How to replace and reorder church seating
Seating is key to the way a church building is used. If you’ve ever thought about making changes to the interior of yours then there’s a good chance that your plans have involved alterations to the seating. Many church interiors were designed and built to suit styles of liturgy and patterns of use very different from those practised by today’s worshipping communities.
1. Introduction: why you should read this
Seating needs to serve well a practical function and of course it has to be fit for purpose. Yet it is often an integral part of the original fabric. Changes to historic seating have in the past caused controversy, enough for the removal of the pews from Ambridge church to be a storyline in ‘The Archers’ a few years ago! But while there isn’t always a straight answer to questions such as ‘Is it all right to take out the pews?’ neither is the general advice in every situation ‘Hands off!’
If you’re applying to the Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC) to carry out a reordering scheme then start by taking a look at the guidance on Statements of Significance and Need. A lot of the general points there about background research and justification apply to reordering schemes as well. But, that said, proposals involving church seating are something of a special case and deserve to be dealt with in detail. This advice sheet is a supplement to that general guidance to help you produce a strong application to the DAC. This is a big document because seating in churches is a surprisingly big subject. If you have limited time then read just the first five sections. But if you can, it’s worth reading the whole thing because taking the time to produce a well planned, comprehensively justified scheme at the outset will save you a great deal of trouble later on.
2. First step: working out what you want to do
The needs you seek to address will be specific to your parish, so it is impossible to be prescriptive with advice, apart from one vital point: it is essential to have the rationale for the scheme clear in your mind. For this reason it makes sense to work on the Statements of Significance and Need before you bring in an architect. This will help you to formulate a brief for him or her. Here are a few of the commonly cited shortcomings of historic seating that prompt parishes to undertake reordering schemes:
- It’s uncomfortable and people find it difficult to sit through services.
- It’s worn out and splinters are lifting and injuring worshippers.
- We’ve got more pews than we’re ever going to need and if we cleared some away we could use the space for more useful things like a fellowship area.
- Pews don’t suit the way we worship now, which is more informal and varies from service to service.
- People in some areas of the church can’t see the celebrant properly.
- We’d like to use the church for other events like concerts and dinners but we can’t if it’s pewed.
- We want to make the building more accessible to people in wheelchairs or with children in buggies.
These can be useful starting points around which to construct your Statement of Need and many of them will be familiar to members of the DAC. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ justifications, but it is vital to argue your case well – see Section 5 for more advice on this – to be sure about what you want to achieve and what its benefit will be to the congregation (and, perhaps) wider community. Know what the needs are that you wish to address before trying to apply any pre-conceived solutions. That way, even if the one that you eventually propose proves contentious, the DAC can help to suggest alternative ways of achieving the same ends. There are very few churches where no change is possible at all. If you are dealing with an architecturally significant interior and are worried that there is little scope for change then here are a few suggestions for ways in which you can accommodate it. Take heart – there’s often more room for manoeuvre than you might think!
- Could you consider leaving the choir stalls intact? In many churches where worship is no longer led by a robed choir they are not used. But they may still be significant, being the architectural and liturgical focal point of the interior. For the same reason, they have often been treated with greater adornment. They may also be part of a suite of fittings and closely integrated with other elements of the interior, such as a tiled floor. Leaving the chancel area intact can be a good way of mitigating the impact of a reordering elsewhere in the building. Often this sort of seating works well for more intimate services, particularly as it allows worshippers to face each other.
- Could you achieve flexibility without replacing pews with chairs? Sometimes you can free up useful space by making them portable (for instance a pew can be mounted on castors – see the information about St George, Southall in Appendix 1).
- Could you consider clearing pews from less prominent areas (e.g. the ends of aisles, space under the galleries, the transepts) rather than from the centre of the main body? Often this frees up plenty of useful space for circulation, fellowship and other activities without any adverse visual impact because it leaves intact a ‘critical mass’ that means that the overall appearance of the interior is largely unchanged.
- Don’t forget that pews have all sorts of practical advantages. Often being made of good quality, solid timber they are very durable and will potentially last for centuries if properly maintained. Pews cannot fall over or be stolen. It can be much easier managing children seated in pews, as well evacuating people in the event of an emergency. Often the capacity of a pewed church is greater than when it is reseated with chairs. If the practice among worshippers in your church is to kneel for prayers then pews are much easier than chairs.
Consider engaging the DAC and external consultees before you commission any detailed designs if you’re worried about possible controversy. They will help to identify where there is room for change.
3. Second step: working out what you’ve got
Before you make any detailed plans it’s vital to study the existing seating in your church as this will help you to work out what you can do with it. Seating is often passed over with barely a mention in descriptions of church buildings unless it is really exceptional, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not significant. See Appendix 1 for some historical background, which will help to set the seating in your church in its context. It’s important to look at the provenance of the seating – when it appeared, who designed and made it and how it was used. It’s strongly recommended that you talk to your QI architect when writing the Statement of Significance as he or she may be able to provide extra information that you won’t find from any other source. Assessing the importance of seating is about more than just dates and names of designers. Here are some points you might find it helpful to consider when researching your Statement of Significance:
- Look at it in the context of the building as a whole: often the individual pews are plain, yet seen en masse they may make an important visual contribution to the interior. Also, the interior may not have been designed to be seen without pews. For example, the columns may stand on high bases, which the pews cover and which make the columns appear stretched without them.
- Seating doesn’t have to be ancient or by a famous designer to be architecturally important (although just being original to a church by a famous designer does not automatically indicate great significance either). Seating that is part of an historic ensemble of furnishings that constitutes a fully intact period piece may for that reason have considerable value. Pews often have attractive original features such as umbrella stands and drip trays, porcelain or hand-painted numerals. They may have historic light fittings attached to them.
- Don’t dismiss the value of seating in your church just because it postdates the original fabric – later additions and alterations can be every bit as important. Evaluate what you’ve got on its own terms.
- Look at how the seating has been altered over time. Plans of the building from past years can be helpful here. Many churches were over-provided with seating which has been removed in increments. If what you have is the last surviving remnant of a once much more extensive scheme then this is important to identify this and take it into consideration.
- Look at the social significance of the seating as this testifies to the changing social significance of your building over time. There may be churchwardens’ pews (sometimes with clasps for their staves), christening pews or a private pew for a local dignitary.
4. Third step: working out what new seating to use
If you’ve decided to reseat all or part of your church then the next thing to do is to work out what sort of furniture you’re going to use to replace them. Think about how it’ll look in the building, how it’ll perform and whether it’ll meet your needs. Here are some of the points to consider that may help in guiding you to a decision.
- What’s the likely lifespan of the models of chair that you’re considering, given the level of use that they’re likely to get? Unless you choose something really durable you’re committing yourself to a cycle of repair and maintenance. For instance, wooden-framed, upholstered chairs wear out after 15 years or so – the joints loosen and fabric fades and tears (see the section on St Peter, Vauxhall in Appendix 1) – and repair is uneconomic. Cheaper models of chair almost always turn out to be a false economy in the long run and can look unseemly in an historic interior, especially plastic bucket seats.
- Think about how the new seating might look in 20 or 30 years’ time. That’s difficult, of course, but remember that interior design is subject to fashion and seating – even in churches – is no exception. What one generation views as an asset the next could well end up viewing as an embarrassment.
- Brightly coloured upholstery, especially when combined with light-coloured wood, can look incongruous in historic interiors. For that reason it can draw objections from the DAC or external consultees, even if the seating to be removed is of no great intrinsic value. While it can be more comfortable than pews, it won’t ever be as much so as a domestic armchair. If you feel upholstered seating is really justified, then consider its impact, both visual and on the acoustics of the church.
- If you’re planning to use the interior for functions other than worship or for different styles of worship then ask your architect to produce drawings to submit with your application showing the various different layouts, demonstrating how they’ll be accommodated in the building. This is vital in making the case for flexibility – replacing pews with movable chairs is no guarantee in itself that the events you propose to hold will work successfully there.
- Work out what the ‘default layout’ for the seating is going to be. Flexible interiors run a high risk of looking messy and chaotic unless carefully managed. It’s good to have an ‘at rest’ position to which you can return the chairs after you’ve rearranged the layout.
- You can only fully clear the interior of seating if it’s stackable and you have a storage area to put it while it’s not in use, so discuss with your architect where this is going to go.
- Pews are sometimes built into wooden platforms raised above the level of the passage aisles but with a void underneath. If left in place this can be a serious trip hazard. Sometimes this can simply be dropped to bring it flush with its surroundings, but sometimes the space is backfilled instead and new flooring laid on top.
- Sometimes there are runs in the voids beneath the pew platforms for heating pipes. These may need to be relocated; if not, you will need to find some way of providing access to them for maintenance. The impact of any excavation on archaeological remains needs to be carefully considered.
- The choice of material for the any floor surface need careful thought because it will have a significant visual impact on the interior. Carpet is generally not advisable because it usually looks incongruous in an historic interior and is likely to affect the acoustics adversely.
- Even if the pews don’t stand on platforms the floor underneath could turn out to be unsightly when they are removed. In that case the surface may need to be treated – say, sanded and sealed in the case of wooden floors – to be made presentable.
- If you wish to remove pews that abut a wall surface then this also needs careful consideration as the bench ends may be built into it or into wall panelling. It will be necessary to make good the area, possibly even to introduce a new wall surface.
5. The crucial ‘dos’ and ‘dont’s’
Occasionally applications that ought to succeed run aground during the approval process because the rationale is unclear or the supporting documentation is not sufficiently comprehensive. The following tips will help to prevent that happening to you.
- Explain your plans in detail and say how they fit in with your mission. You must have it clear in your own heads why you want to do your reordering scheme. Expect close questioning about the rationale from DAC members and external consultees!
- Say how you arrived at this decision, especially if you’re seeking complete removal of the pews, and set out your thinking in full. Demonstrate why you can’t achieve your aims any other way. Did you consider any other options? If so, why did you reject them? Include doing nothing – explaining what it would mean for you to leave the interior in its present form can be helpful for making a case for your proposals. Also, have you considered how you are going to mitigate the visual or physical impact on the building?
- Say how the scheme fits into your long-term vision for your church building. Will removing or replacing a portion of the historic seating meet all your needs, or are you likely to look at taking out more sections in the near future? If so, be honest and say so. You won’t be marked down for giving a ‘wrong’ answer if you do, but it you don’t the DAC may well anyway pick up on the fact that this is likely to be the case. It’ll then put the ball back in your court, ask you to revise your plans and submit a more comprehensive scheme. This creates delay.
- Go beyond saying ‘We need flexible space’ as a premise for the scheme. DACs and external consultees are familiar with the idea, so they won’t be surprised by such a requirement, but it isn’t a justification in itself. Flexible space can be used for very different purposes: why do you need it in your particular church building and what do you plan to do with it? Set out the different styles of worship that you wish to introduce, detail the different groups of users who will be holding events there. Show how this will add value and versatility to your church building. Sometimes flexibility is never exploited and the chairs are kept permanently in straight rows just like the pews they replaced.
- Explain the logistics of having a partly or completely pew-less interior: rearranging the seating in a church is a major task, which requires lots of time and manpower. Who is going to do this? In the past some churches have taken out pews to achieve flexibility and then kept the chairs arranged in rows like the pews they replaced. Are you really going to rearrange everything on a regular basis?
- Justify your scheme by saying “We’re taking the church back to the way in which it would have originally been used in the Middle Ages”. It’s true that there is a school of thought that the naves of medieval churches were largely empty of fittings and doubled as venues for secular events. But this was not the case everywhere so any such claim is necessarily speculative. The notion of taking a building back to its pristine, original state is largely discredited in modern restoration philosophy and in any case, everyone will guess that that’s not really the main aim of your scheme.
- Say, “Such-and-such a senior clergyman/Historic Buildings Inspector/Architect said these were the most uncomfortable pews he’d ever sat on” as this line has been used dozens of times. Pews can be made more comfortable with upholstered runners, so this isn’t sufficiently strong justification. But pointing out that, say, a choir pew was clearly made for children but is no longer used by them and very uncomfortable for adults will cut more ice. Be ready for the DAC to counsel alteration rather than complete removal, though.
- Say, “If we took all the pews out then we could hold such-and-such an event in the church”. That may well be true, but you are proposing to make a radical alteration that can’t be undone to facilitate something that is an unknown quantity. If, however, you say, “We tried holding this event in the church and it was a success, but we were hampered by the pews” then you are on much stronger ground.
- Say, “Such-and-such a church removed all its pews and we thought it looked good and worked well, so we want to do it here!” Again, this is a speculative justification. Perhaps it would, but there is no guarantee that what worked for a parish with what may be very different needs and a very different building will work for you as well.
- Be dismissive of the value of anything that you want to remove. If you think that the seating is not of any great historical or architectural importance and can be removed without this having an unacceptable impact on the building then explain why that is and offer good evidence for your claim. If you describe seating as (for the sake of argument) ‘bog standard Victorian pews’ then this will suggest to the DAC and external consultees that you don’t understand your building and haven’t properly thought through the impact of the proposed changes.
- Justify your choice of replacement seating by saying, “These chairs were used in St Paul’s/Salisbury Cathedral so why aren’t they OK here?” It doesn’t follow that what has worked in one setting will work in another. You must be able to do this by explaining why this particular model is right for your particular building.
Appendix 1: Completed reordering schemes in London – some case studies
Here are some examples of reordering projects which have involved either alterations to or the complete replacement of historic seating schemes. This will give you some idea of what can be achieved. It’s important to remember that there are no standard solutions – a reordering proposal must always be guided by the specific needs of your parish and the design must be a considered response to your building. For that reason, these examples are not offered templates to be followed. But they do show that there is room for manoeuvre even in architecturally sensitive interiors.
You can find illustrations of all these projects – in most cases both ‘before’ and ‘after’ views of the church concerned on our Flickr photostream. Hover your cursor over each one to get the caption to display on the screen.
All Saints, Carshalton (Grade II*)
This fine church has a long and complex building history. In the 1890s and 1910s the old medieval and Georgian village church was massively expanded to accommodate a population boom (it was then a fast-growing suburb), becoming the south aisle of a new building by Sir A.W. Blomfield. When the decision was taken to reseat the building care and tact were essential. Although the existing mixture of chairs and pews was not of especial intrinsic significance, it was important as part of the setting for very important and spectacular fittings – G.F. Bodley’s rood screen with later painted and gilt decoration by Sir J.N. Comper and the organ loft and case, wholly by Comper. Both nave and chancel were reseated with benches by Luke Hughes and Company. As shown by the illustrations, the manufacturer provides wheeled handling dollies to make moving the benches around easier. The benches can also be stacked for storage when areas of seating need to be cleared.
St Alban-the-Martyr, Golders Green (Grade II)
Built in 1932, this church was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, famous for being the architect of Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, Tate Modern, Battersea Power Station and the K2 telephone box. It was originally seated with wooden chairs, replaced in the 1960s with pews. In a recent reordering scheme a new floor with underfloor heating was installed and initially the pews were retained, but the limitations that they placed on flexible use of the space prompted a decision to reseat the church with Howe 40/4 stackable metal-framed chairs. The worship space under the large central lantern tower is seated with chairs arranged in rows – the 40/4 chairs can be linked together to form straight ranks – while the choir stalls and clergy seating in the chancel, which are of the same vintage as the pews, have been retained. The narrower nave forming the rear portion of the building, where a servery has been installed, is largely free of furniture, save for some cafe-type and soft seating.
St Andrew, Fulham Fields (Grade II)
The reseating of this church was undertaken as part of a much larger project. St Andrew’s was originally built in 1873-4 to designs by Newman and Billing, but was extended and much enriched in the 1890s and 1900s by, among others, Aston Webb – the architect of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the main front of Buckingham Palace. In the 1970s the west end of the nave was crudely partitioned off to create a church hall. Under the reordering project the later Victorian, westward extension of the nave was demolished and replaced with housing. A new, largely glass structure housing community facilities and ancillary accommodation was erected at the west end of the nave. The whitewash was removed from the walls to reveal the original coloured and patterned brickwork, the pews were removed and the floor replaced. The church was reseated with a mixture of benches and chairs from the Rosehill Furniture Group. A nave altar is used and the chancel fittings and embellishments by Harry Hems and Sons have been left intact.
St Augustine, Queen’s Gate (Grade II*)
Built in 1870-7, this church was designed by William Butterfield, a nationally important Victorian ecclesiastical architect whose best known work is All Saints, Margaret Street in the West End. Indeed, after that building this is reckoned to be his best church in London. It also has important fittings from the 1920s by Martin Travers. In 2010 a plant from Holy Trinity Brompton was established at the church. It shared the building with the existing congregation, but introduced very different styles of worship and wished to diversify the use of the building. It quickly became obvious that this was incompatible with the retention of the pews. Permanent removal met with strong resistance from the Victorian Society, however, because of the significance of these fittings, which were original to the church and designed by Butterfield. Eventually a compromise was struck by the DAC: the original pews would be retained in the Lady Chapel and two more would be retained at the rear of the nave. Movable wooden chairs would be used for congregational seating, but mixed in with these would be twelve Butterfield pews, reduced in length. Christened ‘pewettes’, they now seat just two people, but, thanks to this alteration and to the fact that they are no longer fixed to the floor, can easily be moved around when the layout needs to be reconfigured. This is necessary on a regular basis: the interior is cleared of seating so trestle tables can be set up for a drop-in centre for the homeless and the chairs are rearranged around a central focal point for informal services in the round, as shown in the illustration. But a traditional, east-facing layout is still used twice a week for Holy Communion and also for events with a speaker. When it is, the ‘pewettes’ ensure that something of the presence of the original pews remains. They also help to articulate the mass of new seating with which, sanded and revarnished, they now harmonise. The chancel stalls have been left intact and are used by the professional choir that leads worship at the sung Eucharist on Sunday mornings. Only three ‘pewettes’ are shown in the illustrations here; the remainder are still being assembled.
St George, Southall (Grade II)
One way of making a pewed church flexible without discarding all the original seating is to mount the pews on castors. The pews at St George’s (Arthur Blomfield Jr, 1908) are not especially remarkable, having been made to a design used widely in churches of around this date, but they were worth retaining for two reasons: i) they were all that remained of the original seating following removal of the choir stalls in the 1980s and some of the aisle pews; ii) they were well made and durable. The wide base plates meant that the pews could be mounted on castors without being at risk of overbalancing or making them too high to mount comfortably. Here are the relative pros and cons of this solution as summarised by the Revd Christopher Ramsay, the vicar of St George’s.
- Not suitable for cafe-style church or discussion groups
- Some wear and tear – some castors have had to be replaced due to the heavy weight of the pews and repairs to the ends have been required because of damage caused by people pushing and pulling them around
- East-facing, lecture-style layout is still the usual seating arrangement.
- £1,000 compared with about £25,000 for chairs
- Many chairs seem to wear out after 20 years, but the pews are already over 100 years old and will last at least another 100 years
- Flexible space can be created with much less physical effort than moving chairs – two members of the congregation in their 70s can move all the pews in under 10 minutes with minimal effort
- The pews can be turned and rearranged to face one another or positioned on three sides of the nave altar
- Original fittings of the church conserved
- Less controversial than outright removal
- Capacity can be quickly altered for different services
St Luke, Kidderpore Avenue (Grade II*)
Unusually for a town church of the end of the 19th century – designed by Basil Champneys, it was built in 1897-9 – St Luke’s was seated with pews rather than chairs. Recently the building has undergone a number of substantial alterations, including the conversion of the crypt into accommodation for a Church of England free school, in order to make the building better fit for purpose and more sustainable. A reordering was carried out, under which the nave was reseated with Winchester chairs from Alpha Furniture. The aisles were largely cleared, although several pews, now free-standing fittings, have been retained in both of them as a representative sample and for overspill seating. The pews were simply screwed to a woodblock floor, so no alterations to this were required beyond repair of the surface. At the same time the font – a good quality original feature – was relocated to the east end of the north aisle so the former baptistery area at the west end of the nave, which had latterly been used as a storage area, could be turned into a servery. Two large partitions with inscriptions commemorating the First World War dead at the west end of the nave were removed to unblock sightlines and remade into a single memorial board which was placed close to the font in its new location. Large, bespoke storage cupboards, stained to match the original fittings, were erected in the aisles. The fine, original ensemble of chancel fittings with its intricately carved choir stalls has been kept intact.
St Mary, Ealing (Grade II*)
Carrying out a comprehensive, radical reordering of an architecturally highly significant church can be fraught, but the bold approach taken here has paid dividends and both parish and building have benefited as a result. St Mary’s was originally built in 1735-40 on an ancient site, but little of the Georgian fabric apart from the shell of the nave and the tower survived a bold and comprehensive recasting by S.S. Teulon in 1866-74. The interior was redecorated in 1955 and some reordering was carried out in the 1980s, but by the end of the 20th century the interior was looking gloomy and the layout made worshippers at the back of the church feel distanced from the celebrant. As part of the reordering project the interior was cleaned and redecorated, reinstating the vivid original colour scheme but in lighter tones. The dark varnish was stripped from the gallery fronts to aid the general effect, although it was left on the gallery pews, which were retained, as were the elaborately carved choir stalls in the chancel. All the congregational seating at ground level was replaced, however; the pews were removed, the wooden pew platforms were taken up and the floor relaid with stone paving, incorporating a large, two-stage dais. This is used for leading services from the east end, although the flexibility of the layout also allows for worship around a central altar as seen here. Luke Hughes benches were used for the congregational seating; the same firm also provided the bespoke Holy Table, portable font (the original one was moved from the baptistery to the west lobby in the 1980s) and lectern. The spaces flanking the west lobby were screened off to provide accommodation for the parish office.
St Matthias, Stoke Newington (Grade I)
Historic fittings are usually viewed as being every bit as much of integral significance to a church building as the fabric itself. But in the past fittings have migrated from church to church and, in rare cases, this still happens today. Built in 1849-53, St Matthias was designed by William Butterfield, just like St Augustine, Queen’s Gate. But unlike that building, it has not survived intact; shattered by bombing in World War II, it lost its original fittings. When the church was restored in the 1950s, replacements were installed that, while dignified, were alien to the spirit of the architecture. The opportunity to replace them arose when another major church by the same architect – St John’s, Glenthorne Road in Hammersmith (Grade II*, 1857-9) – was made redundant. That building was lucky enough to gain a sustainable new lease of life thanks to conversion into a performance space for neighbouring Godolphin and Latymer School. But retaining the complete set of original fittings was, unfortunately, out of the question. The granting of listed building consent for the conversion project was contingent on a new home being found for them. The Parish Property Support Team suggested to the vicar of St Matthias that they be transplanted to his church and this was done.
St Peter, Vauxhall (Grade II*)
Almost all of the original seating in the nave and aisles of this church, an important early work by J.L. Pearson of 1863-4, was removed probably in the 1980s and replaced with wooden-framed, upholstered chairs. By 2010 they were life-expired – the joints had worked loose and the upholstery was faded, worn and frayed. The overall impression was tatty and unworthy of a splendid building. The seats were replaced with a mixture of Howe 40/4 metal-framed chairs and all-wooden chairs from Irish Contract Seating. The latter are available with armrests, can be stacked for storage and can also be linked together in straight ranks.
Appendix 2: A brief outline of the history of seating in English churches
The history of seating in churches is an enormous topic and the subject of a recent survey by the Ecclesiological Society. But that is something that is the province of specialists and you probably won’t have time to go into it in such detail. The following notes are intended to give you a brief overview of how seating in English churches has changed over the centuries and to help you to work out how that in your church fits into this story.
The big dividing line in the history of church seating is between pre-Victorian and Victorian or post-Victorian seating. There are few seating schemes from before the Victorian age in the Diocese of London. This is because of natural wear and tear, disasters such as the Great Fire and the Blitz, and also because of the enormous changes in liturgical practice in the 19th century, which led many parishes to reorder their churches so that they could be brought into conformity with them. Moreover, as a result of the immense and rapid growth of London in the 19th and 20th centuries there are simply numerically more churches of this date. For these reasons, the rarity of pre-Victorian seating schemes means that where they survive they are of great value and so there is a strong presumption against any major change. But this also means that if you are thinking of reordering your church there is a strong likelihood that this will involve alterations to 19th or 20th century seating.
In the early Middle Ages people would have stood while attending Mass. Benches began to appear in churches from around the 13th century onwards, but most surviving pre-Reformation pews date from the 15th and early 16th centuries. In wealthy areas such as Norfolk and Somerset they were sometimes very elaborately adorned, but often they are relatively plain benches, such as those in the nave at the Middlesex village churches of St Mary, Harmondsworth and St Mary Magdalene, Littleton. At the latter church there is also medieval seating in the chancel – an even greater rarity.
Elizabethan, Stuart and Georgian seating
The emphasis on preaching and the Ministry of the Word resulting from the Reformation increased the importance of providing seating for worshippers. Around the early 17th century box pews appeared – pews with high backs and sides and doors, which completely enclosed worshippers. These provided protection from draughts and also were a means of demarcating the space belonging to a regular worshipper – from the late 16th century it was possible to obtain rights to a particular pew through the grant of a faculty, payment of rent or continuous long-term use. The churches in the City of London rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren and his associates after the Great Fire of 1666 were seated with box pews, sometimes very elaborately adorned with carving, especially those for civic dignitaries and churchwardens. Good examples survive at St Mary Abchurch near Bank. Architectural styles changed, but seating churches with box pews remained standard practice well into the 19th century. Not many box pews survive in an unaltered state and complete sets – such as those at St Lawrence, Little Stanmore and St John’s Wood Church – are extremely rare and highly significant.
The impact of the changes that took place in the Anglican Church in the 19th century, particularly as a result of the influence of the Oxford Movement, was so extensive that very few churches in England do not display at least some traces of it. The religious ferment and architectural polemic that gave rise to these changes can seem very strange to us today, yet they produced popular conceptions of how a church should look that still endure. These notions were widely propagated and ran counter to established practice at the time. Box pews were regarded as unsightly and unsuitable for new forms of churchmanship. It was thought that they encouraged unbecoming behaviour in church.
There was also a drive to abolish pew rents. The Incorporated Church Building Society gave grants for repairing and reseating churches. These were proportional to the number of free places provided and so there was sometimes a strong motive to over-seat them. In some parishes clergy adopted ritualistic practices in an attempt to combine Anglican worship with revived aspects of the medieval Catholic Mass. Seating had to be provided not just for worshippers in the nave but also for a robed choir in the chancel. Yet whatever the tradition of churchmanship almost everywhere box pews in existing churches were cut down or removed and replaced with open benches. Naturally these were also used in the hundreds of new churches that went up at this time. Later on framed wooden chairs, sometimes with rush seats, became popular.
Victorian seating schemes are so numerous that careful study and discrimination are necessary to establish their significance. Some architects were very particular about how they wanted their churches to be seated and detailed instructions survive setting out their wishes; others less so. At one end of the scale there are bespoke schemes, often by nationally important architects and conceived as an integral part of the interior. Sometimes these are significant pieces of design in their own right and executed to a high standard of craftsmanship. At the other there are plain benches mass-produced to standard designs – ‘catalogue pews’, as they are sometimes known. So it is difficult to give any general guidance about Victorian pewing: some of it offers plenty of scope for change, while some of it is so significant that there is as strong a presumption against major alterations as in the case of pre-Reformation seating.
20th century seating
The effects of 19th century thinking were so pervasive that church interiors carried on being furnished in a similar way well into the 1930s. Many manufacturers of catalogue pews carried on production of their lines to the same designs, although the use of chairs became more prevalent for congregational seating. But radical changes were afoot. The influence of Modernism prompted architects to move away from historical prototypes in architecture and design, often dispensing with ornament. The liturgical movement in the 1950s emphasised the need to bring the celebrant into the midst of the congregation and to break down the division between clergy and worshippers that most church design until then had reinforced. Seating, however, continued to be provided in the form of pew-like benches, albeit of much simpler form than that of preceding centuries. Some architects carried on working in a historicist vein, however, particularly when carrying out reorderings of older buildings or restoring the numerous churches which had been gutted in bombing raids during World War II. All the comments about assessing the significance of Victorian seating apply to 20th century seating as well – careful study and discrimination are essential here.