Monday, March 14, 2011

Church Kneelers : a source of local and family history.

Church Kneelers - an overlooked source of local and family history?

How often have you visited a church and admired the architecture, beautiful stained glass windows or perhaps artworks within? If you are a family historian, then your journey will have taken you to many churches, possibly in pursuit of a grave or just a glimpse of where an ancestor was married. Have you, however, taken much notice of the church kneelers that may be there?

I have a particular interest in church history as my great great grandfather, John Morrison was quite a reknowned builder of churches in the Gothic style of architecture, in Sydney in the late 1800's.

It is always exciting for a family historian to see a photograph of the church where his or her parents, grandparents or great great great grandparents were married. There is a real sense of connection with ancestors when I see a concrete connection, the actual church where a forebears was married or baptised, in some cases, centuries ago. I always spend some time researching the history of the churches connected to my ancestors, where they were christened or married and in some instances, where they were were ministers, choirmasters and members of the congregation. My husband has an entire chapel in Kent dedicated to a female ancestor by her affluent husband. There are so many ways in which churches and their records are an important resource. Parish record, a well known source of valuable information, provide dates for baptisms, marriages, deaths and often the names and dwelling place of a further generation. Churches can tell us much about the local communities in which our forebears lived and about their lives as well. My own ancestors have been married in modest timber or stone churches in rural farming communities, chapels and larger imposing churches and churches of many denominations. There is nothing so moving as standing in a church where a forebear was once christened or married. Until recently, there was something of great relevance within these churches, which I had overlooked: Church Kneelers.

Until I read an article in a recent Country Life magazine, I had never given much thought to church kneelers, ( the pads or cushions on which one kneels in prayer ), as a source of local, family history. Kneelers have been used in many churches for centuries and many are hand woven, cross stich, long stich or tapestry, works of religious and folk art. There has been a move in the UK to form a register of church kneelers with photographs of them to be kept as a record of their important role in church and local histories. In many churches, volunteers are recording the local and family history of the church community in the new cross stitch or tapestry kneelers being sewn to replace old tired ones. Church kneelers, as well as depicting religious themes, can be a valuable source of local information which contain names, dates, local events, family or royal crests, village buildings, village and rural life, dates and information about battles fought and heroic heroic deeds performed. Some are dedications to individuals or groups or are dedicated to deceased family or community members. Kneelers may be a rich source of information unable to be found elsewhere. In some churches, the kneeler covers are of a religious theme, depicting well known Biblical stories such as Noah's Ark, however in a significant number of church communities where kneelers are used, the pictorial narratives which the kneelers provide, may go back to ancestors in the time of William the Conqueror.

My daughter was married two years ago in a Naval Chapel overlooking Sydney Harbour. I recall admiring the kneeling cushions, which were displayed on the pews, when we visited the Chapel prior to the wedding. Beyond the fact that the colourful display of bright kneelers greatly enhanced the beautiful interior of this 1960's chapel, I took little notice of their designs. (Wedding preparations tend to preoccupy everyone to the exclusion of noticing details of even the most colourful church kneelers).

Since reading about kneelers in the magazine article, I have looked into the significance of the chapel kneelers in the Naval Chapel. The beautiful tapestry covers were lovingly made by wives, mothers and daughters of Naval Officers. Onto each kneeler cover these women have woven in coloured cross stitch, the names and badges of ships of the Royal Australian Navy. These wonderful kneeler cushions are a pictorial narrative of Australian naval history and if I have another opportunity to visit the chapel, I will certainly soak up some of that history more attentively.

My own Kneeler Cushion

Before I was married, my grandmother gave me a small gold satin cushion. She explained that it had been used by several generations of women in her family in Northern Ireland and by herself, to kneel on as part of their marriage ceremonies. The cushion was hand sewn and adorned with patterns of beautiful beading. Not all churches make use of kneelers and since my own church where I was married was quite new and had abandoned the tradition of using kneelers for even for ceremonial purposes, I decided to follow my family tradition and use my grandmother's Irish kneeler as part of my wedding. My kneeler doesn't tell a story through a picture woven into its cover, nor are there names or dates embroidered on it but it is a significant part of my own family history and of church practice. I now plan to have the names and dates of marriage of the women in my family who knelt on this beautiful kneeler, embroidered on it. Unfortunately at the time of my eldest daughter's marriage I had not thought of using my kneeler but will most likely add her name to it anyway along with those of her sisters who are now very excited at having a family kneeler to use at their weddings. My kneeler will show the following:

Sarah Jane Clarke and Joseph Shaw Thompson: 1856

Sarah Thompson and Hugh Eston White: 1896

Jemima Florence White and Colin Hamilton MacDade: 1930

I will add myself, a MacDade and my daughters (who coincidentally, like their great grandmother have the surname White). The kneeler is packed away right now but as soon as I unpack it I will add a photograph of it to this blog post.

From the article which I read in the December, 29 Issue of Country Life I have learned that in England, St Edmund Church in Southwold possesses more than 300 beautiful kneelers and other churches which are worth visiting for their wonderful kneelers are, St Bartholemew, Chipping, Lancashire and St Andrew's. Much Hadham, Hertfordshire.[1]

As for myself, I will be paying much more attention to church kneelers as a wealth of history both local and family. For information on how to help register, repair or make church kneelers, visit the website below. Kits and books on how to make kneelers can be purchased also, if you are interested in making your own kneeler or your church needs new ones. These are easily found by googling 'Church Kneeler Kits.'


Two of the kneelers in the Naval Chapel

Photograph of the Naval Chapel taken from the cover of the RAN Chapel information booklet.

Photographs of the kneelers taken by R White.


  1. Sharn, What a unique and interesting post. It's amazing what items can be used as ources in genealogy. Your post would make a wonderful article for a genealogy magazine.

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  3. I enjoyed this post very much. There is a registry of kneelers at Boston's Trinity Church, in Massachusetts. Some have their English coats of arms or family trees on them. Nearly all have a signature or name sewn on them. I saw kneelers at the National Cathedral in Washington DC and at St. John the Divine in NYC, but didn't think to ask if there was a registry. Lots of family history!

  4. I think it's common for people to admire the architectural design of any establishments, though churches showcase some of the most magnificent designs of all. I admire their structural designs as much as their enormous stained glasses. The peace and order inside churches, with its pristine pews, altars, and kneelers, are compared to none. Like you, I believe they hold history worth preserving. Earnestine Kettering