We know from an 1824 faculty layout of St Helen’s that the church once had box pews, which would have been the norm in churches of the period. Box pews were enclose, panelled pews that were fixed to the floor of the church. Over the decades churches (including St Helen’s) often ripped out their box pews to allow for more flexible bench pews to be put in, and as such original box pews have become very rare. Last year we began a appeal to find replacement box pews for St Helen’s and luckily the Rev. David Widdows of St Andrew’s Church in Wiveliscombe, Sommerset responded. His very grand church was built between 1827 and 1829 and was installed with beautifully carved box pews at the time. However, because the pews were fixed to the floor and filled entirety of the nave it meant that the church couldn’t easily host community events or groups. While congregation greatly appreciated the pews and their history, they felt that for the sake of the long-term usability of the church, they needed to part with a few of them. They wanted the pews to go to a good home rather than be scrapped and so Rev. Widdows offered to donate them to Beamish, a plan which also gained the approval of Historic England. A couple of weeks ago we removed ten rows of the box pews from St Andrew’s, leaving the rest in place at the church for posterity. Our contractors Sid and Daniel are now working hard to install the removed pews into St Helen’s.
Box pews existed in churches at a time when the class divides were still very keenly felt. Each pew could be rented by a member of the local congregation, with the pews nearest the pulpit being the most expensive. Remarkably we have a list of the names of the people who rented the pews at St Helen, dated from 1824. We will be painting their names onto the side panels of our pews, as means of permanently recording the Georgian congregation of St Helen’s.