Back in September 2017 I started to look at pew numbers (click here to see that post), particularly looking at Ballee and Downpatrick. Ballee is interesting because numbers like this
were impressively painted on each box pew but removed when the interior was refurbished before the First World War. Since they re-used the timber in the reconstruction of the new interior if you know where to look you can still find the old numbers in odd places like the one above, which is on the inside of a cupboard door. The Ballee numbers, where they still exist, are much larger and emphatic than most pew numbers.
Downpatrick only has pew numbers upstairs in the galleries, and Clough and Dunmurry for instance, don’t have any numbers at all. In modern times the idea of numbering pews is not something that anyone would take up, but for hundreds of years it was essential. Pews were occupied via pew rents, the families who rented them had an entirely proprietorial attitude to the pew or half pew which they paid for. This is the origin of the sense – which many people still have – of a certain pew being ‘their’ pew. In many cases, generations ago, this was quite literally true. In more recent times large urban congregations that had prominent preachers would tell those who rented pews to be in place fifteen minutes before the service began or else their pew would be given to some of the queue of potential hearers formed up outside.
But I have had a look out for pew numbers recently and here is a selection.
First of all a nice example of a ceramic pew number from Killinchy. The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Killinchy was built in 1846 and I have no reason to doubt that this sequence of numbers all date from that period:
Older examples, which I would suspect date from the opening of the church in 1783, are the engraved brass numbers affixed to the oak doors of the pews in First Church, Rosemary Street, Belfast:
In Dublin Unitarian Church the numbers are painted and again will date from the opening of the church, in this case in 1863.
You can see the care and precision that has gone into these numbers with their three dimensional gold shields.
All Souls’ Church, Belfast dates from 1896, a building designed by the architect Walter Planck. But the pews are much older and the numbers will be as old as the pews. Again these are brass with the numbers engraved on the surface and picked out in black paint. They still look sharp and clear. The pews in All Souls’ date from 1871. In that year the interior of the Second Congregation, also on Rosemary Street, Belfast, was entirely re-modelled and the box pews replaced with modern open pews, possibly re-using some of the timber from the old pews. This would have been a move as bold and radical in 1871 as a church hauling out its pews today and replacing them with chairs.
The numbers must date from Rosemary Street times because they never were an entirely complete sequence, a tendency which has become more noticeable as more pews have been removed in the last decade.
In all these churches a lot of effort has gone into supplying bespoke numbers for the pews. Times change and their importance has waned but each example speaks to us eloquently of a particular time and place.