JEH covers all aspects of the history of Christianity, and that unashamedly includes the legal, administrative and financial minutiae of church life. These topics have a reputation for being dull. Perhaps sometimes they are. But it is always worth reading the article before jumping to the conclusion.
‘How Formal Anglican Pew-Renting Worked in Practice, 1800-1950’ is, you have to admit, not a title to send punters rushing to the newsstands. But John C. Bennett’s article is not only fascinating, it is much more fun than it has a right to be as well. The overall message is that pew-renting was rare and frowned upon before the 1810s; boomed thereafter, but rarely raised the sums of money it promised to; and faded away fairly quickly in the early twentieth century, both because the mismatch between supply of and demand for space in churches made the bottom fall out of the market (sorry about that), and because it had always been stirring up bad feeling anyway.
The bad feeling was in part intensely practical, and turned on a question akin to that which dominates the modern airline business: just how tight can you pack people in and get away with it? Twenty inches was the standard space allotted to parishioners in many churches; Glaswegian churches apparently had a local standard of seventeen to eighteen inches; one Brighton church went for sixteen. Bennett quotes a bean-counter from Tunbridge Wells (you couldn’t make it up) worrying that the 20-inch allocation left nine inches of surplus (and unrentable) space at the end of each pew, but if they dropped it down to 18½ inches they could squeeze in one more customer. (Sorry: worshipper.) Children’s sittings were as small as thirteen inches, ‘which,’ as Bennett drily comments, ‘can hardly have promoted proper church behaviour.’ For the business class experience, you’d be advised to head for one Bristol church where adult sittings were up to fifty-six inches: almost enough space to lie down.
But also as with airlines, a lot of the resentment came down to money. He cites a poem published in a collection of Yorkshire dialect verse in 1898:
A’a! it’s grand to ha plenty o’ brass!
Then th’ parsons’ll know where yo live;
If yo’re poor, its mooast likely they’ll pass,
An call where fowk’s summat to give.
Yo may have a trifle o’ sense,
An yo may be booath upright an trew,
But that’s nowt, if yo can’t stand th’ expense
Ov a whole or a pairt ov a pew.
All that’s missing from this article is some smartphone footage of thuggish sidesmen beating up a parishioner and dragging him out of the pew.