Pew Rents

Our Victorian forbears charged chapel-goers for seats. ‘Pew rents’ were collected quarterly and enabled one to hire a pew, or a space on the pew, for the three months for which the rent was paid. Most of us are mildly horrified by such an arrangement. The old anecdote of visiting an unfamiliar church only to have some bumptious biddie approach, claiming “you’re in my seat!” is given a whole new meaning. If I’d paid good money for that pew and someone was in it, I too might feel hard-done-by. Such provisions are pretty terrible when it comes to making visitors feel welcome; charging for seats is certainly not an idea we are likely to resurrect. The chapel minute book for February 27th, 1870, records a desire to:

‘…make an earnest and energetic appeal to members of the church and congregation of this place of worship for subscription of free will offerings on behalf and for the support of the ministry of the gospel in this place of worship’.

They were basically short of money and needed to raise more. It continues:

‘That the seats in this chapel be let to present holders of sittings or others wishful of taking at the charge of 1 shilling and sixpence per seat quarterly and to be paid for quarterly and that notice be given by announcement from the pulpit on Sunday next that any person or persons wishful of taking sittings or of retaking present holdings may do so by applying to the chapel on Wednesday evening at 6 o’clock March 9th 1870 when Mr Stephen Dean and Mr John Dean would be in attendance for that purpose.’

It goes on to state that envelopes would be obtained and left in the pews for people to place their rents in, though the writer kindly agrees to start a new sentence in order to do so. 

There are annual records for who paid and how much, but only one record, undated, regarding which pews were actually let. A map is drawn in the book, with each of the Dean brothers taking one half of the chapel to manage, Stephen taking ‘Chapel House side’, and William ‘Lane side’. As now, people preferred to sit in the middle, with a few residing by the ‘lane side’ front door. I suspect the pew at the very back of the church was free, available for those unable- or unwilling- to pay rent. This is the most popular place to sit among modern Martin Toppers; quite how many Victorians made it their weekly dwelling I cannot tell. The pews in front of what is now the sound desk were reserved for ‘scholars’, i.e. children in the Sunday school. 

In 1870, there were 32 renters; by 1895, the number had fallen to 13. The church was doing well at that time, so I suspect that there was an unwillingness to pay rent among many attenders. The idea of charging people money to sit down during worship, or by offering the best seats to those affluent enough to pay, seems contrary to the gospel. Indeed, James almost forbids the practice in chapter 2 of his epistle:

My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

I’m glad we abolished pew rents several generations ago. If I can gain entry to heaven free of charge, how much more a country chapel? Still, it was an attempt to put the fellowship on a steady financial footing, promising regular and dependable income. It is with some delicious irony that those pews I suspect of having been free of charge remain the most popular ones in use a century later. We must never as a church disadvantage or hinder those on low incomes, for the Lord Jesus had a special regard for the poorest and most marginalised. I trust we are a fellowship in which both rich and poor, black and white, male and female, can come together to worship the Maker of us all.