A Victorian Puzzle: Westminster Abbey for whom?

A puzzle for untangling, suggestions extremely welcome.

On 2 January 1858, the Illustrated London News reported that ‘Great exertions have been made’ at Westminster Abbey, ‘to adapt the nave…to the purpose of popular worship’.

As the Abbey had been a place of worship for 1,000 years, this at first (and second and third) seems startling.

I wondered if it meant simply improving access, but the article continued:  ‘Within the gates a kind of lobby has been constructed, with double doors, in order to exclude draughts. Gas pipes are laid on both sides of the nave — the burners being supported on standards of iron and brass…The stone floor is covered with cocoanut matting…’ So the suggestion is that standards have changed, and without lighting, and attempts to warm the interior, it was no longer considered suitable.

But then, the following week, it continued, ‘In accordance with previous announcement, Westminster Abbey was opened on Sunday evening last for evening service’; half an hour before the service began, nearly 2,000 people were waiting, and the congregation ultimately numbered 3,000.  The following week these arrangements are specifically described as ‘special services for the working classes’.

I am left with questions. 1) Does this mean that previously all seating in the Abbey was by subscription, or paid for on the day? or 2) were the working-classes just tacitly banned from the services beforehand? And, whatever the answers to 1) and 2) I find it difficult to believe that 3) without draught-excluders, matting and gas-lighting, the middle- and upper-classes attended, but the working classes wouldn’t come.

So what is going on here (she cries, throwing up her hands)?


  1. carol jones/liverpoolloon

    March 23, 2011 - 5:26 pm

    i would say the reason being that the working classes would mostly be in service and that sunday and in particular the evening would be the only time most of them could attend outside of their duties, a lot of establishments only gave half days even on sunday and they would finish working at noon, religion held great sway in victorian times and it would have been unthinkeable not to attend ergo evenign service sunday would be predominantly working classes

  2. carol jones/liverpoolloon

    March 23, 2011 - 5:28 pm

    the working classes would mostly be employed as servants in victorian times, they might have a day or a half day off on sundays so sunday evening church servicesa would be the only time they could attend, as the victorian swere so religious it would have been socially unthinkeable not to attend even when time off was precious and scant, so i guess sunday evenings services would be predominantly working class

  3. carol jones/liverpoolloon

    March 23, 2011 - 5:34 pm

    also in conjunction with that the working classes would be turning out for these services in the dark & cold in all weathers and possibly not well dressed and it may have been noticed and felt that it was a christian endeavour on the part of the abbey to make the conditions inside the abbey warm & hospitable for the cold or wet poorly clad working classes, the rich and middle classes would arrive by carriage warmly dressed and would not specifically notice or require extra heating etc

  4. Amateur Casual

    March 23, 2011 - 6:07 pm

    A difficult one indeed, but could this be something to do with wanting to make church services more appealing in the face of dwindling attendance?

    Just a thought…

  5. MJ

    March 24, 2011 - 11:46 am

    There is also “Westminster Abbey Sermons for the Working Classes,” published in 1858 (available online via Google Books). It seems to have arisen from a conviction that the working classes were not adequately provided for in conventional houses of worship. If you look at the Annual Register vol. 99, p. 219, also on Google Books, you get some background: “…a Bill was laid on the table of the House of Lords at this time by the Earl of Shaftesbury. A strong sense of the inadequacy of the means afforded to the poorer classes of attending the public service of the Church had induced some influential persons, both lay and clerical, in the early part of the present year [1857], to organize a special service on Sunday evenings at Exeter Hall….” Later the permission to use Exeter Hall is revoked and there’s argument about whether the attendees were sufficiently working class, but the Earl of Shaftesbury continues the effort and tries to get the venue changed… Anyway, there’s a start.

  6. MJ

    March 24, 2011 - 11:55 am

    Can’t help but add one witness: “The Westminster Abbey services have been well attended; but whether those for whose benefit the services were established we are not so sure; at all events we may hope that by keeping up the evening service, those who go either from novelty or curiosity will at last give place to the poor, and the lower middle, and working classes. We sincerely trust that the sight of such a goodly crowd in the open nave of the abbey will induce those preachers who have large parish churches full of high pews to try and make their own churches somewhat more attainable by, and inviting to, the working classes. There is no manner of doubt that not only our cold formal monotonous services, but also the very fittings and internal arrangements of our large city and other churches have repulsed the poor….” The Churchman’s Companion vol. 23 (1858), p. 159.