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 claimed 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. The gradual acceptance of other 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 5 Quaker meeting houses and the stories behind them:
1. Brigflatts meeting house, Cumbria. Grade I listed
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 retains many historic fittings. Its setting includes its burial ground, in continuous use since 1656 and where poet Basil Bunting is buried, a garden, paddock, warden’s house, a little-altered gig house and stable with classroom (listed at Grade II).
The interior retains 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
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
Come-to-Good meeting house is one of the best-known meeting houses in England, not least due to picturesque character and memorable name. The first recorded meeting in this building, constructed in 1710, was held whilst it was still roofless. It has been built close to the site of the meeting’s earlier rented property, and had 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 additional seating and a space for the women’s business meeting. Surviving accounts suggest that it was supported by a 2 halves of a 40ft ship’s mast, purchased for 15s.
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 and had the 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
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.
It is described by the recent Quaker Meeting Houses heritage project as a “small, jewel-like Brutalist design (terms not usually conjoined), ingeniously planned to overcome and then exploit the level changes presented by the site. The chamfered square plan form evokes a medieval chapter house, and the raised square lantern acts as a beacon”.
5. Kingston Quaker Centre, Kingston upon Thames
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 reflects directly 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.
Written by Linda Monckton, Head of Communities Research at Historic England
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