Michael Fielding Garber

Art, Architecture & Design

November
28
2012

A look at historical church seating – how might we sit today?

The subject of seating in churches stirs a variety of comments now; however, as was demonstrated at the Cambridgeshire Historic Churches Trust Spring Conference, this does not appear to be new. Indeed, as we well know, the image of the country church with a regimented procession of pews to the chancel arch was not always the case. Yet, we find this romantic image ingrained within the public perception. Church pews cannot change or are simply an obstruction to modern worship.

In many cases chairs (typically more suited to the local GP’s waiting room)  are installed in place of pews for the sake of flexibility. It was observed at the Spring Conference that these chairs frequently fail to rearrange themselves into any configuration other than the one they first appeared. Given the current interest surrounding church seating and the recent publication of Pews, Benches and Chairs by the Ecclesiological Society, it is worth giving existing church seating serious consideration.

There is still much to discover about the history of pews. It is not known where the oldest examples are, nor how many exist, let alone their exact age. As such, the importance of careful consideration and investigation with regard to pews is important when considering reordering. This fact parallels with how little is even known about Victorian pews, for many simple, or apparently catalogue-derived examples are found to be the work of important architects or craftsmen, and thus have intrinsic value within their setting.

Having established the mine field of church seating, it is worth looking at Jerry Sampson’s chapter in Pews, Benches and Chairs – you will find chapter seven on page 87. His research provides a useful starting point for identifying mediaeval seating. Looking closely at the joinery (most probably oak) one might find some clues, such as evidence of the straight-back mediaeval design being superseded with an angled Victorian back. The bench ends are often turned round, so the mediaeval seat will now face west. Perhaps unsurprisingly, signs of wear and repair are good clues. Look for surface attrition, repairs and at the construction, and drill holes in the top rails and poppy heads for candle holders.

It is important to note that the Victorians enjoyed reusing pew components and frequently cobbled together old pew ends with new seats. With this plethora of possibilities, in many churches, the pews should be inspected closely. Victorian pews present more of a problem. From page 309 of Pews, Benches and Chairs, the typical catalogue designs are depicted. These tend to hark back to their mediaeval predecessors; however the Victorian boards tend to be thinner than their mediaeval counterparts. Rustic tool marks and assembly numerals may feature as well.

Ultimately, further investigation will be required to discover the hand of a master craftsman or architect in the standard-design pews. Some nineteenth-century craftsmen copied mediaeval work with such skill as to make it difficult to tell from the original, even for the likes of Pevsner. Likewise, seemingly ‘pedestrian’ designs have been found to be copies made by celebrated workshops of mediaeval designs.

This therefore begs the question of why we do not reuse old benches to suit current demands as our Victorian predecessors? Where pews are to be uprooted and sold for salvage, there may an opportunity to recast them, pick choice elements and deliver new purpose-built seating. However, practical difficulties often prevent this happening, and in many churches there is a genuine need to provide more comfortable seating for both worship and other events such as concerts.

In my view, and with some careful thought, a system for pew reassembly into a new easy-to-move bench which satisfies the majority of concerns could be considered. With the best pews and elements kept and any catalogue fodder sold off, the new benches (used for most services) could be supplemented with lightweight staking chairs – or perhaps more desirably, stacking pews – wheeled-out when required. It would be interesting to trial such an exercise so to compare the cost with wholesale pew removal and chairing. Ultimately, it is up to our ingenuity to find a range of methods that work. We must investigate the pews in our churches, consider what should be kept, then implement our strategy for reuse, lest we sit in church only to metaphorically hear, ‘the doctor will see you now’.

Bibliography / further reading

Pews, benches and chairs: church seating in English parish churches from the fourteenth century to the present. Edited by Trevor Cooper and Sarah Brown, published July 2011 by the Ecclesiological Society. ISBN 978-0-946823-17-8. Paperback, 500 pages.

http://www.ecclsoc.org/pewsbook.html

About this article

This article was written in June 2012, after attending the Spring Conference of the Cambridgeshire Historic Churches Trust for a practice technical bulletin.

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