A cover for non-devotional activity

St John the Baptist, Inglesham. Box pews. Photo by Chris Gunns.

I had never heard of box pews until I started writing the Lively St. Lemeston series! However, they were much more common in England during the Regency than bench-style pews. Wikipedia explains:

Box pews provided privacy and allowed the family to sit together. In the 17th century they could include windows, curtains, tables and even fireplaces, and were treated as personal property that could be willed to legatees. Sometimes the paneling was so high it was difficult to see out, and the privacy was used as a cover for non-devotional activity….By the eighteenth century it became normal to install formal box pews instead of random personal constructions. This provided a more classic line to the church, although Sir Christopher Wren objected to pews in his churches. With the mid-19th century church reforms, box pews were generally swept away and replaced by bench pews. However a number of examples still remain in various churches throughout the United Kingdom.

Part of the church reforms involved changing how clergymen were paid—fees from renting pews provided a good chunk of their salaries previously, so they resisted replacing them with more efficient seating.

Here’s what box pews look like with people sitting in them:

St. Mary, Stelling Minnis, Kent. Photo by John Salmon.

Now, I assumed that these blocked your view of the rest of the congregation but that you could still see the pastor in his raised pulpit. But then I became very confused, because I discovered that the pulpits in Anglican churches of this period were usually not at the front of the church near the altar, but about half-way down the aisle! Did some box pews face backwards? Then how did people see when stuff happened at the altar…?

Apparently this is because I’ve only been to synagogues and Catholic churches. Someone (Ros Clarke, was it you?) explained to me that Anglican church services of the 18th and early 19th century de-emphasized the altar to separate themselves from Catholics. Anglican ministers are not priests! They are just the first among equal congregants. And you’re not even supposed to look at the vicar!

So yeah. Apparently part of the whole we’re-really-really-not-Catholic thing in Georgian Church of England services is that instead of having beautiful services full of pomp, you are supposed to stare at the wall so you don’t get distracted from pure spiritual thoughts. The box pew is actually designed to block your view. (As well as keep the heat in, obviously.) And indeed, they don’t all face the pulpit. Look, in this Rowlandson drawing you can clearly see that the pews in this Church face both directions, some towards and some away from the pulpit, and few people are looking at the preacher.

“Syntax Preaching,” 1813. Click to see it bigger. [source]

Of course, the pastor could still see you, which presumably motivated you to not goof off too obviously.

Box pews were such an inefficient use of space (every pew-renting or -owning family got their own and no one else could sit in it even if that family didn’t come to church that week) that in many churches, most of the congregation (the poor people) had to stand up in galleries built partway up on either side of the church. (While I found photos of Georgian-built church galleries equipped with bench-pews, I suspect these were in the minority at the time, but have a higher rate of survival because they are still usable today.)

For example, you can see the box pews and galleries in this early 19th century illustration of St. Mary’s in Horsham, then see the same church in this 1864 photograph, and then how it looks today after extensive renovations, with new pews and the galleries removed.

More images:

Hogarth print showing church seating (and standing)

St. Martin in the Field,” Rowlandson.

I also found this eighteenth century English evangelical church that was built backwards—the box pews for rich folk were on the second story and actually have their own separate entrances, while the poor people sat in benches on the ground floor.

(By the way, both my Lively St. Lemeston books are currently deep-discounted on Amazon: Sweet Disorder is 99¢ and True Pretenses is $1.99!)

Do you attend religious services? What kind of seating do you prefer?

About Rose Lerner

A geek of both the history-and-English and the Star-Trek variety, Rose writes Regency romance with strong heroines and adorable heroes. Her most recent books are Listen to the Moon (book three in her Lively St. Lemeston series, about a very proper valet and a snarky maid-of-all-work who marry to get a plum job) and a novella about an architect and a gaming den hostess in Gambled Away, a gambling-themed anthology with Molly O'Keefe, Joanna Bourne, Jeannie Lin, and Isabel Cooper.
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