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Helmdon Historical Documents

The Old Box Pews



There were  box pews in the church of St Mary Magdalene dated 1768 and 1770. 

For thousands of years churches did not have seating although the old and infirm could sit on stone benches at the side of the church. Then box pews came into being.  They were (and can still be found in some places) a type of church pew encased in panelling and prevalent in England and other Protestant countries from the 16th to early 19th century.  They probably arose in fashion since early churches were not heated, and the walls of the box pews would minimize drafts, thus keeping the occupants relatively warmer in the winter. It was common for families to bring foot warmers (wooden boxes filled with hot stones gathered from the home or local tavern hearth) and crickets (foot stools) and blankets to the church, huddling together with their feet held above the foot warmer on a cricket, using the blankets as a tent over their shoulders down to their feet. Another advantage to the box pew was that family elders would sit facing the pulpit while children sat facing the elders and with their backs towards the pulpit. Thus elders could keep an eye on the minister in the pulpit while also keeping an eye on their children. They provided privacy and allowed the family to sit together. In the 17th century they could include windows, curtains, tables and even fireplaces, and were treated as personal property that could be willed to legatees.  They could be bought or rented.  Indeed pew sales and rentals would provide a large chunk of church funding but in the end were getting more expensive to make and eventually parishes did away with them. 

Here are plans of the box pews in St Mary Magdalene church 1768/70.



As can be seen we have familiar names – Fairbrother, Adkins, Wigson, Shortland, Pratt, Baylis, Blencoe, Harriott, for example. These families must have had standing in the village in order for the box pews to have been bought or rented.

Audrey Forgham


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