Most English parish churches had no formal seating arrangements until the late 15th century. Prior to this, the congregation either stood, sat or knelt on the hard mud, sand or stone floors or leant against the outside walls or pillars. Services included stories from the bible, the reading of psalms, and prayers but little formal "music". Sermons or talks were very short.
After Charles I was executed, the Puritans’ concept of lengthy teaching sermons soon helped speed up the introduction of seating! Families began to bring their own benches or chairs and group them together. This became more formalised with the introduction of enclosures known as "sittings". In order to better keep the family together, the designs were as a box - hence the term "box" pew. These private pews were normally rented or bought by families and so only those with sufficient substance in the community were able to afford them. The larger and wealthier families had the larger, more ornate, box pews, and these were always in the best positions in church. In these early schemes there were no standard designs so a church would be filled with different shapes, different heights and frequently different materials. As many private pews were lockable, churches appointed official "pew openers"! There were few church organs or formal music and rarely choirs and so the chancel area was also usually rented out and filled with box pews; the families having to face the pulpit with their backs to the altar!!
Poorer families, who were unable to buy or rent box pews, stood in the aisles or against the back or side walls of the church, or in a gallery. Not all box pews had seats and some churches installed special enclosures for the poor with sloping rails along the rear against which to rest, but not sit. Examples of various types of box pew can be seen in St Mary’s Church at Whitby in Yorkshire, or you can visit St Wistan’s Church in nearby Wistow.
Private box pews allowed families to sit together in one place and frequently younger children would sit on a rug on the floor and read or play quiet games during the service without causing too much distraction to other members of the congregation. As box pews were rarely uniform in style or size, the interior of the church would have looked extremely untidy with different sizes, styles, paint colours and shapes of pew.
From the 1830s until the 1860s, churches all over the country began to realise the problems of not providing space for everybody. Frequently the aisles were crammed with people, while whole areas of locked private pews remained untenanted. Eventually the courts ruled that parishioners controlled all seats in the nave of the church, that no-one could own property in seats, and that seats were "private" only through ancient rite or faculty.
John Mason Neale from Crawley published 24 reasons in the 1820s for removing box pews. Here are a selection: box pews were invented by people who thought themselves too good to pray by the side of their neighbours, they made it impossible to pay proper attention, they endangered safety, they harboured dust and mildew, they caused quarrels in the parish, they spoilt the look of a church and they allowed parishioners to go to sleep without fear! John Neale eventually took an axe to his church’s box pews and hacked them to pieces!
It was believed that seating was introduced into St. Wilfrid’s sometime in the 15th century; but there are limited records and no hard evidence has been found to support this theory. It is more probable therefore that, as in the rest of the local area, box pews were actually introduced in the late 17th century by the Puritans (probably the parliamentarian Rector, John Yaxley). We do know that more uniform box pews, in terms of height, size and wood, were introduced by Rev. James Beresford (Rector, 1812-1841) soon after he arrived in 1813, but lasted only a further 33 years before Rev. Stuart Eyre Bathurst (Rector, 1844-1851) started a major re-ordering of the church seating arrangements. Initially, in 1844, he was able to install simple choir pews in the chancel to provide 28 spaces (these were replaced with the present more ornate choir stalls in 1902 to match the carving on the Rood Screen which had been restored in 1868).
A year later, in 1845, Rev. Bathurst tried to obtain the parishioners’ approval and financial support for replacing all of the box pews in the nave and he applied for a Faculty (or permission by the church to alter the fabric) to increase the accommodation. Opposition came from those who liked the position and importance of their family box pews in church, from those who felt the Rector had enmity towards pews, from those who felt the poorer elements of the parish should go elsewhere (poorer Kibworth residents frequented the Congregational Chapel), and from those who disliked these ‘new-fangled’ Puseyite (group of Oxford reformers) trends! After considerable correspondence with the Diocese (then in Lincoln) and great support from his father, Sir James Bathurst, who corresponded with the Bishop of Lincoln on his son’s behalf, the Faculty was granted provided the Rector funded the new pews entirely from his own income, with no increase in local rates.
Finally, plain deal pews were installed in 1846 at a cost of £385 and when removed were just over 150 years old. The main reasons given for the uniformity of pews was to enable a larger accommodation of parishioners to attend each service (upwards of 400 could be seated when full), and to provide a more uniform and convenient layout. In addition, final permission was given to complete the new church for Smeeton Westerby as this would also provide more space in St. Wilfrid’s for Kibworth worshippers.
In 1999, when Revd Steven Lee was Rector, the back of St Wilfrid’s Church was re-ordered and the pews, many of which were unused, replaced with smart upholstered chairs. This allowed room for a new table and cupboards, a permanent bookstall, CD and tape library as well as plenty of display opportunities on some screens behind which spare chairs, staging and flower arrangers' equipment could be stored.
In 2007 during the interregnum following Revd Steven Lee’s departure, the remaining pews were removed because underfloor heating was installed. The pews were never re-installed, but instead they were replaced with upholstered chairs to match those already at the back of church. The manufacturers had retained sufficient cloth to ensure the colour match was the same despite there being 8 years between the two sets of chairs being ordered.
The new chairs permit about 300 members of the congregation to be seated when full; this only ever occurs on Remembrance Sunday and sometimes for Christingle, when a few people end up standing at the rear of church. For the rest of the time, they are flexible in that different arrangements can be used to suit the occasion, can be reduced to create specific ambience or some drama or a musical event, but above all are comfortable and are relatively easy to move about and stack.