One of the questions the staff working at the recently opened St Helen’s church get asked most frequently is about the names on the beautiful box pews. The pews themselves came from the lovely Somerset village of Wiveliscombe. The Church there, St Andrew’s, needed more space to allow the church to function, and therefore kindly offered the pews to Beamish. St Andrew’s kept 8 rows, and the remainder were removed and brought the 274 miles North to be installed at Beamish.
Georgian box pews tell a fascinating story of social hierarchy within a church congregation, as well as demonstrating how a church would raise funds via subscription. Congregation members would pay to rent the numbered pews, which were then reserved (and in some cases locked) for their use. At the rear were often ‘free’ pews, for use by anyone unable to afford the cost of a private pew. The gallery would also be ‘free’ benches. Sometimes the names of those renting the pews were painted on, such as in the images below, from Skelton Old Church.
Thanks to research by Sylvia Fairbrass, a local historian looking into the records associated with Eston Church, we have a copy of the 1824 pew list.
This list details who rented the pews, and combine with the Wiveliscombe pews to tell a story common to Georgian churches at both ends of the country.