TitleChurch Seating for the Poor

Church Seating for the Poor
Great Wigborough and Peldon

In storage at St Stephen's Church, Great Wigborough, is a framed board which used to hang upon the church wall and records the installing of free church seating for all. It reads


Such notices that pews were to be free, especially, to the poor of the parish, were erected as a condition of a building grant given to the church by the Incorporated Society for Building and Churches (now called the ICBS).

This funding body started in 1818 following the Napoleonic Wars when the increasing industrialisation of towns and cities meant there was a severe shortage of churches for an expanding population.

According to the website for the National Churches Trust (which now includes the Historic Churches Preservation and the ICBS) this Society was set up to help keep England holy. There were also worries that competition from Methodism and non-conformism would attract those who did not have access to a Church of England church.

During the nineteenth century the ICBS was responsible for funding the building of many new churches in towns and the enlarging and restoration of existing churches and chapels. Hundreds of thousands of seats were provided free for anyone to occupy in an era when private pews and pew rental was still very common.

The ICBS wanted to make it possible for as many as possible to attend church and with its formation the need for Church Briefs (appeals for charitable donations for churches damaged or destroyed by fire or flood) disappeared.

Applications for grants were made on a standard form giving information on the population and character of the parish as well as details of the building. Preference was given to applicants with the largest numbers of free seats in proportion to the money applied for.

The history of church seating is an interesting one. Throughout the medieval period up until Henry VIII's Protestant Reformation the congregation would stand on the earth floors or sit on mats or foldable stools which they brought with them; the preacher probably stood in the middle of the church with his flock crowding around him.

The first seats that appeared in church, from about the thirteenth century, were stone benches against the walls of the nave and, later, wooden benches were introduced. It is thought this could be where the phrase 'the weakest goes to the wall' comes from, since these benches were sometimes set aside for those who couldn't stand, the frail and elderly.

Until at least the end of the fifteenth century, sitting in church was unusual. Most people wandered in and out, stood or knelt to pray. Churches were bustling, often noisy places. People arrived late for Mass or left early. The Politics of Place: A study of Church Seating in Essex 1580 - 1640 Amanda Flather

The first permanent wooden church seats were those provided for the priest in the Chancel, followed by those for members of the parish elite. It was very uncommon for seating to be provided for the whole congregation.

With the introduction of a regular sermon as a result of the Protestant Reformation and the requirement for the congregation to be facing the pulpit, sitting down became customary. This put an end to moving about the church and encouraged close attention to the sermon and scriptures, the emphasis being on preaching and prayer rather than rite and ritual.

Over time, free standing furniture was moved into the centre of the church before becoming fixed pews. This process of 'pewing' was often gradual and partial especially in country areas. Men and women were segregated, traditionally women on the north side and men on the south. Within these groups there was further segregation according to status and age.

It became a widespread custom for the church wardens to allocate specified seats in return for substantial rents, for a month, a year or for life. The churchwardens were directed to arrange parishioners according to their degrees, estates, qualities and conditions

It also became acceptable under the Protestant Church for families, as well as their servants, to sit together in box pews, erected at their own expense and often with lockable doors; these pews could then be 'customised' to offer greater comfort to their owners.

... pew-rents led to the evolution of freehold pews, kept under lock and key by their purse-proud proprietors, while the unfortunate paupers were crammed into deal benches stuffed into odd corners The Parish Chest W.E.Tate

These 'proprietors' were the squire, gentry, and landowners - the great and the good of the parish who had to apply to the Ecclesiastical courts for a 'faculty' to build their pews. The earliest grant in Essex to do so was in 1594 but it would appear that permission was often requested, if at all, after the pew had been built!

Being close to the front, by the main aisle and in a highly visible position, conferred upon its occupants the status they felt was their due. These pews, as with any freehold property, could be handed down through the family upon application. Sometimes the transfer was free, to a widow or eldest son, sometimes it required a payment.

Gilbert White in the Natural History of Selborne published 1788/9 commented on the appearance of these pews in his church at Selborne.

Nothing can be more irregular than the pews of this church, which are of all dimensions and heights, being patched up according to the fancy of the owners.

Another custom of roofing these pews and fitting curtains led author Jonathan Swift to write in his poem Baucis and Philemon in 1708

A bedstead of the antique mode
Compact of timbers many a load
Such as our ancestors did use,
was metamorphosed into pews;
which still their ancient nature keeps
By lodging folks dispos'd to sleep

The picture of East Mersea church below was taken just before the box pews were replaced in 1913. In this case they appear to be of a uniform size and design.

In 1818, the year the ICBS began, an act had been passed allowing new churches to rent seats without specific authorisation from Parliament, as had happened previously. 20% of seats were to be rent-free and marked 'free seats'. Over several years the proportion of free seats rose but in practice even these supposedly rent-free seats could be let.

The plaque displayed in Peldon Church (below) spells out that there had to be free seats for the poor of the parish and although the plaque is undated, we do know the seats were replaced in 1858 - 1859 when the old box pews were removed. The Reverend C Harrison (Rector 1855 - 1867) described these earlier seats as follows

In 1855 the Church was thus found. High white painted, double or square pews through the whole church and Chancel Rev C R Harrison Some Record of The Parish of Peldon 1867 ERO D/P 287/28/6


The enlargement of the seating was to provide sittings for 246 persons, including 110 for the poorer inhabitants according to correspondence held by Lambeth Palace Archive, although the plaque in the church indicates this was increased to 194.

Plan with thanks to Lambeth Palace Library ICBS 5297

The plan of the new church seating shows benches in the base of the tower to provide for up to 48 children and at the east end of the nave there are five 'appropriated' pews in front of the pulpit and lectern, for which, presumably pew rents were paid.

Many churches were restored during the Victorian era and it was the industrial revolution that enabled pews to be made and transported in large quantities. The installation of new pews at Peldon in 1859 and Great Wigborough in 1883 with the help of ICBS grants - and conditions - was part of a move to change the way pews were allocated.

Pew-rents were to exist well into the twentieth century as a means of extra income for the church but by the middle of the century pew-renting had been totally abolished.

Although in recent times, Peldon Church has replaced most of its old pews with modern chairs it has retained some of its old pews including some which were installed in 1984. These oak pews based on a medieval design were to be used as choir pews in memory of the previous incumbent, The Rev James Seddon who

brought music alive in Peldon, writing hymns and compiling Hymn books Anthony Gough St Mary The Virgin, Peldon

A faculty was obtained for

The removal of 3 oak pews, designed by Fred Chancellor, and one pew front, en suite from the redundant church at Netteswell, Harlow

and their installation.

The oak pews from Netteswell Church, Harlow, installed as choir pews in 1984 at Peldon Church

In many cases, such as at St Stephen's in Great Wigborough the Victorian pews have now been replaced with more flexible seating, offering more comfort and in many cases more convenient storage with stackable chairs.

St Stephen's Church, Great Wigborough 2020

Elaine Barker
Peldon History Project and St. Stephen's Great Wigborough A Place for The Community project

Further reading
The Victorian Church, Chris Brooks
Politics of Place: A Study of Church Seating In Essex, Amanda Flather
Pews, Benches and Chairs: Church Seating, Trevor Cooper and Sarah Brown
The English Anglican Practice of Pew Renting 1800-1960, John Charles Bennett (ethesis)
The Parish Chest W E Tate
- (For details of James Mackenzie Roberts, the architect responsible for the pews and repairs at St Mary's, Peldon in 1858 - 1859) - thanks to Rob Webb.
History of the Parish Churches of East Mersea and West Mersea by J.B. Bennett

SourceMersea Museum