Archive of the Month
Please Be Seated: The Content of Church of Ireland Pew Registers
By Robert Gallagher
Until the mid–nineteenth century, the purchase, rent or assignment of pews within Church of Ireland parishes was not an uncommon practice. This system was primarily found in more wealthy parishes, particularly in urban areas, where parishioners were more likely to be able to afford the cost. Pews were considered property and, like all property, it was necessary to record the rights and transactions involving them. In many cases a record of such transactions were kept in the vestry minute books of the parish (as was explored in last month’s presentation on the Killougher Vestry Minute book at this link) but occasionally, particularly in well–endowed parishes, with revenue to spend on dedicated volumes, a separate pew register was kept by the vestry.
Although not an explicitly dedicated volume (as it is included alongside a lists of various parish officers), a surviving example of a pew register (kept separately from the vestry minutes) is that of St Werburgh’s in Dublin. As one of the earliest Anglo–Norman churches established within the city walls and as the parish serving Dublin Castle, St Werburgh’s enjoyed a prominent position in the city. Its pew register gives an unusual insight into the parish’s social structure, providing glimpses of the wealth and status enjoyed by the parishioners. Owning a pew in St Werburgh’s Dublin was a lucrative privilege and a person able to afford one of the more expensive or well positioned pews, in a parish whose members included the Lord Mayor of Dublin and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, was clearly in prominent financial status.
The entries in this volume detailing transactions concerning pews for the parish of St Werburgh’s commences in 1719, following the resolution of the vestry at its meeting held on Friday 25 September 1719, when it was resolved to sell pews (or any part thereof) to parishioners. The valuation of the seats was agreed upon; there were 83 pews in total ranging from £6 – £14 with a total valuation of £747. A number of pews were set aside, pew 35 was listed as the Lord Mayor’s pew, pews 27 and 28 were set aside for the sydesmen and churchwardensm respectively. Pew numbers 68 and 69 were designated as the ‘Custom House seat’ and the ‘Castle Seat’ – presumably for use by dignitaries or officers serving in these government institutions. The St Werburgh’s volume continues up to 1839, although after 1764 the entries become very cursory indeed, reflecting the gradual petering out of the process of owning a pew.
Unfortunately a floor plan of St Werburgh’s pew layout from this period does not survive, such a visual record being rare, but the layout of pews for the parish of Kinnity, county Offaly, as depicted in this seating plan in another of the Library’s collection, does convey what the box pew set up looks like.
While a floor plan for St Werburgh’s does not exist, we do know from the text in the register that the most expensive and sought after pews were often those located in the gallery or near the front of the church. This also provided the occupants with a clear view of proceedings (and provided the rest of the congregation with a clear view of who occupied the most expensive seats).
The terms and conditions of sale for the pews were also agreed upon by the vestry who resolved that on an owner’s leaving the parish or death, that person’s pew (or any part thereof) could be sold, with two–thirds of the fee going to the parish. A time limit of 21 days was agreed upon for the payment of fees, any sale in which the cost had not been paid after this time was declared void. It was further agreed, that if a pew was not sold within six months of its owner dying then the minister and churchwardens had permission to sell the pew to the highest bidder, with two–thirds of the sale price given to the parish and the remaining third given to the executors/administrators of the deceased.
Procedures regarding sales were periodically reviewed, so for example at the vestry meeting held on Friday 16 September 1720, it was agreed that anyone selling a pew, or the executors/administrators of a deceased parishioner’s estate, would have two–thirds of the price returned to them with the parish receiving a third.
Because pew transactions only occurred sporadically, there are large chronological gaps between entries in the register. Between 1720 and 1754, for example, only three changes were made to the purchasing process, most notably following the amendment made by the vestry on 20 April 1731, when it was agreed that anyone purchasing a pew was to pay the fee to the churchwardens, who would then apply a third to the parish and the remaining two–thirds to the parishioner selling the pew.
The majority of entries in the register are dedicated to recording the transactions concerning the pews, with records kept of the original owners, the current owners, the valuation of the pews and any money outstanding on their purchase. These records of transactions peak in the early part of the 18th century but continue sporadically for over a century, with the final recorded transaction occurring in 1839.
In late 1754 a fire (most likely caused by a candle left burning after evening service) broke out in St Werburgh’s church, which resulted in extensive damage and led to the church closing until 1759. At its meeting held on 21 November 1759, the vestry established a new committee to inquire into the settlement of seats. It was further agreed on, 14 April 1760, that any housekeeper who possessed a seat, or any part thereof, prior to the fire, should be granted the same seat at a cost of a third the original valuation. It was also agreed that all vacant seats at the time of the fire were to be sold immediately at the same price as the old valuation and that the churchwardens were to pay a third of the value of a seat to anyone whose seat had been vacated (or their representative).
The pew records provide an excellent insight into the movements of the parishioners, in both geographical and social terms. By examining the transactions, it is possible to estimate as to when individuals resided in the parish. The date when a pew was exchanged, for example, a pew, could potentially indicate either the death or departure from the parish of the owner. A good example is provided on page 15 where we can see Mr David La Touche Jr being granted the entirety of seat 19 on that on, 5 April 1743.
However, when the list of pew proprietors is examined later in the volume, from 1760, it can be seen that the pew was split between two owners, one moiety belonging to a Mr William Mollyneux and the other belonging to a Mr Henry Clements, with Mr La Touche nowhere to be seen. It is this provenance of the pews that makes this record so interesting to study. A section that provides an interesting highlight is, the sales immediately preceding the fire in the church in 1754. An entry for 16 April and another one for 9 October in 1754, record a moiety being granted to Mr Thomas Wallis and Richard Wilson Esq. respectively. What makes these entries noteworthy is the fact that neither individual reappears as an owner once the church reopens in 1759. This gives us a picture of two rather unfortunate individuals who, upon paying the fee to own a seat in one of Dublin’s most prominent parishes, were, for whatever the reason, never able to fully enjoy the benefits.
One final point to note is the difference between the ownership and purchase of pews in the Church of Ireland and in the Roman Catholic Church. Whereas in the Church of Ireland, the ownership of pews was a formal contractual arrangement akin to the purchase of property, according to the Dublin Diocesan Archivist, Noelle Dowling, who kindly shared with us some insight of Catholic arrangements, which ‘were far more informal’, and procedure regarding ownership of pews quite anecdotal. In many cases parishioners would pay for a pew in a parish church, especially if the church was unable to afford the instillation of pews or seats. Occasionally a commemorative plaque might be installed on the pew or nearby pillar, but as no formal arrangement was ever in place these are rare and no official record of such transactions exist. Far more common is the dedication of pews to a deceased parishioner which has been paid for by the family, this does not denote ownership of the pew in question however. Far more common in the Roman Catholic Church was the practice of paying a fee to enter the church through a particular door. The pews furthest to the front were sometimes separated from the main body by a rail and the cost to enter and sit at this part of the church was higher than the rest. In a similar fashion, seats situated off to the side were less expensive than those on the main aisle.
Returning to Church of Ireland practice, while pew registers may be relatively rare, those that survive provide a colourful asset for researching parish history the stories of individual parishioners. While they may be more beneficial for uncovering information about the gentry and wealthy merchant classes in a position to afford such commodities, nevertheless they show what can be gleaned by extending the scope of research beyond the usual reliance on parish registers of baptism, marriage and burial.
Robert Gallagher is the RCB Library Administrator
Librarian and Archivist
For further information please contact:
Dr Susan Hood
Librarian and Archivist