I am currently reading The Warden by Anthony Trollope-- a novel published in 1855 (and set at that time, as well). In the chapter I'm on now, the protagonist (a clergyman) finds himself having to spend a day alone in London, since he wants to avoid meeting anybody before an important appointment that night, and decides to pass some time in Westminster Abbey.
"He determined to take sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, so he again went thither in an omnibus, and finding that the doors were not open for morning service, he paid his two-pence and went in as a sightseer...
[When it comes to the time for service, he is shown to the choir by a verger.]
"By degrees two or three people entered; the very same damp old woman who had nearly obliterated him in the omnibus, or some other just like her; a couple of young ladies with their veils down, and gilt crosses conspicuous on their prayer-books; and old man on crutches; a party who were seeing the Abbey, and thought they might as well hear the service for their twopence, as opportunity served...
[The visiting clergyman forms a poor judgement of the service, as compared to those in his own cathedral. The author defends it:] "It appears to us a question whether any clergyman can go through our church service with decorum, morning after morning, in an immense building, surrounded by not more than a dozen listeners."
So it seems from this that, even at the height of the Victorian era, there were often only a scanty few worshippers in England's great Protestant cathedrals (though apparently Westminster Abbey is not a cathedral per se). It also shows that, even then, charging a fee to enter a place of worship was (at least) not unknown. The price of entry to Westminster Abbey has gone up sharply since 1855, though-- today it's a hair-raising eighteen pounds (almost thirty American dollars). If you are attending a religious service, however, it is free.
The whole subject of paying in to cathedrals is a rather vexed one. It has been condemned in articles like this one and this one. (The second was written by a radical left-wing Christian who, at one point demanded that liturgy be replaced by "'post-ecclesial' Christianity, in which anarchic public festivity replaces institutional worship". Perversely, the author-- who demanded, and eventually got, free entry to the Abbey as a Christian who wanted to pray-- has now rejected the Church of England for all the usual sex-related reasons, yet in the article he praises the Catholic Church for keeping Westminster Cathedral free of charge, and even suggests that it gave him "a little tug Romewards". Oh the irony!)
Defenders of paying in to cathedrals, and to historic churches, point out that they have to be maintained somehow, and that people who are just gawking should be asked to pay. I take their point but it still seems unsatisfatory.
This is part of the reason that I prefer plain and humble churches, and also part of the reason that (to be frank) I don't like cathedrals. I always feel, when I enter a cathedral or a very splendid church, that I am under suspicion of being a gawker. I understand why Philip Larkin's famous poem "Church Going", which describes the atheist author's habit of visiting churches, begins with the line "Once I am sure there's nothing going on..."
The first church I ever entered with my fianceé Michelle was actually Westminster (Catholic) Cathedral. We didn't even realize it was the mother church of all England and Wales; it was simply the nearest church. Nobody asked us for money. We went back there to attend Mass twice, the second time (as far as I can remember) being the Mass of the Epiphany. There were people of all different races and cultures there, some of them in national dress, and one of the readings was in German. I've never felt such a strong, tangible sense of the universal Church. It was well-attended and seemed full of life and energy and presence.
We never stepped foot in Westminster Abbey, by contrast. We were reluctant to cough up the entrance fee (more through lack of funds than on principle) and we kept missing the service times. In the end, we only ever went into the gift-shop.
But even from the outside, Westminster Abbey, for all its grandeur, seemed sad and gloomy and derelict to me, a relic of the past.
But then again, it wasn't just Westminster Abbey that seemed like that. At the risk of offending any London readers, I have to admit that the entire city seemed to me like a new England built upon the ruins of an older (and more serious-minded) one. All the historical and religious buildings, all of the war monuments, even the street-names seemed utterly irrelevant to the actual life of the metropolis; the shoppers, commuters, tourists, neon signs, tacky advertisements, and the general sense of banality in the shadow of former grandeur. This impression was so strung that it clung to me for days after I flew home.