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Michael Fielding Garber

Art, Architecture & Design

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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the joinery (most probably oak) one might find some clues, such as evidence of the straight-back mediaeval design being superseded with an angled Victorian back.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.

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.

Engaging the Ruins of English and Welsh Cistercian Abbeys

As my Thesis project draws to a close, my architecture site ( will be updated with an electronic portfolio shortly.

My project, along with others at the University of Nottingham can be seen at “Exhibit 11: Made in the Middle Ground” 16 June 2011.  For more details, contact the Department: 0115 951 3134.

A synopsis of my Thesis is available below:

Thesis Synopsis:

This thesis addresses the Cistercian Abbeys of England and Wales – their historical  social, and architectural development and their remains today. A series of interventions,  created within the extant ruins – Pilgrims’ Shelter, Lodge and Retreat – add a new layer which restores  the ancient monastic role of hospitality.

The thesis began with an exploration of the nature of ruins:  their standing in the landscape and their place in our hearts and minds. The debate from Ruskin and Morris : how to protect,  and display these ruins, or even restore them continues today.  Strictly cropped lawns and austere ruins – an image expected by the public – contrasts with restoration, intervention or simply allowing the ruin to gracefully decay.  In visiting  multiple sites, a multi-faceted picture emerges of the Cistercian monastic heritage which supports the proposed interventions, whilst addressing the restoration debate.

A comparative exploration of Cistercian Abbey sites led to three sites being selected for their particular suitability  to demonstrate  each scale of intervention. The site of the former Guesthouse was chosen as a universal key to the ruins, enabling a comparison to support the importance of the plan of a Cistercian Abbey.

The interventions themselves are composed of a series of elements that reflect  the architecture of the Cistercian architecture and society. A standardised timber frame, the interventions are assembled with sheeps-wool insulated timber-board-clad panels. A series of bronze details evoke the solein Cistercian ornamentation, and are found in the window surrounds, furniture and fittings. The interventions further engage with the ruins through ‘extruded edifices’ and portals which define their entrances. The portals in turn connect with a series of ‘interpretation points’, constructed in oak with traditional timber joinery, which interspersed around the site re-construct lost features, provide viewing points, and create a form of mini-pilgrimage within the sites.

With these interventions, visitors will have the support to engage directly with  the ruins through a simple act of shelter or the ability to retreat. Supported with minimum impact in the ruins,  this new layer, whilst being reversible, will foster a new engagement.  In On Altering Architecture, Fred Scott writes, “The ruin is the means by which a building addresses its past, present and future.” If we are to address the past, present and future of the Cistercian abbeys, we must encourage a closer examination of and relationship to the ruins for the public. In order to do this, a bold, yet sympathetic language of intervention must be created, which provides a dignified contrast to the ruins.

Welcome to the refreshed! My home site is now up-and-running and will be updated with new features and content shortly.

I am proud to announce that my Architecture website,, has been completely re-designed and refreshed. As well as the new design, the portfolio has been updated and features recent work. See it at:

The Choir of St Peter’s, Nottingham will be in residence at York Minster on Monday 31st May and Tuesday 1st June. We will be singing Choral Evensong on both evenings at 5:15. These two services are regular church services and there are no tickets or admission fees. This event can be found in the new calendar […]

The Wayback Machine is a rather interesting tool which I discovered the other day when searching for electronic copies of old books. It is a project of the Internet Archive, which coincidentally runs The Open Library, which is also worth having a look at. With the Wayback Machine, one can search an archive of past websites.