A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Take a seat

This week Neil Pickford tells the surprising story behind one of the ordinary objects in Beverley Minster.
This blog sees me taking a break from my always-fascinating descriptions of moving furniture around in the Minster to focus on one specific item: to whit, a chair.
We’ve actually got two exceptionally interesting repositories for bottoms in the church and I’ll tell you about the other one another time – possibly next week if I haven’t thought up a good alternative subject by then.
If (no, not if, WHEN) you go into Beverley Minster you will probably be overwhelmed by the sights in front of you. Most first time visitors come through the door and then stare, open-mouthed, at the huge space that surrounds them, unable to take in any details.
Even when you’ve been there for a long time it’s still possible to overlook some fairly major items, such as our leaning pillar (seriously – its angle takes it into Tower of Pisa territory). So what’s so special about a chair?
Well, the one that rests on the corner of the North Aisle and North Transept (behind the pulpit) deserves appreciation because it once belonged to the fattest vicar in England.
At first glance it looks like a normal large wooden chair and if you sit in it you’ll find it’s surprisingly comfortable. During Sunday morning services, once I’ve left my pew on the other side of the choir to lead or ‘virge’ the preacher into the pulpit, it’s normally where I rest while the sermon is delivered.
In fact it’s so comfortable that sometimes I feel my attention wandering….. no, no I don’t. Honestly, I’m always alert and listening.
Anyway, once you’ve sat in the chair you notice how large it is. I’m just under 16 stone (hooray, my alcohol-free diet is starting to work at last) and yet I rattle around between the armrests like an anorexic in Fern Britton’s old dresses.
We call it the Coltman chair.
The good and (literally) great Revd Coltman was minister in Beverley from 1813 to 1837 and, at the time of his death aged 60, he weighed 35 stone (that’s 222 kilograms for all you metric youngsters out there). Apparently he must have been on a diet – his maximum weight is reported to have been 42 stone or 266 kg.
From the age of 21 his body weight was too much for his legs to bear and so he went everywhere supported by a velocipede, an old-fashioned bicycle without chains or pedals.
Money was no object – his family owned the land between Anlaby and Hessle Roads that became Coltman Street in Hull – and he used much of this money to finance the Minster schools that had been founded by a previous vicar.
He was also, apparently, a much-loved preacher.
Near his chair is a heavily-reinforced pulpit which dates back to 1826. If this is the very one from which he delivered his sermons then I can only wonder how the long-suffering virgers were able to push him up a ramp – on his velocipede, remember – and into position. Sometimes I’m darn glad I’m a virger in the 21st century, not the 19th.
He died by accident one night when a servant, who was charged with making sure he lay on his side when dozing, fell asleep, allowing him to roll onto his back and choke.
After his death a newspaper dated 24th June 1837 commented: “ Of a truth then, it may be said, a great man has fallen in Beverley. Mr. COLTMAN’s funeral took place yesterday morning about eleven o’clock. All the shops and almost every house had their windows closed till the conclusion of the ceremony.”
I feel an affinity with the Revd Coltman, and not just because of his size. Perhaps it’s because we also share a birthday – September 8th, thanks for asking.  I’ll be sure to remind you of this fact nearer the date.
Sadly there weren’t another two seats made to complete a set because then, of course, we would have had: “three chairs for the Revd Coltman.”
I’m sorry but I couldn’t resist that one, I’ll get my coat.
First published June 2009

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