Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

And One for My Friend the Barmaid: Pew-Renting and Social Class in English Anglican Churches in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

And One for My Friend the Barmaid: Pew-Renting and Social Class in English Anglican Churches in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Article excerpt

Pew-renting existed in England for many centuries-the first definite instance occurred in the fifteenth century, despite the practice's technical illegality until 1818.1 Pew-letting blossomed with the building of new nineteenth century churches lacking endowments and became the primary source of funding for many churches built in the Victorian boom, but declined when attendance fell significantly at individual churches in later decades. Yet the practice often continued in many places after the First World War, sometimes enduring into the mid-twentieth century, and in least at one English church, until the early 1970s.

At least in formal pew-renting's heyday, most contemporaries were convinced that renters virtually always came from the wealthiest English classes. The Tractarians, particularly J. W. Bowden-"Newman's intimate and one of his first recruits to the pages of the British Critic"-deplored even the thought that "the rich, as rich" should be given "any priority of place" in churches,2 and an article published by the Incorporated Free and Open Church Association in the early twentieth century described pew-renters as the "rich and selfish" and the "betterto-do."3 The complaint most often heard went even further, contending that the destitute were so offended by the letting of seats that they refused to attend church.4 Much more recently, though, S. J. D. Green has questioned this conclusion: "Relatively poor people paid pew-rents as well as unquestionably rich people."5 And M. H. Port has written that pew-rents "attracted the 'middling sort' as well as the upper orders."6

The findings of this article are limited to English Anglican churches. Pew-renting was regulated there by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, although individual churches had some discretion to raise the sums charged. But in America no regulation existed; the decision to charge pew-rents and the consequent sums asked were set by each church's vestry and were substantially higher. H. Stowell Brown wrote in 1888 that pew-rents in England were "a trifle compared with those charged in American cities"-each sitting in the United States could cost about 8 annually.7 Some American churches charged even more; although evidently exaggerating, in 1867 Mark Twain complained that pew-rent in New York was "just about as high as house rent," so "few men can afford to indulge in religion and matrimony both."8

In late-Victorian Britain the upper class formed about two per cent of the population, while the middle class made up about nineteen percent and the working class seventy-nine percent.9 Contemporary analysis of the English Victorian middle class is most often divided into three subclasses-upper-middle, middle-middle, and lowermiddle. The upper-middle consisted of "senior professionals," among them moneyed industrialists, financiers, stockbrokers, senior lawyers and doctors, leading clergy, and the like. The middle-middle included "lesser businessmen," "medium-sized shopkeepers," local bank managers, and those of similar positions. Those of the lowermiddle were schoolteachers, small shopkeepers, service providers, clerks, and so on.10 The working class is also generally divided into three subclasses: upper-working class or labour aristocracy (skilled workers), middle-working class (unskilled workers), and lowerworking class (those in abject poverty). The labour aristocracy consisted of ten to fifteen per cent of the total working class,11 and included skilled artisans such as "skilled engineering workers," those in urban crafts, builders, miners, and cotton-spinners.12 The unskilled ranks were farm workers, domestic help, and other workers lacking formal vocational training.


Answering any question regarding pew-renting, especially one involving social class, is difficult absent the recognition that two distinct methods of seat-letting existed. The better-known sort entailed formal pew-renting, in which churches let sittings, predominantly in more advantageous pews, to those who prepaid for the purpose, usually on an annual, semi-annual or quarterly basis. …

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