The bitter 18th Century court battle over a pew with a view

Take a pew: Croydon Parish Church in the early 19th Century. Sunday seating positions were an important measure of social status 200 years ago

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: A dispute over where families sat in church was a courtroom cause célèbre in the 1830s, as DAVID MORGAN has discovered

Whether you are looking to buy or rent, you will be keen to check out the special features advertised for the property. It might be the view from a 20th-floor apartment, it might be an off-road parking space, it could be a garden or a fabulous kitchen.

Back in 1832, one special feature advertised to go with a property in Croydon was the sole use for the owner and their family of a pew in the Parish Church. The pew was up in the gallery and had its own lock and key.

But a dispute over the use of that pew couldn’t be resolved and ended up in the Court of Arches.

This Court is still in existence today. It is an Ecclesiastical Court of the Church of England covering the Province of Canterbury. The record of this court case about the disputed pew provides valuable information about the history of Croydon Parish Church, what we know today as Croydon Minster.

Signed, sealed and delivered: Mr Usborne’s signature

Information was provided to the court which went all the way back more than 100 years to 1725. What was laid out in the court documents might remind some of a particularly fractious, sometimes absurd chapter from the Barchester Chronicles.

Because the population of Croydon was rising rapidly in the early 18th century, the church decided to construct a gallery in order to increase its seating capacity. A special appeal for funds was launched. People who donated to the project were assigned their own pew in the gallery.

Donors were granted a faculty that was to last for 99 years, rather like a leasehold on a property. Within that arrangement, the pew owner also had the power to nominate other parishioners the right to use it if they were not going to be in church on a particular Sunday.

It was not stated in court who had originally put up the money for the new gallery pew. However, with only nine years left on the long-term arrangement, the pew was sold.

In 1816, a Mr Long, the then owner, was paid 60 guineas for the pew by a Mr Haines.

For the next 14 years, Mr Haines occupied the pew, with the original 99-year lease finishing in 1826, some four years before his death in 1830.

On his death, Haines’ house was put up for sale by auction. It was sold to Mr Harman, with the churchwardens agreeing that the pew should go with the house, which was at that time undergoing repairs. Mr Harman was planning to rent out his new property once the repairs were completed.

Hot ticket: the demand for seats in Croydon Parish Church was rapidly increasing in the 1830s

The auctioneer who was dealing with the sale was Mr Blake, a well-known Croydon figure of the day. His view was that the value of the property would be increased if the pew was offered as part of the sale and so proceeded on that basis.

With no tenant in the house while the repairs were being completed, auctioneer Blake, his mother and family, were given permission by the churchwardens to use the pew.

However, there were many parishioners trying to obtain their own pew at this time and many had tried unsuccessfully to purchase their own, especially upstairs in the gallery which was the area where the most well-to-do parishioners liked to sit.

Now while Harman was the successful bidder in the auction of Haines’ house, and its associated rights to the church pew, he already owned one pew in the church. He wouldn’t need two!

One of the churchwardens spoke to him about the situation and reported back that Mr Harman was going to choose which of the two pews he wished to sit in.

A second twist in this tale concerned a decision made by Mr Thomas Usborne.

He was a respected businessman whose company traded in corn. In records from 1829, his offices were listed as 60 Mark Lane, in the City of London, and in the Corn Exchange itself.

Usborne had lived with his first wife in Croydon from 1799 until 1803. With his business flourishing and with an ample bank balance, in 1830 Usborne returned to live in Croydon with the purchase of Oak Lodge.

See you in court: how the pew dispute ended up as a law case

Despite his obvious wealth, his newly acquired grand house and apparent social status, Usborne was unable to acquire a pew in the church.

Even when pews seemed to be unoccupied, Usborne couldn’t purchase them because of this old faculty of ownership which the churchwardens wouldn’t overturn. However, with Mr Haines dead and with Mr Harman already having a pew, Usborne seized upon an idea. He would claim the vacant pew for himself and his family.

On Sunday April 17, 1831 Usborne went and sat in that pew. It was an early Victorian version of squatter’s rights. When Mr Blake arrived for the service, he and his family were unable to take their seats. You can imagine the polite indignation that must have ensued.

It is amazing to think that a squabble over who sits where in a church could end up in the courts. Mr Blake took exception to Mr Usborne’s behaviour and, although several letters passed between them, no resolution could be found.

The content of the letters revealed the turn of events.

On May 8, Usborne tried to enter the pew but on finding the door locked used “some angry expressions”! Good heavens!

Auctioned off: Jon Blake’s will. The court ruled the auctioneer did not have the authority to include the pew with a house sale

On May 15, Usborne again turned up and before the service and this time he climbed over the wooden exterior and into the pew. The churchwardens tried to find a compromise, offering Usborne the use of a part of another pew. This was rejected.

On May 22, before the morning service, Usborne again climbed into the pew. Even worse was to happen before the evening service: this time, Usborne “forced the lock” on the pew to get in.

Matters must have been quite tense for the congregation.

The court hearing was nowhere near as entertaining. It was ruled that “the whole proceeding originated in an error of law”. Although Mr Usborne acted “irrationally”, Mr Blake “did more than he could legally do” in offering the pew with the house.

The court awarded £15 – about £1,800 today – as “nomine expensarum” against Mr Blake with the explanation that the legal team should have understood the law and not brought the case. If the churchwardens had made an error in their decision-making as to who sat where, for they had that power, then it should have been to the ordinary that any appeal should have been made. The ordinary in this case meant the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Patron of the Croydon Church.

After the court case, life in the church returned to more usual routines. John Blake continued in his role as chief auctioneer in Croydon. He lived at 65 Park Lane and after his death in 1852, aged 72, his nephew inherited much of his estate. At one time Blake owned the High Street Mill in Carshalton. He was much loved in the local area for his benevolence and he sat as a trustee on the Archbishop Tenison’s Charity. Blake Road in Croydon is probably named after him.

Thomas Usborne died, aged 66, in 1836 at his home in Croydon. His son, Major ( that really was his given name) was married in the church to Elizabeth Stenning of Godstone.

He carried on the family corn merchant business. Although the firm went under following the dramatic slump in the price of corn in the summer of 1847, they were up and trading again soon after and by 1854 were solidly re-established. The company in one form or another continued to trade until April 1997 when Usborne Grain, the agricultural merchant, was acquired by Sidney C Banks plc for £4million.

When Croydon Parish Church was rebuilt after the fire of 1869, the idea of families owning pews had gone. No more could there be a dispute of this kind. Not that that has ever stopped some church-goers since assuming that they had some divine right to a particular seat in the congregation, and heaven help the person who sat in Mrs So-and-So’s favourite place, who was fixed by a terrible stare for the length of the service…

Previously by David Morgan:

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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2 Responses to The bitter 18th Century court battle over a pew with a view

  1. Grace Onions says:

    Very interesting.

    In Ireland in the 1970’s in our Church of Ireland cathedral (in the middle of nowhere), families still had their own pews. We as terrified children were sent to church on our own – Mum reckoned that God could visit her any time at home and chose to have a lie-in on a Sunday morning and Dad usually worked. I was about 12 and my sister 10. Trying to find the family pew was our nightmare – you knew that everyone was watching you, especially coming in without adults. We got to know it eventually, sometimes with the help of a kindly finger pointing it out. Did we have collection money – of course not, more embarrassment. Needless to say, we were the first to make a break for it through the 16th century doorway that we somehow didn’t fully appreciate ……

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