Hunting Bench Ends

I’ve been asked a few times about finding bench ends, so I thought I’d add a beginners’ guide.

Step 1. Find a church containing bench ends.
There are lots of good reasons to trawl round churches looking for bench ends, foremost among which is that even if you don’t find bench ends you might find other interesting things: monuments to local families, gravestones or memorial slabs with amusing texts, effigies, some interesting heraldry, or medieval stained glass. My other quirky interest (ok, one of my other quirky interests) is historic graffiti, and I’ve found some of the best examples while I’ve been hunting for bench ends.

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Elizabethan graffito in the porch at Swell, Somerset.

Of course, if you want to skip the actual hunting stage, and you’re looking for bench ends in the West Country, this site includes what I believe to be complete lists of churches containing historic bench ends for the counties of CornwallDevonDorset, and Somerset.

Step 2. Find the bench ends.
Most of the time, once you’ve identified a church containing bench ends, you’ll find the bench ends exactly where you’d expect them to be – on the ends of the benches.

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Bench ends at Mullion, Cornwall, exactly where they should be.

Sometimes, however, all or part of the seating has been replaced at some point in the past, and the bench ends have been either reused in other items of church furniture, or have been preserved and displayed elsewhere in the church. If you have reason to believe that a particular church contains bench ends, but you enter to find some vile pine pews from the 1930s, or worse, stackable chairs, it’s worth having a good hunt around.

Bench ends reused in the pulpit at Golant, Cornwall, and the parclose door at Kenton, Devon.

Bench ends displayed around the church walls at Lifton, Devon, and Bishop’s Lydeard, Somerset.

In fact, even when you find bench ends on the ends of benches, it’s still a good idea to hunt around for more. Sometimes you’ll find them on the ends of benches and in other places around the church, as at Bishop’s Lydeard, above. They aren’t always easy to find. At Landulph in Cornwall (possibly my favourite bench-endy church so far, by the way) most are on the ends of benches, but a few are scattered around the church, tucked in corners and hidden away. You might have to get a little adventurous and carefully move things out of the way to reach them.

Excess benches stacked in the corner, and a bench end with another loose one visible behind it. Landulph, Cornwall.

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I had to blow the cobwebs off this one, Landulph, Cornwall.

Step 3. Discern the old from the new.

Many historic bench ends have been replaced or augmented by newer ones, carved in the Victorian era or more recently still. There is no simple and certain way to tell the Tudor from the modern, but it doesn’t take much experience to begin to get a feel for the differences between them. There is no method in which I can instruct you by which you might be able to identify the age of a bench end, the only thing for it is to get out and look at them. You’ll soon see the differences for yourself and you’ll understand what I mean. There are a few telltale signs which can help, but don’t imagine they are hard-and-fast rules. One giveaway, especially when old and new are mixed together is the amount of wear and weathering. Another, again when old and new are found in the same church, is the colour of the wood – usually, though by no means always, the lighter-coloured examples are newer than the darker ones. Whether old or new, the craftsmen who made (and indeed make) bench ends were experts, but modern examples have a level of refinement and uniformity which is generally not present  in the older examples.  A few examples might help you see what I mean.

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Old (left) and new (right) side by side at St. Keverne, Cornwall

Old (left) and new (right) featuring the same design, Cothelstone, Somerset

Step 4. Do your bit.
Churches cost a lot of money to keep up. Once the electric bills and insurance are paid, the roof repaired, the organ kept in working order, there’s not always a lot of money left over to spend on bench ends. So if you’ve visited a church and enjoyed the bench ends, buy the guidebook if there is one, put some money in the donations tin. But there is something else you can do too (and credit for the idea goes to Todd Gray), let the church wardens know that their bench ends are valued by writing in the visitors’ book:

Thank you for taking care of your historic bench ends.

Step 5. Help this site.
The lists I mentioned at the beginning of this article contain the names of 352 churches, spread across four counties, where I think or know historic bench ends have been preserved. In the fullness of time I will visit every one of them myself and photograph every single one of the several thousand bench ends they contain, and I will upload those photos to create a library which is, and will always be, free for everyone. However, that’s going to take me a long time, so in the meantime I would be very happy to host photos taken by other people willing to contribute to the library. So, if you visit a church I haven’t yet been to myself with your camera,  get in contact and send me your photos.

Beggars shouldn’t be choosers, but ideally I would like each bench end contained in a single photo rather than photos with several bench ends, and the bench end should take up most of the photo. There are no requirements for a particular image resolution, though the higher the resolution the better. The most important thing is that if you send images for inclusion in the library please ensure that you can send me a photo of every historic bench end present, not just the ones you think are most interesting.

Happy bench-ending!

 

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