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Am I stuck with these Victorian pews?

Posted on: 15/02/2011

Pews at Histon Baptist ChurchProbably not, is the surprising answer. I’m a big proponent of taking out the pews because it can revolutionise the usefulness and the feel of the church space.

Some points to consider:

  • Were the pews designed for the building or, as was often the case, were they bought from a catalogue? The Victorians tended to cram as many pews into churches as they could, because there were subsidies to encourage this! In most cases these were mass produced and of little architectural merit, so can more easily be removed.
  • Is the church listed? If so, you will need permission for changes to the fixed furniture.
  • When were the pews installed, and have they already been moved around? Some homework here can help a great deal in making the case for change.

Clearly there are some churches where you are stuck with the pews – for example if the pews are medieval, or are an integral part of a very special and particular design. In most other cases there is scope for making changes. The key thing is to do the appropriate research and then make a good case for the change.

At Histon Baptist Church, which is a listed building, all the pews were removed; these were original to the Edwardian building but were of cheap construction. Having taken them all out, some pews were stripped and refinished and then put back around the edges, leaving the main part of the space beautifully open.

Coupled with a newly levelled natural oak floor and underfloor heating the space has been transformed. Here the Listed Building Committee asked us to retain 15-20% of the originals; the remainder were sold or given away.

There is also a ‘political’ issue, which is that not everyone likes change – many people are very fearful of it. There are many village parishes where those in the community feel a sense of ownership of ‘our’ church, even if they never darken its doors. These folk should not be ignored, and their concerns need sensitive handling – ignore them at your peril!

First steps

Always start with some historical research, and arrive at an assessment of how important the pews are to the significance of the building as a whole. You should already know this if you have prepared a Statement of Significance; if not, now is a good time to write one.

If you want to get a feel for the additional space you could create, you could consider temporarily removing a section of pews, perhaps for a specific event. Often existing pews can be ‘unbolted’ and moved into storage – this makes it easier to focus people on the benefits that the change will bring.