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Pew-openers?

by
12 October 2012

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I have seen references to people known as pew-openers. Who were they? When did they exist, and what did they do? Is it just another name for a sidesman?

Recently discovered records of All Saints', Ennismore Gardens, in London, include receipts for pew-openers (all women) in the 1850s and 1860s; they were paid £1 per quarter (comparable payments were 5s. per quarter for the organ blower and £12 10s. for the organist). One pew-opener was also "vestry-woman", and she received £2 per quarter. The rate of pay did not increase between 1852 and 1868.

There is further information on pew-openers in an unpublished Ph.D. thesis by John Charles Bennett, "The English Anglican Practice of Pew Renting, 1800-1960", (University of Birmingham 2011), which can be found at http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/2864/.

This features anecdotal evidence of tipping that gave rise, early in the 20th century, to the expression "pew-opener's muscle" - a muscle in the palm of the hand - because it helps to contract and hollow the palm for the reception of a gratuity (pages 190-191).

Pew-renting, as the title of the thesis indicates, had died out by 1960; but a note in the parish magazine started by the new Vicar of Holy Trinity, Prince Consort Road, Douglas Cleverly Ford, in the mid-1950s, urges seat-holders to take their seats by 10.55, as otherwise they would be given to all comers.

(The Revd) Peter Kettle (Hon. Curate of Holy Trinity with All Saints', South Kensington)
London SW19

In Dombey & Son, Charles Dickens introduces his readers to Mrs Miff, a wheezy little pew-opener.

"A vinegary face has Mrs Miff, and a mortified bonnet, and eke a thirsty soul for sixpences and shillings. Beckoning to stray people to come into pews has given Mrs Miff an air of mystery; and there is reservation in the eye of Mrs Miff, as always knowing of a softer seat, but having her suspicions of the fee. There is no such fact as Mr Miff, nor has there been these twenty years, and Mrs Miff would rather not allude to him. He held some opin­ions, it would seem, about free seats; and though Mrs Miff hopes he may have gone upwards, she couldn't positively undertake to say so."

St Martin-in-the-Fields still has a bench, at the rear of the church, reserved for the use of the pew-opener. Perhaps the late Mrs Miff once occupied it.

David Turner
Hitcham, Suffolk

According to the chapter on pew-openers in the thesis referred to already (pages 190-195), in the days of pew-renting, pew-openers, who were generally women and often elderly, had to know who the pew-owners, -renters, and -holders were. They opened the locking pews, and also often chose seats for worship­pers who had not been allocated pews. Some were assigned other duties such as attending on the clergyman during services, cleaning the church on Saturdays, letting visitors in during the week, and washing surplices. Editor

Your questions

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