Pews in Churches
From Vol. II of the "Illustrated Notes on English Church History" by Rev. C. Arthur Lane published in 1888
We have a fascinating account of this practice by the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
The period concerned is the latter half of the 18th century and I start with the time when excessive levity of the Court ladies during service time provoked the ire of Bishop Burnet, who complained to Queen Anne in the form of a satyr: -
"Then pray condescend such disorders to end,
And to the ripe vineyard the labourers send,
To build up the seats; that the beauties may see,
The face of no brawling pretender but me."
"Here is an obvious reference to the high pews which had then become fashionable. The well-to-do had appropriated privileged enclosures to them selves and their families in the parish churches, just as others now do when they lease portions of the Albert Hall. They would fit up their pew or their gallery in the most approved style of upholstery and wood carving."
"By the end of the 18th century there was scarcely a parish church throughout the land which did not contain one or more of the family pews, the tallest and most elegantly fitted being reserved for the most notable residents; while even the churchwardens had their stately pen, where they could obtain an uninterrupted view of the garishly gilt inscription which told that the edifice had been repaired and beautified - i.e., whitewashed and made hideous, during the tenure of office."
"Many of these pews continued so long in the possession of certain families or occupants of manor houses, that it was supposed they were granted by the diocesan registrars which made it almost impossible to to dispossess the holders. Although the rich were eager to claim for themselves a share in the misappropriation of the area of the parish churches, they were by no means so eager to occupy the space allotted for their use; and woe betide any poor creature who trespassed upon their preserves."
"Sir Christopher Wren much desired that there should be no pews in the churches that he built; but he records "There is no stemming the tide of profit of pew keepers especially since by pews in the chapel of ease the Minister is chiefly supported." And when the scheme of building fifty-two new churches was started, he was almost pathetic in his protest that, "A church should not be so filled with pews, but that the poor may have room to stand and sit in the galleys, for to them equally is the gospel preached."
"The idea that the tenancy of a house gives a prescriptive right to a particular pew has now become exploded; and it is much more in accordance with the spirit of Christianity that there should be no distinction of persons 'Within the Church's Gate.' At any rate men should not be allowed to parade their superior dignity and larger possessions by occupying seats which, while distinguishing them, obscure the poor man's vision." "Happily these are nearly all done away with."
There are still some churches in the land that have these pews, although not in general use they have been left in situ for preservation and historical interest.
One such is at Winterbourne Zelston in Dorset.