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  • Parish and Belonging: Community, Identity and Welfare in England and Wales, 1700–1950
  • Hugh McLeod
Parish and Belonging: Community, Identity and Welfare in England and Wales, 1700–1950. By K. D. M. Snell. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2006. Pp. xiv, 541. $110.00.)

A typical contemporary gravestone might refer to "John Smith, a Much Loved Husband, Father, and Grandfather." Around 1850, the reference might have been to "John Smith, of this Parish." Observations like this have led K. D. M. Snell, professor of Rural and Cultural History at the University of Leicester, to reflect on the declining importance of community in England and Wales since about 1870 and the all-importance of the nuclear family. His book consists of a series of long essays focused on the parish as the principal focus of rural community in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and its subsequent marginalization. The central theme is the multifaceted role of the parish, civil as much as ecclesiastical, in the earlier period, and the subsequent narrowing down of the parish into a purely ecclesiastical unit. About half of the book is devoted to the Poor Law. Here Snell gives special attention to the laws of settlement, which determined where those in need of poor relief were entitled to obtain it. Among the most innovative sections of the book are studies of marriage patterns and gravestone inscriptions as indicators of identification with the parish. The results of these two studies are similar. Parish endogamy was increasing in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, reached a high point in the middle decades of the latter century, and declined steeply from about 1880. References on gravestones to the deceased as being "of this Parish" or as coming from a specific place peaked around 1870, and also fell rapidly thereafter. So far as endogamy is concerned, changing levels of village populations must have been a factor. However, Snell suggests many other reasons for the weakening sense of rural community. He argues that the impact of social change on people's ways of thinking and behaving in the period of industrialization has been exaggerated, whereas the importance of changes during the last quarter of the nineteenth century has often been underestimated. It is this period, he suggests, that saw "the making of the working class." Also important was the impact of centralizing legislation and of the Local Government Act of 1894—which,quoting R. W. Ambler, he sees as marking "the disestablishment of the Church of England at the local level."While legal and administrative history, together with statistical evidence, makes up a large part of the book, a chapter on "The Culture of Local Xenophobia" provides evidence of a more colorful kind on such issues as intervillage feuds and the keen awareness of parish boundaries, reinforced by Rogation perambulations. Snell has relatively little to say about the extent to which the parish church or the rites performed there contributed to parish identity. There is indeed a long and valuable chapter on the formation of new parishes in the nineteenth century, [End Page 396] but the emphasis is on the administrative aspects of this process. Snell may also overstate the weaknesses of these new parishes. The later archbishop, Cosmo Gordon Lang, drawing on experience of urban ministry in Leeds and Portsmouth, referred to the period c.1880–1914 as the golden age of parochial ministry in the Church of England. The type of parish described by Lang was certainly very different from those discussed here, but parish and community loyalties had not disappeared in these very different environments. It must be hoped that this excellent book will stimulate further studies both of the religious dimensions of parish identities and of the new kinds of parish and the new kinds of community emerging in the later nineteenth century. [End Page 397]

Hugh McLeod
University of Birmingham


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