Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, are a Christian group originating in 17th century England.
They often worship in buildings called ‘meeting houses’, designed in simple, domestic styles unlike more elaborate church architecture.
Read on to find out more.
Who are the Quakers?
Quakers have their origins in the religious and political turmoil of the 17th century English Civil War.
In the mid-17th century, the English Dissenter, George Fox, turned his back on the established church. Fox claimed that because each individual can have a direct relationship with God, there is no need for priests or traditional churches.
Fox founded the Religious Society of Friends who met for worship in all kinds of venues, including barns, orchards, hilltops and even each other’s homes.
Quaker worship was forbidden by law until the 1689 Act of Toleration but 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.
Here are 10 fascinating Quaker meeting houses and the stories behind them.
1. Brigflatts Quaker meeting house, Sedburgh
The earliest Quaker meeting houses were distinctive for their simple, functional design, often built by local craftsmen.
Brigflatts, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, is the earliest purpose-built meeting house in the north of England, completed in 1675.
Its construction is typical of late-17th century buildings and it still has many of its historic features, including a minister’s stand, fixed benches, a wide staircase and an Elders bench.
The surrounding burial ground has been in continuous use since 1656 and is the resting place of modernist poet Basil Bunting.
2. Quaker meeting house, Rawdon
Near Leeds, Rawdon meeting house has been in continuous use since its construction in 1697.
In fact, the meeting of Quakers in this area goes back even further, beginning with ‘the Guiseley meeting’ in 1655. The name change might reflect 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.
Although the building was extended in 1729 and altered in the early 19th-century, it retains many of its original fittings including sliding vertical partitions, joinery, hat and cloak pegs and Tobin ventilation tubes.
3. Quaker meeting house, Come-to-Good
Constructed in 1710, Come-to-Good meeting house in Cornwall is one of the best-known meeting houses in England.
It reportedly cost £53, 8s 3d to build, with the first recorded meeting held while it was still roofless.
In the early 18th-century, a gallery was added to provide more seating as well as 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. It re-opened fully in 1946 and modern conveniences such as electricity and running water were added in the 1960s. It has been used by Quakers ever since.
4. Quaker meeting house, Hertford
The Friends meeting house at Hertford 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 meetings were held in private houses until a permanent place of worship was built in 1669. The meeting house opened in 1670 and George Fox 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.
5. Quaker meeting house, Mosedale
On the northern edge of the Cumbrian Mountains, Mosedale meeting house was once the house of Quaker George Pickering.
The number of Quakers in the area grew after a visit from George Fox in 1653, and Pickering’s house was converted for worship in 1702.
From the outside, the meeting house still looks like one of the many simple, stone-built, agricultural buildings to be found in the surrounding valleys and fells. Inside, however, it retains its original Elders’ stand and benches, arranged for Quaker worship.
6. Blue Idol Quaker meeting house, Coolham
No-one knows the origins behind the name of Blue Idol, but at its heart is a timber-framed farmhouse dating to about 1580, originally called Little Slatters.
In the 1690s, a group of Quakers arranged to buy the farmhouse and convert it into a permanent meeting house. Among them was William Penn, known as the founder of the American colony, the Province of Pennsylvania, who became a Quaker in 1667.
Inside, the meeting house still features its original Elders’ stand and gallery.
7. Quaker meeting house, Blackheath, London
The Blackheath meeting house has had several locations in Woolwich and Deptford over the years, but in 1972 a new concrete building was designed by Trevor Dannatt, a notable figure in post-war modernist design.
Upon completion, the meeting house was described as a ‘modern building to fit in with the forward-looking community around it.’ It received a Civic Trust Award in 1973 and a commendation by the Concrete Society in 1974.
The meeting room is designed as a calm space with a soft aesthetic – white plastered walls and a ceiling lined with warm redwood – contrasting with the rest of the building which uses bare brick, concrete and quarry tile.
8. Kingston Quaker Centre, Kingston upon Thames
Kingston Quaker Centre is a multi-purpose building designed by John Langley of Tectus Architecture.
Making extensive use of natural light and surrounded by a garden, the meeting house reflects the Quaker interest in sustainability and climate change.
The house was a joint winner of the ACE/RIBA award for religious architecture in 2015.
9. Quaker meeting house, Alston
Alston meeting house was built in 1732, in an area well-known for its traditional economy of livestock farming and lead mining.
The house was once connected to the local London Lead Company, a Quaker-run organisation which reflected Quaker values of improving worker’s living conditions and providing education.
From 1902, the house became the headquarters of the local Toc-H branch, a social and welfare organisation that emerged from the First World War soldiers’ club Talbot House, in Poperinghe, Belgium. It reopened as a Quaker meeting house in 1972.
10. Quaker meeting house, North Walsham
North Walsham meeting house has hardly changed since it was built in 1772.
A substantially intact Georgian building, much of its traditional interior survives and is typical of the way that Quaker meeting houses were built in simple vernacular styles.
Out-of-town in a secluded location, there is an earlier walled Quaker burial ground nearby as well as dwellings which were part of a small Quaker settlement.
Since 2015, we’ve been working with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) on the jointly-funded Quaker Meeting Houses Heritage Project. Find out more here.