I have recently visited two Devon churches where the bench ends have been preserved in very different ways, the Church of St. Eustachius, Tavistock, and the Church of St. Martin and St. Mary, Chudleigh. The churches and the towns they reside in share a number of similarities: both are medium-sized market towns situated on the edge of Dartmoor, Tavistock on the western edge and Chudleigh on the Eastern; both are fairly large medieval parish churches with 14th century elements, ‘improved’ in the Victorian era; and both churches share a town-centre location.
At Tavistock a number of old bench ends survived into the 19th century when the church was reseated and, according to an 1843 report by the Exeter Diocesian Architectural Society, the new seats were modelled ‘after the pattern of one end found amongst the old pews.’ Only two of the old bench ends now survive, displayed at the West end of the North aisle.
The two historic bench ends at Tavistock
However, the fact that we know the Victorian bench ends which fill the church were modelled on one of the other surviving examples means that we can still see today what the others may have looked like.
It is impossible to tell whether the Gothic tracery which was copied for Tavistock’s new bench ends was typical of the old, but the presence of tracery at nearby Bere Ferrers, hints at the possibility of a regional style.
Meanwhile, there is little question of the bench ends at Chudleigh being in the form of a regional style, for similar bench ends to Chudleigh’s can be seen in more than a dozen other churches in the Teign valley region and the Eastern edge of Dartmoor.
When bench end hunting I quite often meet a church warden. On the whole church wardens are helpful, interesting, and friendly, so when a gentleman in Chudleigh church came and said hello with a helpful-looking smile I assumed he was one of the wardens. Actually I was mistaken, it was the vicar himself who also happened to be an archaeologist, and therefore just the fellow to engage with about the bench ends.
The Church of St. Martin and St. Mary was extensively ‘restored’ in the 1840s, and most of the seating in the church dates from that time. However, towards the front of the nave a number of historic bench ends have been incorporated into the Victorian seats. For a long time it was assumed that they had been built into the seats by the Victorian ‘restorers,’ but an early 20th century photo of the church interior shows uniform seating throughout with no sign of the historic bench ends. The bench ends were therefore kept and preserved by persons unknown and at some point before the 1970s, by which time they were definitely back in the church, were reinstalled.
In many churches bench ends have been lost in the name of improvement, and there is a dilemma facing many church wardens: on the one hand the historic fabric of a church is obviously of great significance to the building itself and to the community it serves, but on the other hand churches are not museums, they are living and active places of worship and must adapt to suit the changing mores of the times. On the whole the officials of most churches tend to be fond of their carved bench ends if they have them, but one church warden I met in Devon (I won’t say in which church) told me that he was disappointed to have been overruled by the parish council in his proposal to rip the sixteenth century benches out and replace them with stackable chairs. I did briefly consider the likelihood of my getting away with his murder, but there were no convenient open graves in the church yard that day so I generously let him live and contented myself with leaving a pointed note about the wonderful bench ends in the Visitors’ Book.
Chudleigh is no different inasmuch as the layout of the church was not well-suited to several of the community activities that take place in the building, and the decision was therefore taken to remove some of the pews from the front of the church to create a larger open space. Some of the pews to be removed were those with historic bench ends. The vicar-archaeologist, however, was at pains to explain to me how the historic bench ends would be moved onto other pews, thus preserving the bench ends in the church. He asked me to make it clear if I wrote about the church that the historic bench ends were not being discarded, so I have. I was lucky enough to visit on a day when some of the work was being carried out, and had the opportunity to look at some of the bench ends detached from their pews and awaiting re-erection.
I was also invited up to the gallery at the West end of the church to view two bench ends which were normally locked in storage while they awaited their re-erection, from where I also got an excellent view of the work being carried out on the benches in the nave. Having visited several churches where the bench ends have fallen victim to neglect, and at least one where they are under direct threat from the officials of the church itself, it was refreshing indeed to meet a vicar so keen to see them actively preserved, and able to do so while also maintaining his church as a functioning centre of the community.