dish…

Leafy greens, poke, turnip greens, and cabbages were all popular vegetables that slaves used to make ‘pot likker’, which had high nutritional value. Slaves served it with cornbread or corn pone. They broke up cornbread and dipped it in the ‘pot likker’ or used it to soak up the liquid. Slaves also added fatty meats for flavor, but even so, it consisted mostly of vegetable broth.

While it is assumed that this practice began with slavery in the South, and the dish is to this day strongly linked to African American cooking, there is actually evidence that it began in England and was brought to the US. When the diet of poor agricultural labourers in England is compared with the diet of slaves in the South, it becomes clear that the plantation owners modelled their slave rations on the food that was eaten by the poor of Britain. As so many of the slave owners – as well as the indentured servants who joined them – came from the South and West of England, it seems entirely plausible that they brought notions of what constituted a labourer’s diet with them. Many indentured servants, drawn from the rural labouring poor of England, would already be familiar with this food, and it is logical, therefore, that slave owners copied this diet when devising the food rations for slaves.

In an 1872 letter to The Times, the English writer Richard Jefferies informed the newspaper’s readers about the eating habits of poor rural labourers in Wiltshire (a county from which many indentured servants were drawn). Jefferies noted that the poor English agricultural labourer ‘presents in his actual condition at this day a striking analogy to the agriculturist of a bygone time’, and of their diet stated: ‘A more wretched cookery probably does not exist on the face of the earth’. Jefferies wrote of the labourer’s diet:

It consists chiefly of bread and cheese, with bacon twice or thrice a week, varied with onions, and if he be a milker (on some farms) with a good ‘tuck-out’ at his employer’s expense on Sundays. On ordinary days he dines at the fashionable hour of six or seven in the evening – that is, about that time his cottage scents the road with a powerful odour of boiled cabbage, of which he eats an immense quantity. Vegetables are his luxuries, and a large garden, therefore, is the greatest blessing he can have…

To dine in an English labourer’s cottage would be impossible. His bread is generally good, certainly; but his bacon is the cheapest he can buy at small second-class shops – only soft, wretched stuff; his vegetables are cooked in detestable style, and eaten saturated with the pot liquor. Pot liquor is a favourite soup. I have known cottagers actually apply at farmers’ kitchens not only for the pot liquor in which meat has been sodden, but for the water in which potatoes have been boiled – potato liquor – and sup it up with avidity. And this is not in times of dearth or scarcity, but rather as a relish.

So, like the slaves, poor English labourers grew their own vegetables, cooked a lot of leafy greens, and ate the pot liquor. As for their children:

Their food is of the rudest and scantiest, chiefly weak tea, without milk, sweetened with moist sugar, and hunches of dry bread, sometimes with a little lard, or, for a treat, with treacle. Butter is scarcely ever used in the agricultural labourer’s cottage. It is too dear by far, and if he does buy fats, he believes in the fats expressed from meats, and prefers lard or dripping. Children are frequently fed with bread and cheap sugar spread on it. This is much cheaper than butter. Sometimes they get a bit of cheese or bacon, but not often, and a good deal of strong cabbage, soddened with pot-liquor.

The diets of slaves in the South and the rural poor in England, then, were almost identical: bread, cheap meat, greens, and pot liquor. And it wasn’t just in Wiltshire. A 1774 novel by the Gloucestershire author Richard Graves, for example, makes reference to the eating of ‘a mess of onion-pottage’ and a dish of pot liquor for breakfast. Pottage, it should be noted, was a soup or stew, made from boiled vegetables mixed with wheat, barley, rye, or oats, which dates back to the medieval period in England. For the poor, these mostly consisted of a mix of vegetables ‘slow-cooked to reduce the contents to a homogeneous mass’, sometimes with the addition of some pig meat (not dissimilar to the slaves eating greens slow cooked with bits of pork). The rations given to slaves were not unique to the South, then, but were, rather, the poverty foods of rural England. The eating of greens mixed with meat was not a Southern innovation, nor was drinking pot liquor, thickening it with meal, or sopping it up with bread.

Other sources confirm this kind of diet’s existence in 18th century Britain. In Daily Life in 18th-century England, Kirstin Olsen writes of the poor woman of England ‘feeding her children on water porridge and garden greens’. This porridge was ‘watery porridge of pinhead oatmeal boiled in water’ (similar, therefore, to the grits eaten by slaves). Here we see again the centrality of garden greens. Olsen further notes:

Most of the laboring diet was bread… In Scotland and the northern English counties, like Lancashire and Yorkshire, oatmeal often replaced bread, especially at breakfast… Other staples of the laboring diet were cheese, treacle (molasses, used as a cheap alternative to sugar), greens from the garden or market, potatoes (especially in the northern counties), dumplings, broths, stews, small beer, and tea.

The Southern tradition that one should ‘sop up’ pot liquor using cornbread is well-known (see, for example, references to this practice in books such as The World in a Skillet and A Mess of Greens, and articles in Southern Living and Garden & Gun). However, this also was not a slave innovation and is derived from the foodways of England, where bread was used to ‘sop up’ dripping, gravy, or liquids (see, for example, a 1761 definition in The Royal English Dictionary). Indeed, as noted here, the ‘sop’ was ‘one of the most common constituents of a medieval meal’. While we don’t really refer to ‘sopping’ any more in England, mopping up gravy with bread after a roast dinner is still quite well known.

The slaves’ rations varied from plantation to plantation, but corn meal, lard, meat (salt pork or bacon), molasses, peas, and greens are often mentioned. Sweet potatoes were also widely eaten by slaves (some issued by plantation owners and some grown by the slaves), and foods such as hominy grits, cornbread, and cornmeal dumplings were also cooked. When these rations and foods are compared with the diet of British rural labourers, the similarities are too striking to be coincidental. British labourers survived on bread, lard, small amounts of cheap pig meat, treacle, greens, pot liquor, potatoes, oatmeal porridge, broths, and dumplings. The only significant difference is the absence of cheese in the slave diets. Cheese was a rarity in the antebellum South for people of all classes as the warm climate and humidity in the days before refrigeration rendered its production and storage very difficult. Cheese aside, the diet of British agricultural labourers and that of slaves in the antebellum South was almost identical. Given the English origins of the plantation owners, it is clear that the foods eaten by the slaves were modelled on the foods eaten by rural labourers in England and the British Isles. Greens and potlikker may seem like a uniquely American ‘Southern food’ or ‘soul food’, but its true origins lie in Britain.

The Survival of Old English Speech Ways in the American South

The accents, dialect, and vocabulary used in the Southern states of the US (as well as the African American Vernacular English of American blacks descended from slaves of the old South) are very different from the ‘American English’ you will find in many other parts of the US. The reason for this, as noted by David Hackett Fischer in his significant work Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, is that this ‘new speech way was manufactured out of old materials’. These old materials were the speech of settlers who came from a very specific area of Britain: the South and West. Fischer writes:

These Virginia speech ways were not invented in America. They derived from a family of regional dialects that had been spoken throughout the south and west of England during the seventeenth century. Virtually all peculiarities of grammar, syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation which have been noted as typical of Virginia were recorded in the English counties of Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Somerset, Oxford, Gloucester, Warwick or Worcester.

As we shall see, Devon (which borders Somerset and Dorset) should also be added to that list, as Fischer does elsewhere in the book.

Fischer notes that very early on, the difference between southern and northern speech was significant:

In 1773, a young Princetonian named Philip Fithian came south to teach at Nomini Hall, the great Carter plantation near Richmond… Fithian discovered that Virginia speech ways differed from those of his native New Jersey in many ways at once. Where a northerner said, “I am,” “You are,” “She isn’t,” “It doesn’t,” and “I haven’t,” a Virginian even of high rank preferred to say “I be,” “You be,” “She ain’t,” “It don’t,” and “I hain’t.”

The use of ‘I be’ for ‘I am’ originated in the South West of England, not in the American South, and still survives today in rural areas, although it is dying out. A 1971 study of a Somerset dialect by JA Garton found that ‘it is remarkable how little the old speech has changed in those districts whose remoteness has saved them from modern influences’, and noted that ‘the verb To Be is used in the old form, I be’. Commenting on a 2014 BBC article on Devon dialect, a reader wrote of the dialect used by her mother-in-law, who had lived her whole life in the small Devon hamlet of Horndon, and gave the example: ‘Ow be you? I be going dreckly’ (‘How are you? I am going directly [soon]’). ‘I be’ also appears in this 2017 list for tourists of ‘common words and phrases’ used on West Country farms.

While the use of ‘I be’ and so on have largely slipped out of use in the speech of Southerners in the US, as recently as the mid-twentieth century this could be found in African American blues music: for example, ‘I Be Bound To Write To You’ and ‘I Be’s Troubled’ by Muddy Waters. ‘I be’ is often still considered an expression of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or ‘ebonics’, rather than a continuation of an old English way of speaking. As to why such speech patterns largely fell out of use in England (and amongst most white Southerners), while surviving in black American dialect, the African American academic Walter E. Williams argues that it is education (and the more ‘correct’ and standardised language that emerges from this) that caused them to die out. Williams also argues that at least part of the reason some African Americans continue to speak ‘like pure bred Englishmen of yesteryear from the south and west countries of Britain’ is that ‘blacks have had multicultural intellectuals to convince them that “I be” talk is a part of their heritage and roots’. While it may indeed be part of their heritage, its roots lie in England.

Further pronunciations used by Virginia gentleman included ‘ha-alf’ for half, ‘fuust’ for first, ‘Aah’m’ for I’m, ‘mo’’ for more, ‘flo’’ for floor, ‘do’’ for door, ‘fo’’ for four, ‘dis’ for this, ‘dat’ for that, ‘dare’ for there, ‘ax’ for ask, ‘go-in’’ for going, ‘mistis’ for mistress, and ‘wid’ for with.

These pronunciations also originated not in the South, but in England. As late as the nineteenth century, a Sussex dialectical rendering of the biblical Song of Songs sounded as follows:

De Song of songs, dat is Solomon’s,
Let him kiss me wud de kisses of his mouth;
for yer love is better dan wine…

My beloved spoke, an said to me: Git up, my love, my fair un, an come away…

Jest a liddle while ahter I passed by em, I foun him dat my soul loves…

This style of pronunciation was reportedly ‘almost extinct’ in England by 1860, but ‘de’ (or ‘da’), ‘dat’, ‘dis’, ‘flo’, ‘do’ and so on live on in AAVE (see ‘Hit Da Floe’ by the Alabama rap duo ‘Dirty’, for example). While pronunciations such as these are now largely associated with AAVE and to a lesser extent with the speech of poor Southern whites, they were originally brought to the South by English settlers, and survived among upper-class white Southerners into the nineteenth century. In 1891, the Maryland-born novelist Francis Hopkinson Smith wrote a successful dialect novel entitled Colonel Carter of Cartersville, which centres on a Virginia gentleman. The speech of a white upper-class Virginian at this time was said to sound as follows:

“Salt yo’ food, suh, with humor… season it with wit, and sprinkle it all over with the charm of good-fellowship, but never poison it with the cares of yo’ life. It is an insult to yo’ digestion, besides bein’, suh, a mark of bad breedin’.

While carrying out fieldwork in the late 1970s on health problems among African American males in eastern North Carolina, the academic Sherman James interviewed a black sharecropper named John Henry Martin. Martin spoke in the following way:

I said, “I don’t know, suh, Mr. Tucker, I was thinkin’ ’bout buyin’ me a farm.”

Such speech ways persist among blacks in the area and also in wider African American culture. The black Virginia hiphop artist Ambassador Rick, for example, released a track titled ‘Yessuh’ as recently as 2017. The use of ‘yo” in place of ‘you’ or ‘yo self’ in place of ‘yourself’ is well-known today as ‘black speech’ (see XXXTentacion’s ‘I’m Sippin’ Tea in Yo Hood’ and Ice Cube’s ‘Check Yo Self’, for example).

The Virginia dialect had its own vocabulary, including words such as ‘moonshine’ for distilled liquor, ‘mess of greens’ for a serving of vegetables, and ‘skillet’ for frying pan. This vocabulary was not uniquely ‘Southern’, as these words were in fact derived from regional speech patterns brought over from England. Some survived in England longer than others. Daniel Fenning’s The Royal English Dictionary (1761), for example, defines ‘mess’ as ‘a dish; a quantity of food sent to table at once’; ‘green’ as being ‘used in the plural for those plants which are of this colour, and eaten boiled’; and ‘saucepan’ as ‘a small skillet’. William Holloway’s A General Dictionary of Provincialisms (1838) lists ‘moonshine’ as a word used in Sussex, Kent, and Hampshire to mean ‘illicit spirits, which are generally smuggled of a night’.

In an article on ‘potlikker’ at The Atlantic website, Ari Weinzweig writes:

If I’m going to get into vegetable eating this time of year, a mess of greens is a good way to go. I’m not really sure why they always say “a mess,” but that’s what most people down South call ’em. In fact, Angie Mosier, who’s a food writer and the incoming chair of the Southern Foodways Alliance–and one of my good guides through the once totally foreign world of Southern food–told me that you always refer to greens as “a mess of greens.”

If you do so, it’s thanks to settlers who came to the South from the south and west of England. And moonshine may indeed be ‘America’s infamous liquor’, but the original ‘moonshiners’ lived in England.

Urban Music in Eighteenth Century London

Last year, attempts by the police to take down ‘drill’ music videos from the internet made the news. Drill music, a genre which originated in Chicago, features balaclava clad youths, in particular from London estates, rapping about gang violence and threatening rivals. At the request of the Metropolitan Police, YouTube deleted 30 videos (although they have since been re-hosted on a porn video website), and one drill group in London has been issued with a court order that bans them from making music without police permission.

While ‘drill’ might be a recent phenomenon, a look at 18th century London shows that controversy over obscene music and its links to criminality is actually nothing new.

In 1750, the Bishop of London blamed an earthquake on:

the infamous and obscene songs and ballads that are openly sung on our public streets, to the great uneasiness of all modest and virtuous persons who are passing by; to the great corruption and depravity of our servants and children and to the total discouragement of virtue among the common people in general.

In 1785, the Universal Daily Register condemned ‘the indecent songs and immoral ballads chanted in almost every street of this metropolis’ as ‘destructive to the growing youth of both sexes’ and ‘marked with sentiments diabolical and unnatural’.

One contemporary commentator bemoaned the fact that ‘obscene ballads and songs in praise of thieving are the only ones sung about the streets’. These songs – known as ‘flash ballads’, ‘cant songs’, ‘bawdy songs’, and ‘gutter songs’ – glorified criminality and lionised the likes of highwaymen, while also covering sexual topics using language that would still be seen as shocking today.

Cant songs ‘cursed the constable, mocked the thief-catcher, boasted of the deeds of highwaymen’, and ‘shared the joy of freed prisoners’. They made use of street slang of the time, such as ‘tale’ (sword), ‘brace of wedges’ (pistols), ‘ridges’ (guineas), and ‘Dancing Cock’ (a drunk). In addition to celebrating a criminal lifestyle, popular songs also praised drunkenness.

Bawdy songs and gutter ballads, meanwhile, were sexually explicit. The popular song ‘Morgan Rattler’, for example, included the following lyrics:

First he niggled her then he tiggled her
Then with his two balls he began for to batter her
At every thrust, I thought she’d have burst
With the terrible size of his Morgan Rattler

Female songs were as common as male. In one, a woman looked ‘for some lusty fellow / Who’s able to give me some reason to laugh’. Another had these lines:

Some say that a tailor my husband shall be
But a tailor good lord why he’s no man for me
For his nose and his arse too near they do meet
That I think that his heat can hardly be sweet

A pair of female singers in the 1780s would sing on the Strand:

For my smock’s above my knee, she did say, she did say
You may have a smack at me, bowl away, bowl away.

Another pair of female singers would conclude a song by bucking their pelvises and simulating orgasm, to the delight of gathered crowds.

Meanwhile, a male song featured the story of how a wife’s veracious sexual appetite had reduced a man to a skeleton. The song closed with these lines:

For which I’m sure she’ll go to Hell
For she makes me fuck her in churchtime

Numerous calls were made to outlaw these songs and for government regulation of singers. The ballads slowly died out in the 19th century, as patriotic songs glorifying England’s military might came to the fore. It is clear from the Town Police Clauses Act 1847, though, that in the mid-19th century these ballads were still popular enough to warrant action by the authorities. Fines or imprisonment for up to fourteen days were the punishment for:

Every person who publicly offers for sale or distribution, or exhibits to public view any profane book, paper, print, drawing, painting, or representation, or sings any profane or obscene song or ballad, or uses any profane or obscene language.

Many have a tendency to view the past through rose-tinted spectacles as a more innocent and wholesome time, and to view contemporary society as uniquely degenerate. The assumption is that England’s drinking culture is something relatively new (it’s not), that the widespread use of ‘bad language’ is a modern phenomenon (it’s not), that the proliferation of betting shops and online gambling is something without precedent (it’s not), that football hooliganism is a recent development (it’s not), and that our modern irreligiosity is a major departure from a pious past (it’s not). Likewise, while drill music may indeed be a problematic development, the air of London was filled with the sound of obscene and criminally-linked music three hundred years ago. There is nothing new under the sun, particularly when it comes to English culture.

The English Love of Gambling: A Brief History

Gambling has long been a part of English culture, both popular and upper class, as have been attempts to curb it:

Such attempts had been enshrined in legislation since 1397 when cards were outlawed on work days. A further statute of Henry VIII confined all gambling to Christmas when, assuming the lower orders would be celebrating anyway, its disruptive effects would be minimal.

In the modern period, numerous Acts of Parliament have been aimed at regulating and restricting gambling, illustrating the extent to which it is entrenched in English culture. The 1664 ‘Act against deceitfull disorderly and excessive Gameing’ states that ‘many Mischiefs arise from immoderate Use of Games’. It did not condemn ‘innocent and moderate’ gambling, but took aim at ‘the maintaining and encourageing of sundry idle loose and disorderly persons in their dishonest lewd and dissolute course of life’ and the ‘debauching of many of the younger sort’. At the time, as the Act shows, people were gambling using cards and dice and betting on table tennis, bowls, skittles, shovelboard, cockfighting, horse racing, and dog fights.

Further Acts aimed at restricting gambling include the Gaming Act 1710, the Gaming Act 1738, the Gaming Act 1845, the Metropolitan Streets Act 1867, and the Street Betting Act 1906.

In the 18th century, taxes were imposed on packs of cards and dice. An 18th century statute outlawed the games Ace of Hearts, Faro, Bassett, and Hazard, ‘except in Royal palaces’. By 1847, the number of betting houses in London was estimated to be between 100 and 150:

These were outlawed with the 1853 Betting Houses Act, moving gambling onto the streets. Further legislation led to a crackdown on street betting, and it was completely outlawed with the Street Betting Act of 1906.

As Mike Atherton notes: ‘Despite the prevailing attitudes, the desire among the working classes to gamble was too powerful, and the legislation designed to prevent them from doing so was simply ignored’. ‘Paradoxially’, writes Roger Munting, the Street Betting Act of 1906

may have brought children into closer contact with gambling as often they acted as runners for illegal bookmakers. Furthermore, greyhound racing in major towns from the 1920s was another medium exposing children to the world of popular betting.

Cheap gambling machines were used by children in the 1930s, despite being illegal, and games machines became even more popular in the post-war period. A 1990 national survey found that 44% of 15-19 year olds used slot machines. In South West England in 1993, 62% of children were found to regularly gamble on slot machines.

In terms of legal, adult gambling, 1961 was to bring major changes, with the legalisation of betting shops. Up to 10,000 opened within the first six months, and March 2018 data shows that there are still more than 8,000 operating today.

As the English television horse racing pundit John McCririck notes of the legalisation of betting shops:

Gambling was being dragged out of the Dark Ages, when the only legal bets were made on the racecourse, or the phone. Street betting had been rampant and everyone knew it. Bookies’ runners ferried bets between punters and bookmakers, collecting in pubs and clubs (commonly in the urinals), and on street corners.

Betting shops, then, were meeting an already existing demand, rather than creating a new market. As Stan Hey writes: ‘The prohibitionists and religious observants have lost the battle, for with the global reach of shops and betting websites, gambling in Britain is now a 24-hour activity, worth more than £30bn annually to the economy’. There is, of course, also the National Lottery, the first draw of which took place on November 19, 1994. This has been added to by the Health Lottery and the Postcode Lottery.

Despite the huge reach of gambling in modern England, it, of course, still has its detractors. Writing in The Independent, a favourite newspaper of the liberal middle classes, Terence Blacker fulminates against the National Lottery, which is, he argues, ‘a national disgrace’. ‘This institution seduces punters into a pernicious fantasy of overnight riches and contributes to our something-for-nothing culture’, rants Blacker.

You would think, from reading Blacker’s words, that gambling in England is a modern phenomenon. In reality, it has been a part of English culture for centuries, and you can bet it always will be.

The Irreligiosity of the English: A Brief History

In his essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn‘ (1941), George Orwell wrote of the English that:

the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities.

Looking at the history of religion in England after the medieval period, this is a pretty accurate summary. This post will look at the state of church attendance and religious belief in England from the seventeenth century to the present day. The clearest conclusion that emerges is that irreligiosity has long been a defining characteristic of the English people.

Christopher Hill, writing in Some Intellectual Consequences of the English Revolution (1997) notes the following of church attendance in seventeenth century England:

Although church attendance was mandatory up to the year 1650 when it was abolished, the Anglican Episcopalian Church was never all embracing. There is evidence to show that the very poor, rogues, vagabonds, masterless men, and beggars did not ever attend. In some instances parish relief had to be withheld in order to get the poor to attend…

In 1657 compulsory church attendance was restored but its ineffectiveness was evident after 1660 with the existence of de facto sects in the towns. The Anglican or state church drew its congregation for the most part from the privileged 3 percent of the population or those with incomes of more than 100 pounds per year, such as peers, bishops, baronets, knights, esquires, gentlemen, greater and lesser office holders, merchants, traders and lawyers.

So, the church was largely the preserve of the upper class and new middle classes. The popular beliefs of the general population can be ascertained from books of the time intended to critique them. A tract warning against ‘Unlearned Physitians’ (1605) refers to ‘charmes, witchcraft, magnifical incantations, and sorcerie’ and the use of ‘characters, circles, figure-castings, exorcismes, conjurations’, as well as the use of ‘certaine amulets of gold and silver, stamped under an appropriate and selected constellation of the planets, with some magical character’.

Bishop Joseph Hall, writing of the ‘superstitious man’ in his Characters of Vertues and Vices (1608) states that:

old wives and starres are his counsellors: his night spell is his guard, and charms his physicians. He wears Paracelsian characters for the toothache; and a little hallowed wax is his antidote for all evils.

William Ramesay, writing in his The Character of a Quack Astrologer (1673) reports:

He offers, for five pieces, to give you home with you a talisman against flies; a sigil to make you fortunate at gaming; and a spell that shall as certainly preserve you from being rob’d for the future; a sympathetical powder for the violent pains of the tooth-ach.

So, while the English were still attending church in large numbers, compared with today, the ‘common people’ were clearly putting their faith in things well outside its teachings.

The eighteenth century saw an overall decline in formal religious observance. As to what the general population actually believed, it seems likely that the English religious worldview of the majority was still based on folk religion and folk magic. Henry Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares (1725) sought to document and critique ‘a few of that vast Number of Ceremonies and Opinions which are held by the Common People’. Bourne states of ‘the ignorant Part of the World’ (the ‘common people’ of England), ‘as to the opinions they hold, they are almost all superstitious’. Bourne contends that they follow ‘idle traditions… more than the Word of God; and have more dependance upon the lucky omens of the other than his providence, more dread of their unlucky ones, than his wrath and punishment’.

In his essay ‘Churchianity versus Christianity’ (1868), the English Baptist preacher C. H. Spurgeon distinguished between biblical Christianity based on salvation and ‘Churchianity’, in which simply attending church is what defines religiosity, and stated: ‘Whenever Churchianity has ruled, revelry and wantonness have been winked at, so long as saints’ days, sacraments, and priests have been regarded’. That this was the situation in rural parishes of the eighteenth century is suggested by accounts of the time. Henry Bourne describes the festivities associated with the anniversary of the dedication of the community’s church to its tutelary saint as follows:

[T]he inhabitants deck themselves in their gaudiest clothes, and have open doors and splendid entertainments, for the reception and treating of their relations and friends, who visit them on that occasion from every neighbouring town. The morning is spent for the most part at church, though not as that morning was wont to be spent, not in commemorating the saint or martyr, or in gratefully remembering the builder and endower. The remaining part of the day is spent in eating and drinking. Thus also they spend a day or two afterwards, in all sorts of rural pastimes and exercises, such as dancing on the green, wrestling, cudgelling, &c.

So, for many who did attend church, their real interests lay more in the revelry associated with religious festivals than in the teachings and rituals of the church, just as Christmas, Easter, Shrove Tuesday, and so on, are today more associated with eating and drinking than with religious devotion.

Scholarly editions of eighteenth-century visitation returns illustrate the decline in church attendance clearly. For example, The Visitation Records of Archdeacon Joseph Plymley, 1792-1838 show that ‘the average congregation at the best attended service in 19 Anglican parish churches in the Archdeaconry of Salop [Diocese of Lichfield] in 1792-94 was equivalent to 26% of the population.’

This widespread irreligiosity was to decrease slightly in the nineteenth century. ‘The Victorian age was self-consciously religious’, writes Richard Brown, and the ‘prosperity, political liberties and Empire’ of the time were seen to be ‘rooted in Christian and Protestant faith’.

The Religious Census of 1851 gives a revealing insight into the religious landscape of mid-nineteenth century England. Writing in 1853, Horace Mann, who had been in charge of organising the survey, concluded:

It must be apparent that a sadly formidable portion of the English people are habitual neglecters of the public ordinances of religion. Nor is it difficult to indicate to what particular class of the community this portion in the main belongs. The middle classes have augmented rather than diminished that devotional sentiment and strictness of attention to religious services by which, for several centuries, they have so eminently been distinguished. With the upper class, too, the subject of religion has obtained of late a marked degree of notice, and a regular church-attendance is now ranked amongst the recognized proprieties of life.

The working classes (at least 80% of the entire English population at that time), however, made up an ‘absolutely insignificant… portion of the congregations’, wrote Mann, and were ‘as utter strangers to religious ordinances as the people of a heathen nation’.

This was a time in which middle class values of ‘hard work’ and in particular social respectability were ascendant. The middle classes read etiquette manuals and placed great value on ‘doing the right thing’ and on conservative morality and public displays of virtue. They sought to distance themselves from the lower classes: some simply blamed the poor for their misfortune, while others set about spreading conservative values through attempts at outreach, in movements such as those opposed to drinking and gambling:

The temperance movement was led by middle-class social reformers and philanthropists who wanted to manage an unruly working class. They tried to convince working men to spend their wages on clothes, food, and middle-class comforts such as furniture and watches, rather than on beer or spirits…

The temperance campaigns against drunkenness were a symptom of larger middle class ideals, such as a distaste for mobs and their entertainments, the taking of recreation with one’s family, participation in religion, and the ideology of thrift with its stress on individual self-respect, personal moral and physical effort, and prudence.

This was ultimately to end in failure.

There were deeper structural problems within the Church of England that the church failed to recognise and so it began to blame the infidelity of the working classes rather than their own conservatism. The evangelical emphasis on industry, sobriety and thrift appealed to the upwardly mobile middle-classes but had little resonance among working people while its social conservatism simply alienated them. Relief offered by frequently condescending district visitors was frequently resented by the poor who in turn resented the poor’s ingratitude. Yet despite the immense amount of activity and effort the Victorian church poured into philanthropy, second in cost and manpower only to church building, it did little to encourage the working-classes to attend church.

In the end, the middle class revival itself proved to be short-lived, and by 1900, churches ‘were losing their hold on the respectable middle-classes as well’.

Beyond the cities, the beliefs of the rural working English had changed little from previous centuries. ‘White witches’ or ‘cunning folk’ held more sway with the people than the clergy and were consulted for all manner of problems. Writing of rural Devonians, Sarah Hewett stated that ‘in cases of sickness, distress, or adversity, persons at the present time (A.D. 1898) make long expensive journeys to consult the white witch, and to gain relief by her (or his) aid’. Likewise, John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson’s 1867 book on Lancashire Folk-Lore refers to the ‘Lancashire witches’ carrying out divination rituals. Spells, magical charms, incantations, potions, folk cures, and all manner of superstitions characterised rural English belief, rather than orthodox Christianity and the teachings of the church, although by the end of the century, these beliefs were also on the wane. Some of them still linger on today in the form of popular superstitions.

The continuing decline in formal religious observance throughout the twentieth century is well documented. Even in the conservative atmosphere of post-war Britain, where ‘the social role of the church was confirmatory rather than controversial’, ‘a majority in the nation remained largely indifferent to what was going on in the churches’.

The 1960s saw an attempt by the church to revive itself by adapting to the significant cultural shifts that were occurring. Liberal theology became the order of the day, affecting ‘intellectual, organizational, and liturgical’ areas. It was hoped that:

All might still be well if the churches could shake off their image of belonging essentially to the past; instead they must present themselves as modern, up to date, and, above all, relevant… The churches looked to the secular world for a lead and borrowed, in some cases rather uncritically, both its ideas and forms of expression.

This liberalisation and engagement with a new world did not win many converts, however. The liberal clique still has a significant hold over the Church of England and, as Philip North, a Church of England bishop, has argued:

The Church’s agenda is being set not by the poor, but by academia, the moneyed elites, and certain sections of the secular media. It is their preoccupations that dictate the terms of the Church’s debate, and that pose the questions that it expends its energy on answering.

The church remains an elite institution, and thoroughly middle class in orientation. The Talking Jesus survey of 2015, for example, estimated that 81 per cent of practising Christians had a university degree. The authors of A Church For The Poor (2017), reports the Church Times, have found that the ‘truly working-class are woefully under-represented in British churches’ and ‘cite sermons that disparage Sun readers, and social-media postings by Christians who argued for an IQ test before people could vote in the EU referendum’. According to Philip North, ‘all too often, middle-class clergy squirm nervously during Remem­brance Sunday, and excise any hymns that hint of nationalism’.

The one apparent ‘growth area’ in the Church of England in recent years can be found in the evangelical movement centred on the Alpha course and urban churches such as the famous Holy Trinity Brompton: ‘the slickest, richest and fastest-growing division the church has ever seen’, according to The Spectator. The extent and nature of such growth, however, is in reality arguably still very limited:

Critics say attendance figures at new churches rarely represent genuine new growth, but are largely due to “sheep stealing” – poaching existing members of other congregations – and attracting students looking for a new place to worship after leaving their “home church”. They also claim that the congregations of church plants do not reflect the demographics of their inner-city locations, but are overwhelmingly white, middle-class young professionals.

In reality, as The Telegraph reported in 2016, ‘Britain has become a nation of Christmas-only churchgoers, according to new figures showing a boom in attendance at festive services while Sunday congregations slump to an all-time low’. Even then, we are only talking about around 9% of the population.

The actual beliefs of the unchurched English masses arguably hark back to the kind of popular folk religion that existed in pre-modern and pre-industrial society. Polling data reveal that ‘a third of Brits believe in ghosts, spirits or other types of paranormal activity’; ‘British people are more likely to believe in ghosts than a creator God’; and ‘more people may believe in life after death than God’. A 2016 YouGov survey that found more people believing in ghosts than a creator God turned up interesting results amongst those who identified as Christians:

The same survey also found that self-identified Christians are more likely to believe in aliens than the devil, and more likely to believe in fate than in heaven or an eternal soul…

[T]he new YouGov figures suggest that Britain’s “Christian” majority does not hold conventionally Christian beliefs, and that less commonly discussed folk beliefs are often more deeply entrenched than Christian doctrine.

The idea of ‘luck’, good and bad, still has a significant place within popular belief as well. Researchers have discovered that houses with the number 13 on the door sell for £6,500 less than their neighbours and that almost a third less houses are bought on the thirteenth day of the month compared to the monthly average. Some councils have banned the use of number 13 in all new developments. The BBC reports:

Such has been the local aversion to “unlucky” houses [in Worcestershire] that the district council, Wyre Forest, has in recent years banned the use of number 13 in all new developments. Local councillor Stephen Clee resolutely defends the policy.

“We have to listen to what the people say,” he says. “The local community were saying to us, ‘we don’t like living at number 13, so can we do something about it?'”

Wyre Forest is not alone in this – 13 is not used for new houses in authorities ranging from Herefordshire to Lewes in Sussex. West Wiltshire has also introduced a ban…

The English have never been a particularly religious people; in fact, quite the opposite. The church may still provide the formal reference point for ‘English religion’, but hardly anyone goes there. We are more likely to place our faith in a pair of lucky socks (36%) than attend church (1.4%). Irreligiosity has long been a defining feature of the English and likely always will be.