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1980: Reflections on the practice of 'pew renting' at Church

Updated: Dec 28, 2022

Cuckfield parish magazine May 1980

THE RENTING OF PEWS by JW and MW (contributors)

The practise of pew renting went on well into this century in provincial town churches in Kent. In the late 20’s I recall a church in Folkestone, a well to do parish, where the majority of pews were rented. The church was well attended as the vicar preached a good sermon and was popular. Those without their own pews had to stand at the back of the church or sit on slats pulled out from the side of the pews until the bell stopped ringing when all unoccupied seats were available. On the stroke of 11 AM what took place was similar to musical chairs!

The congregation of another local church was divided into two camps, those who rented pews and those not so favoured. The latter were definitely “below the salt”. There was a great deal of snobbishness in the community, and this was reflected in the church. It was extraordinary that this state of affairs was accepted by Christians and was not questioned, maybe because it brought revenue to the church. Fortunately, the Second World War brought about great changes in society, but one wonders if the long-term effect of pew renting did not produce a section of the community, who, as they grew up, no longer attended church services.

Interior of Holy Trinity Church Cuckfield c1900

By the middle of the 19 century the easy-going Anglican Church of the Georges was becoming reformed under the influence of the evangelicals and the High Church Movement. When the House of Lords Committee on Spiritual Destitution reported in 1858: “The body of every parish church belongs of common right to all parishioners; and this cannot lawfully be defeated by any permanent appropriation of particular places”, some people throughout the country began to question the apparently universal appropriation of pews in parish churches.

In Cuckfield this questioning is reflected in the parish magazines of the 1880’s. The correspondence shows that pews were not paid for nor actually appropriated. They were allotted by the Churchwardens. But a correspondent wrote in 1881: ”It is useless to talk of all the seats being free when the service has commenced or to say that the Churchwardens will show you a seat. No one in the higher or middle classes of life would be content to go to church, unless occasionally under such conditions, and why should it be expected of others? We English are very sensitive about the way we are treated in church, and to be turned out of a seat, to be frowned at as an intruder, to be elbowed into a corner or to be kept standing in the aisle…… all these things are evils attending the appropriation system and they drive the rich to seeking accommodation elsewhere and the poor to going nowhere. The church doors should be open wide to all without price”.

This liberal view was not held by all as one who signed himself “a working man” wrote: “It is only right for the sake of order that they principal parishioners have pews or parts of pews allotted to them as far as possible according to their rank or station”.

The difficulties caused by this hierarchical system are illustrated in the correspondence of the Churchwardens of Farnham which has been published. In 1860 a Mr Austwick wrote that his father-in-law and his wife had subscribed towards the alteration of the church but had not been allotted seats. He asked for the seats about to be vacated by Colonel Wood. Colonel Wood had been allotted the seats belonging to Moor Park when that mansion was unoccupied. Now Moor Park was occupied by a Mr Bateman who demanded this pew and refused one normally occupied by the owner of Waverley Abbey. Other less important personages flatly refused to change their seats. Finally, the churchwardens resorted to the Bishop, who allowed his servants to move but not before Mr Bateman had sent an ultimatum from London. “If I cannot go to my own parish church with the feeling of rightful possession, I would prefer attending another place of worship.”



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