The Building of St Paul’s Church, Birmingham in the 1770s

The assigning of sittings and setting of rents

As the day of consecration approached the minds of the trustees will have been focussed on two important issues, one being the method of assigning sittings and the other being the determination of the rent per sitting. It is worth going into this in some detail as no details exist for St Paul’s chapel and it is highly likely that a similar approach was used there. For the sittings the trustees were working to a plan designed by Henry Kempson and they made it quite clear that anyone who had not paid the full amount of their subscription would be excluded from ballots for the sittings. It transpired that a Mrs Elisabeth Walker had made a large donation and so the first decision the trustees made was that Miss Weaman and Mrs Walker would have “Two double seats on each side of the pulpit”, then:- £50 subscribers would have the choice of 8 sittings, or a “compleat seat where they please”. This suggests a pew was 8 sittings. £42(40gns) a complete seat where they please £25 or upwards     7 sittings, followed down by a sliding scale to 2½gns to 5gns     1 sitting. The sittings were to be balloted for over two days, starting with those with 7 sittings, then 6 and so on down to 4 (at10gns) on the first day, and the rest on the second day. The resolution on these proposals was passed on August 29th 1774, five days after the consecration, but they must have been circulated earlier. On the back pages of the Minute Book, which was otherwise only half used, there is “A List of Subscribers taken June 21st 1774”. It does not give names, but the numbers at different subscription levels, and the allocation of sittings. It is not entirely consistent with the authorised scheme, but a number of interesting facts emerge. The donation of Mrs Elisabeth Walker was an impressive £500 and the double seats that she and Mary Weaman were allocated were 10 sittings each. The list shows that 875 sittings were taken up from subscriptions totalling £4175. From the planned 1010 sittings this left 135 not taken up. Another list, again on the back pages, gives subscriptions, and the names of the subscribers, throughout the rest of June and into August for the remaining sittings. At the basic price of 2½gns per sitting, this would yield some £354, making a grand total of about £4530. Some of the subscribers were to make their second, and in one case a third subscription. One notable name on the list, making his second subscription, is Doctor Small, a close friend of Matthew Boulton and member of the Lunar Society, who died some six months later in February 1775. If Miss Weaman and Mrs Walker are excluded, the pattern of individual subscriptions is not dissimilar to the first list of subscribers to the proposed General Hospital in 1765, where Bunce 22 reported that there was no single donation larger than 50 gns and only three between 30 gns and 10 gns. There was an interesting reaction to the sittings scheme in that some people started joining up their subscriptions. Looking at the possibilities in doubling up, the £10-£15 band looks particularly attractive. For example two subscribers of 11gns each, with 4 sittings each could make up a pew of 8 sittings at a cost of 22gns, whereas it needed 40 gns to get a pew directly. Furthermore it would put them at the top of the ballot. The trustees reacted quickly and passed two resolutions, viz., “That no subscribers shall join their subscriptions together without an advancement” and “That any two subscribers of 11 guineas each shall subscribe 4 guineas more if they join”. There were just two subscribers at 11gns. The trustees then had to determine the rents of the sittings. They would need to split the sittings up into areas of different worth, and then assign the annual rent to these areas so that the total amount raised got as close as possible to the maximum allowed in the Act as income for the minister viz., £200 per annum. With around 1000 sittings this would mean an average rent of 4s per annum, so the “better” seats would have to be a bit more, and others less. Two plans were proposed, one by Henry Kempson, whose scheme was used for the sittings, would raise £199-10s from the 1052 sittings, and another, by Elias Wallin, a bucklemaker of 9 New Hall Street, would raise £193-17s. It was resolved by all at the same meeting on August 29th, except Mr Westley, a plumber and glazier of 114 Snow Hill, and Mr Simcox, a bucklemaker in Livery Street, that the Wallin plan should be adopted. Under this the cost per sitting per annum varied between 2s/6d and 4s/6d. As an example the front row of the gallery was 4s/6d per sitting, the second row 3s/6d and the third row 3s/0d. It must have taken quite an effort to work out the detail, and get so close to the maximum. There have been many references in the literature to the purchase of the freehold of the pews, particularly at St Paul’s chapel. As an example, in the book on Matthew Boulton published in association with the 2009 Exhibition 23, there is mention of Boulton and his attendance at St Paul’s church and that “The freehold to his pew would have cost him £5”. We know that although trustees could have subscribed to either chapel or both, there is some continuity across the two chapels, and that Henry Kempson was very involved in the first and deeply involved in the second. There is every reason therefore to suppose that similar systems on sittings and rents would be used in both chapels. To reiterate, the pews and hence all the sittings were vested in the minister. The number of sittings allocated to an individual depended on the amount subscribed, and the money from subscriptions were put towards the cost of the building. Every sitting had an annual rent assigned to it. Any default on payment of the rent led to the loss of the sitting. The Act makes clear that the sitting rights could be passed on. Indeed, there are in the City Archives two certificates of assignment of a sitting in St Paul’s chapel, one for 1791, and one for 1798 24.The former states that “Mr Wm Waight his Heirs or Assigns hath a right to the 5th and 6th Sittings in No38 in the West Gallery in this Chapel”. The system is therefore like leasehold, with a rent payable, but without a fixed period. In the same way as there could be a perpetual advowson or a perpetual patronage, the arrangement on the sittings could be described as a perpetual leasehold, with the rents administered by the trustees, and eventually, the churchwardens. Matthew Boulton could not have bought the freehold, and judging by St Mary’s, a £5 subscription would have got one sitting rather than a pew! According to the Act the sittings could not be re-let for larger sums than was set for them. Presumably they could be re-let for the same sum. Given the distribution of sittings after balloting, it would not be at all surprising if there were a considerable amount of trading to bring families or friends together, or apart, or to get better sittings. If, for whatever reason, a sitting or sittings became vacant, any intended occupier would presumably have to pay to the trustees the cost of the original subscription. The Minute Book carries a statement that “In consideration of the great pain Mr H Kempson has taken to serve this undertaking he shall have a whole seat No 44 on the North Aisle”. The number of people subscribing £30 or more purely to St Mary’s, and becoming trustees, is ten. A rather different pattern develops at St Paul’s.

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