A brief introduction to Quakers

Quakers have their origins in the religious and political turmoil of the mid-17th century.

George Fox, the main protagonist of the movement, turned his back on the Established Church, claiming that as each person can have a direct relationship with God, there was no need for priests or churches (‘steeple houses’, as Fox called them).

Instead ‘Friends’ met together for silent worship in all kinds of venues, including barns, orchards, hilltops and each other’s homes. Intolerance and persecution were constant threats to their ability to meet and Quaker worship was forbidden by law until the 1689 Act of Toleration. The gradual acceptance of different faiths in the later 17th century enabled Quakers, and other so-called nonconformists, to build their own places of worship.

The earliest Quaker meeting houses were distinctive for their simple, functional design. Built by local craftsmen, they sit modestly in the landscape.

Today there are 475 Quaker meetings (congregations) in England, Wales and Scotland.  Of these 354 have a dedicated meeting house. Local context and national trends have continued to influence Quaker buildings. Here are 6 Quaker meeting houses and the stories behind them:

1. Brigflatts meeting house, Cumbria. Grade I listed

Briggflatts Quaker Meeting House, Sedburgh c Historic England DP143728
Briggflatts Quaker Meeting House, Sedburgh © Historic England DP143728

Brigflatts (1675), on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, is associated with visits to the area by George Fox. Listed Grade I, it is the earliest purpose-built meeting house in the north of England.

Its construction is typical of late-17th century vernacular and it still has many of its historic fittings. It is surrounded by a burial ground, which has been in continuous use since 1656 and where poet Basil Bunting is buried. There is also a garden, paddock, warden’s house, a little-altered gig house and stable with classroom (listed at Grade II).

Briggflatts Quaker Meeting House INTERIOR , Sedburgh c Historic England DP143728
Briggflatts Quaker Meeting House Interior , Sedburgh © Historic England DP143728

The interior still has a wealth of oak fittings, including a minister’s stand (a raised area on one side of the Meeting House where Quakers travelling in the ministry would have sat), fixed benches, a wide staircase (with dog gate), raised galleries on three sides and an Elders bench. Elders are regularly appointed individuals responsible for the spiritual life of the meeting.

2. Rawdon Meeting House, Leeds. Grade II listed 

Friends_House_Rawdon_11_May_2017 via wikipedia
Friends House Rawdon, via wikipedia

Rawdon meeting house has been in continuous use since its construction in 1697, although the meeting of Quakers in this locality predates this, beginning under the name the Guiseley meeting in 1655. The name change can be associated with the move from using local Quaker’s houses as places to meet, to the acquisition of a new site from Francis Rawdon of Rawdon Hall.

The building was extended in 1729 and internally altered in the early 19th-century. It retains its interior fittings from this date including sliding vertical partitions, joinery, hat and cloak pegs. From the late 19th century there survives a Tobin tube inserted into one of the fixed pews: Tobin tubes provided ventilation and this form was invented nearby, by a Mr Tobin of Leeds, in 1873. It was heralded for its novelty and utility at the time creating ‘vertical fountain-like currents of air’.

3. Come-to-Good Meeting House, Cornwall. Grade I listed 

Friends Meeting House, Come to Good,
Friends Meeting House, Come to Good © Historic England Archive DP160685

Come-to-Good meeting house is one of the best-known meeting houses in England, not least due to its picturesque character and memorable name.  The first recorded meeting in this building, constructed in 1710, was held whilst it was still roofless. It was built close to the site of the meeting’s earlier rented property, and cost £53 8s 3d.

In the early years of the 18th century a gallery was added at the west for a further £15 10s 0d, providing more seating and a space for the women’s business meeting. Surviving accounts suggest that it was supported by 2 halves of a 40ft ship’s mast.

As with many meeting houses Come-to-Good went out of use and back in again over a long period of time, used only infrequently during the 19th century. It re-opened fully in 1946, had modern conveniences of electricity and running water added in the 1960s and has been used by Quakers ever since.

4. Quaker Meeting House, Blackheath, London. Grade II listed 

Quaker meeting house, Blackheath c Historic England DP180132
Quaker meeting house, Blackheath © Historic England DP180132

The Blackheath Meeting had several locations before the 1970s in Woolwich and Deptford, including its own small meeting house and various rooms within other faith buildings. In 1972 a new concrete building was designed by Trevor Dannatt, a notable figure in post-war modernist design.  It was described at the time as a ‘modern building to fit in with the forward-looking community around it’ and received a Civic Trust Award in 1973 and a commendation by the Concrete Society in 1974.

Quaker meeting house, Blackheath exterior c Historic England
Quaker meeting house, Blackheath exterior © Historic England

The meeting room is designed as a calm space with a softer aesthetic – white plastered walls and a ceiling lined with warm redwood – than the rest of the building which uses bare brick, concrete and quarry tile.

5. Hertford Meeting House, Hertfordshire. Grade I listed

DP160138

This is the earliest surviving purpose-built meeting house in the world, still in Quaker use. A Quaker preacher first came to Hertford in 1655 and services were held in private houses until a permanent home was built in 1669. The meeting house opened in 1670. George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, visited the building at least three times. There have been some alterations over the last 350 years but overall it retains much of its original character. From the outside it has the appearance of a pair of houses, but inside is one large meeting room rising to the full-height of the building.

6. Kingston Quaker Centre, Kingston upon Thames

Kingston Quaker centre John Hall via Flickr
Kingston Quaker Centre. Image © John Hall via Flickr

Kingston is a multi-purpose building designed by John Langley of Tectus Architecture. It is a single-storey, flat-roofed pavilion, with a colonnade of pale steel supports.  It was a joint winner of the ACE/RIBA award for religious architecture in 2015 as a vital community centre with a moving and well-composed meeting room.

Making extensive use of natural light and surrounded by an informal garden, the Meeting House directly reflects a Quaker priority of sustainability and adaptation for climate change. It leads the way as Quakers endeavour to also make their own lives and their older meeting houses as environmentally friendly as possible.

Kingston’s focus on the broader community highlights another important feature of Quaker Meeting Houses:  that is, they are not regarded as sacred spaces, as Quakers maintain that the whole of life is sacramental and that no place or date is more sacred than another. This enables Meeting Houses to be used for a variety of purposes and the current project is demonstrating a high level of communal value and community use.

Further Reading:

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5 responses to A brief introduction to Quakers

  1. Pamela King says:

    I have been told that some of my family were quakers many years ago, they lived in and around Rye, Sussex. Can anyone advise how i can find out please, so far had no luck with research.
    Pam King

  2. Hello Pamela. A year ago I didn’t know I had any Quaker ancestry. I started a family history course at my local library where you can access Ancestry and Find My Past. Maybe your library can help too. I have traced Quaker ancestors back to 1656 in Yorkshire. The good thing about the Quakers is that they were punctilious about record keeping, so going back is relatively easy. I am more than happy to be of further help and I hope you have the same genealogical luck as I did.
    Anne

    • Pamela King says:

      Thank you Anne, I am so sorry for delay in replying but I did miss your comment and only found it when going through a deletion process. I will try my library but I do not live in Sussex where they lived I live in the Midlands so not sure they will have access to this information, but will give it a try.

      Pam King

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  1. […] In describing five exemplary Meeting Houses Historic England says Quaker buildings are often “distinctive for their simple, functional design; built by local craftsmen, they sit modestly in the landscape”. This is not a description anyone would apply to the Ionic columned revival Grecian Friends Meeting House in Bath (full description here). Its Great Room sports “a foliate frieze with egg and dart moulding”, “high circular lanterns with fine plaster details” and “six-panelled doors set in reeded doorcases”. Bath Friends Meeting House has always been something out of the ordinary, and that remains its destiny. […]