The following text is that of a lecture delivered by David Birmingham in 2014.
Quakers in Kent
A couple of weeks ago a chap called Lecamp (a friend of mine) turned up here in his embroidered collar to tell us about the Freemason. Maureen decided she wanted something completely different as a follow-up and so twisted my very reluctant arm to speak about the Quakers. Yes, the Quakers. But there are only 150 Quakers in East Kent as opposed to 7000 Masons. And whereas the Masons have a fabulously rich Gothic Temple the Quakers only have a very plain Meeting House. Yes, very plain. None of John Butler’s Miracle Windows. Just a room where each “Friend” could sit in still communion with his and her fellows to worship God in in his or her own way. The derogatory nick-name “Quakers” – those who tremble in awe when rising from a pew to speak in the name of the Lord – has recently taken hold, although technically they are called Members of the Religious Society of Friends. And yes I did say they worship in his or her way. Which brings me to my problem with Philippe’s Masons. He told us that Masons were totally inclusive. But his totally excluded exactly fifty per cent of the British population – namely women. He tactfully did not tell us the apocryphal story of the young woman with the insatiable curiosity who found that a pine knot had fallen out of the temple partition. She was caught peeping through. The lodge – allegedly I must add – discussed whether it should rigorously preserve its secrets by condemning her to death!
Well, Quakers – Friends – have a quite different view of women. Essentially they have always been considered equal. Some of their most powerful leaders – as we shall see – have been women. And when the men were in gaol (as they so often were during the seventeenth-century era of persecution) it was women who frequently ran the Society of Friends. And they still do. Through the twentieth century the chief executive of the Church was frequently a woman. Above all, men and women are absolutely equal in the conduct of worship. Quakers do not have trained and ordained preachers. The format of a religious service is based on silence, on waiting on God. Any member of a congregation, a ‘Meeting’, may feel moved by God to speak, to pray, to read from the Bible, though not normally to sing a hymn. The voice of God did not need to be interpreted by a pastor, or a minister, or a priest. Each insight is thus original, fresh. It was said, by some, that Quakers had abolished the priesthood. Others, more jokingly, suggested that it was the laity which had been abolished since every Quaker is potentially responsible for ministering either through the spoken word, or in the communion of silence, to his and her fellow worshipers. And now – after that rather meandering introductory note – let us treat history properly, chronologically, as Maureen might have wanted.
Let us begin at the beginning. What do you all know about Quakers? Ah yes. A dodgy religious sect which died out in the seventeenth century. Wrong! Scores of religious sects – Diggers, Ranters, Muggletonians, and all the others – did die out. But Quakers survived. About five dozen of them still live in Canterbury. Their church is just on the other side of the river. They quaintly call it a Meeting House rather than a chapel.
And what else do you know? Ah yes. They were Puritans. Wrong again. Do you remember that some Canterbury folk rented a boat called the Mayflower to escape from Archbishop Laud’s smells and bells. They wanted to establish “pure” Protestantism – Puritanism – in a ‘New’ England. When Quakers tried to join them there was shock and horror. Help! Heretics! Quick, tie them to a post. Surround them with straw and logs. Find a match.
So, Quakers had to set up their own colony in America – Pennsylvania (right next door to the Catholics’ Maryland – Mary Land – colony.) The new Quaker colony was named after William Penn, the wealthy son of an admiral who owned property in Canterbury. When Penn was widowed, his second marriage licence was issue by the Canterbury Quakers. Two Canterbury Quakers, Jeremy and William Swaffer, were given permits to migrate to Pennsylvania. Penn himself, being of an aristocratic disposition, was much attached to the symbolic sword which represented his status. He once said to a famous Quaker preacher, a pacifist, what shall I do? “Wear thy sword as long as thou canst” was the sage reply. Penn soon found that wearing a sword did not sit well with his religious beliefs. Footnote: could you note that Quakers did not distinguish between upper class people, who should be addressed as “you”, and common people who could be addressed as “thou”. This quaint tradition (like Du and Sie in German) survived into the twentieth century. My wife and her brother still write to each other as thee and thou.
How are we doing? Canterbury Quakers were not Puritans but surely they were puritanical – indeed, fanatical temperance campaigners. Wrong again. Well half wrong anyway. They were among the great brewers of the eighteenth century. The Barclays and other Quaker brewers campaigned against the demon drink, gin, by brewing “small beer”, wholesome and safe at three per cent alcohol. But when the beer became too strong some of them switched to offering drinking chocolate instead. If you were to visit the Canterbury Quaker Meeting House you might still find a descendent of the great Quaker chocolate dynasty – Cadburys.
So what else do we know about Quakers? Ah yes, they were pacifists. They refused to fight, they would not join the army, they rejected the idea of training cadets in how to kill, they were Conscientious Objectors in two World Wars. This time we are at least half right. The Quakers are a Christian denomination but it does not have a creed. They think that everyone – man, woman and child – has their own hot line to God. A bit like St Paul actually, he thought men, and women, and children, and even slaves and Gentiles, were equal in the eyes of the Lord. Each person must make his or her own moral choices rather than blindly follow the instructions of a church hierarchy. So when it came to the very taxing moral dilemmas of the Second World War two thirds of Quakers remained pacifists and one third joined the army. The pacifist tradition was an old one and a strong one. Quakers were ardent readers of the Bible and remembered that it said – somewhere – “thou shalt not kill”. So when they were demobilised at the end of the English Civil Wars – in 1660 – they said “well that was a lousy way to settle differences”. So they wrote to the new king:
Dear Charles Stuart, In future we shall never take up arms against a fellow man, not even for king and country. Or words to that effect. A copy of this letter hangs in Allington Castle. Question. Is this treason? And how does it affect Canterbury, a mere twenty miles from Allington?
Did any of you read the Gazette on 15 August last? It contained a double spread on the 250 Men of Kent and Kentish Men – Methodists, Plymouth Bretheren, Anglicans, Quakers and others – who registered as Conscientious Objectors when military conscription was imposed two years after the start of the 1914 war. Many refuseniks were thrown into gaol. The father of one of my friends, a Yorkshireman, was even taken to France and court-marshalled as a traitor. The night before he was due to be tied to the barbed wire and shot news of the sentence reached Asquith in the House of Commons and he got the execution stopped.
Most pacifists were willing to serve their country in an unarmed way – for instance in health work or in agriculture. Would you like an autobiographical footnote? When I was conscripted to serve her newly enthroned majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, my first posting was in agriculture. I planted a beech forest, Horseholders Wood, on the Kent Downs above Rochester. My second posting was in health and I drove an old Bedford ambulance round Canterbury. It broke down on the new ring road, but fortunately the Peugeot garage was then still a Bedford agency.
But: would you like to go back into deep history? The founder of Quakerism was the son of a Leicestershire draper who – like Wesley a hundred years later – travelled the world as an itinerant preacher. His name was George Fox, but he travelled on foot whereas Wesley could afford a horse. He may, or may not, have visited Canterbury on his two tours of Kent. When his wife came to see him off on a preaching tour of the Americas she waved him farewell from the Walmer cliffs when his boat sailed out of Deal. Her name was Margaret Fell and one of the Fell family still lives in St Dunstan’s. It was Margaret, now Fox, who set up the democratic, self-governing, form of Church Government which enabled Quakers to survive without priests or bishops for 300 years. Her first husband had been a Circuit Court Judge and so she knew her way around the law and was familiar with members of the Restauration Establishment.
Did I mention St Dunstan’s? Did you know that the seventeenth-century county gaol was opposite the Unicorn Public House, licenced in 1664. This gaol became very familiar to Quakers. Nine years before the pub was licenced the first two Quaker ministers visited Canterbury – William Caton and John Stubbs. They had met with an enthusiastic response to their preaching in such radical places as Staplehurst and Tenterden. They even found some echo in Canterbury. But it was not a strong echo and Quakers were regularly persecuted across Kent and locked up in Canterbury.
The archives contain 309 cases of persecution across the Kentish region between 1655 and 1689. One persistent Quaker protester was Thomas Pollard. In 1658 he disrupted a service in “The Great Mass House”. How rude can you be about our magnificent Cathedral? He spent the next nine months in gaol. Two years later, on the 17th day of the 11th month, the same Thomas Pollard was again gaoled, this time a sentence of nine weeks and four days, for refusing to swear – on the Bible – an oath of loyalty to the new Stuart régime. Soon after that his wife was thrown into gaol for not attending a Church of England service. Women prisoners were sometimes incarcerated in the same fetid, dark, dungeons as men, though Margaret Fell was given the privilege of a cell with daylight when locked up for months on end in Lancaster Castle.
A few of the technical archival references in the above paragraph require a bit of decoding. The other day Maureen stopped me in the precincts and said “You will tell them about Quaker dates won’t you”. Tremble young man. Quakers use Western calendar years, unlike their deceased neighbours in the Jewish graveyard up on Forty Acres. But until recently, on their grave stones, they did not use celestial bodies (Sun-Day, Moon-Day) or Norse gods (Thor’s-Day, Woden’s Day) or Roman emperors (August, July) in their dating. Sunday was First Day, Thursday was Fifth Day and August was Sixth Month. Sixth month? Yes, that is until England changed its calendar and August became Eighth Month. Until recently I conducted Quaker weddings in Canterbury and I used the old day and month names.
But what about refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to young King Charles. This was not about disrespect for poor Charles, but rather about refusing to swear an oath on the Bible – or indeed on any other book of prayer or devotion. Quite recently I had great difficulty in explaining to a senior Canterbury solicitor why it was the Quakers did not like the idea of TWO types of truth, one sworn and one unsworn. Quakers liked a universal attachment to the truth and the idea that one could be economical with the truth when it was not sworn on the Bible rankled with them. Most Quakers still refuse to swear oaths when serving on juries or when proving wills. Not for nothing were they known as ‘The Friends of the Truth’.
And what about the dates on those gravestones? Quakers, like heathens, could not be buried in consecrated ground. They were baptised in the spirit but not with holy water. So when Mathew Swarthing died after languishing for a year in St Augustine’s prison – he had refused to pay tithes, taxes, to a church to which he did not belong, he had to be buried outside the city wall, up on Forty Acres, next to the Jews. Three years later, when smallpox hit Canterbury, and prisoners were not let out to escape the plague, Joseph Stonehouse also died in prison. The Quaker cemetery keeper, Thomas Elgar, took it upon himself to care for the widow. A member of the Elgar family, Winnie, was still caring for the graveyard as late as 1937. The Elgar tomb stones have since been moved to the present Meeting House. And the committee room, in which such folk as the Canterbury Labour Party and others sometimes meet, is technically known as the Elgar Room.
Prison was not the only hazard faced by Canterbury’s so-called ‘Friends of the Truth’. One Friend had two pairs of shoes valued at 4 shillings and 6 pence seized by warrant officers. Another lost 15 waggon-loads of corn when sticking to his principles. Another had a hogshead of wine four firkins of butter seized. What is a firkin of butter? You tell me. One bit of this history which was new to me was that in seventeenth-century England – as in barbarous parts of the world to-day – mutilation was an accepted form of punishment. One Canterbury Friend was sentenced to have his ears lopped off, though eventually this was commuted to a public whipping. Intolerance, towards the Quakers, and it must be admitted, by the Quakers, should have diminished after the 1689 Act of Toleration. In 1702, however, John Love was so appalled by Queen Anne’s foreign policy that he issue a proclamation “Against War and Bloodshed”. A sandwich board saying “Prepare to Meet Thy Doom” sounds like a Punch cartoon, but the Canterbury authorities were NOT amused.
One of the eccentricities which Quaker shared with Presbyterians was a reluctance to separate holy days from unholy days. Do you remember that there were serious riots in Canterbury when Christmas celebrations were abolished in 1647? Well Quakers, like Scotsmen, never did revert to recognising Christmas Day as any holier than any other day. A cordwainer and cobbler called Luke Howard, a man with a Canterbury Quaker wife, tried to keep his Dover shop open over Christmas but saw his door forcibly nailed up. In 1685 Quakers complained that so-called ‘holy days’ were occasions for eating, drinking, card-playing, dicing, play-acting and revelling.
The persecution of the Quakers was so severe that they set up their own parliament to relieve widows and children. It was called “The Meeting for Sufferings”. It still meets, every other month, 300 years later. The Canterbury representative lives on Beaconsfield Road. The ‘suffering’ it caters for is addressed both with material help and in prayer. It tries to reach those who are suffering wherever they may be – Ukrainians, Palestinians, South Africans, Jews, slaves, abused women, abusing men, prisoners of conscience, victims of famine, of flood, of drought.
Here I should perhaps mention [in brackets] that Quakers do have an image problem. They are thought to be morally superior. So a quote about early nineteenth-century Quaker behaviour written by a twentieth-century Quaker historian might rectify that illusion:
Quakers entered the nineteenth century with a body of deeply Christian members who tried to live up to their professions of faith and a tail of harum scarum members who drank, swore, committed adultery with their serving maids, went to sea on armed ships and cheated the king of his customs. So there! But the question of carrying arms on merchant vessels to protect any cargo from piracy was a live issue. One Canterbury ship-owner, Michael Yoakley, found ways of surviving the hazards of sea trade and in 1702 he built an alms house, with a small Quaker chapel, which is still in use in Margate.
Shortly before the 1689 Act of Toleration Canterbury Quakers discovered a loop-hole in the law, intended incidentally for Catholics, which enabled them to legally – as opposed to illegally – set up a Meeting House. They did so in 1687. It was paid for with £60 offered by a London draper who had been born in St Dunstans. It was located in Canterbury Lane where there is now a faded plaque on the side-wall of Super Drug. Has anyone here ever had responsibility for maintaining a Church hall? The poor Quakers struggled: dry rot, wet rot, leaking gutters, missing roof tiles, collapsing pews. May I read you an extract from the meeting minutes of 1773?
Before the commencement of the year 1772 the meeting was become in such a mean condition that a French man who look’d in told a friend after this manner: you be very nice and tidy in your house, have things tight and in order, you white-wash, you paint, but the house where you go to worship Almighty God is miserable. The winscot on the South-West side quite decayed, tumbling down in pieces, and several cracks in the walls. What best to be done with it was a point not easily to be come at. While some Elder Friends was to keep it in the present form, sundry of our Younger Friends were very strong and solicitous for an alteration putting two good sash lights in the North-East wall and remove the long gallery from the floor where the Women Friends sett. Unsurmountable difficulty has more than once wound up the conversation without coming to any conclusion. Does that sound familiar – the young against the old, the everlasting need to pay for repairs to the church? This centuries-old problem was temporarily resolved on 1 June 1942 when an incendiary bomb comprehensively ruined the old building. All that survived was a battered brass plaque which says that “Divine Worship is held on First Days”.
So without a chapel – I mean a Meeting House – what did Canterbury Friends do? They reputedly met for worship in the home of the city mayor, probably in the Dane John. Has anyone here read a book called When the City Burns? It was written by Catherine Williamson, the remarkable Quaker wife of the owner of the Canterbury tannery. The tannery which made the green leather seats for the House of Commons. Catherine was the first woman – yes a woman – to be elected mayor Canterbury. It was she who built all those air-raid shelters to protect us during the Second World War.
When the war was over the Quakers were offered the land of the old Black Friars, the Dominicans, who lived down by the river from the 1220s until the Tudors drove them out in the 1530s. Thereafter the land had been used as a cloth hall by refugee Hugenots and Walloons, the great French-speaking hoard which made up a quarter of Canterbury’s seventeenth-century population. Quakers and Hugenots got on quite well and during the Second World War it was a Quaker teacher, Alfred Tucker, who conducted services in French in the Black Princes Chapel in the Cathedral. Other squatters included the Baptists who regularly helped Quakers although they believed in baptism by total immersion whereas Quakers did not use water at all. There is still a fine sculpted Baptist tomb behind the Meeting House. And at one time the Methodists built their octagonal “Pepper Box” chapel on the site. Now the site has that plain Meeting House which holds a service open to all on Sunday morning and Thursday lunch-time. For the rest of the week it is a community hall used by Workers’ Education, by Alcoholics Anonymous, by language classes for asylum seekers, by Green Party ecowarriors, by Amnesty philanthropists, even – I suspect – by Third Age literary groupies.
But let us step back. Does any one of you bank at Lloyds Bank? If so what on earth has that got to do with Quakers and why did Quakers become bankers? Because they were thought to deal honestly with their customers’ money. But why choose banking? Because you could not go to university to become a dentist or a magistrate or a Member of Parliament. To join the professions you had to subscribe to the Anglican creed – was in called the Thirty Nine Steps? Well Quakers did not go in for creeds – each one was expected to find his or her own path to God. So Quakers could not qualify for any profession – not even teaching (though later many of us did become teachers). Many Quakers went into business – as my in-laws did. And until quite recently Lloyds Bank retained a Quaker ethos. But then it became ‘too big to fail’ and joined the gang of four which bankrupted Western society in 2008.
Business men and women have often been unpopular, including the Canterbury Quakers. Do you remember William Cobbett, he of the Rural Rides? Do you remember what he said about the Canterbury Quakers? Should the matter have slipped your mind I shall quote him. In going through Canterbury yesterday I gave a boy sixpence to hold my horse [note that parking charges have since gone up] to hold my horse while I went into the Cathedral just to thank St Swithin for the trick he had played on my friends the Quakers. The term “friends” is used here ironically. What thrilled Cobbett was that the weather had been so fine that autumn – 1830 I think – that there had been a bumper wheat crop. This, said the gloating Cobbett, meant that one local Quaker, who had invested heavily in corn futures, was liable to make a loss of £2000. Businessmen are not universally popular. But they were thrifty and they did not flaunt their wealth: no old masters, no ‘cellos, no jewellery.
While on the subject of banks what happened if you went up the Canterbury High Street to Barclays? Well the Barclays were another Quaker family who produced not only good theologians but also many bankers. But they ran into difficulties. The apartheid régime in South Africa insisted that Barclays Bank buy “defence bonds”. But Quakers are pacifists – how could they subsidise the buying of tear gas, and water cannon, and rubber bullets, to terrorise the black, democratic, protestors of Soweto. Problem! The Quaker chairman of Barclays invited me to lunch in London to discuss South Africa with his new Public Relations Officer. The said public relations officer was called Colin Cowdrey. I think – subject of course to correction – that he once played cricket in Canterbury. But while on the subject of Barclays remember that they were not only theologians and bankers but also brewers. At least until rival Quaker entrepreneurs began advertising the blessed virtues of Drinking Chocolate. Think Fry, think Rowntree, think Cadbury.
Did I say Fry? That brings me back to the question of prisons with which Canterbury Quakers had such a long and intimate relationship.
Another autobiographical footnote creeps in here. A few years ago I was writing a history of Switzerland – yes Switzerland, English history is not my field – and I came across a minute in the archives of a remote Alpine hamlet. “If Mrs Fry were to see the condition of our prison” the village bobby reported “she would be very shocked”. Do you all know who Mrs Fry was, shaking the pillars of the establishment across the European continent? If I were a gambling man – no, Quakers don’t usually gamble – I might wager that many of you have a picture of Mrs Fry in your pocket. She is the great Quaker preacher and prison reformer pictured on the £5 note. And when our dear coalition – perhaps recognising the unsavoury nature of their record in stacking prisoners three bunks high in gaols built “for-profit” – decided to replace Elizabeth Fry on the bank notes with a one-time Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, all hell broke loose. Elizabeth Fry, who had begun her crusade on behalf of prisoners in Kent, during the Napoleonic Wars, visited us again in 1845, but died in Margate.
Margate is our local sea-side resort and it has a rather interesting Quaker connection. Remember that Quakers have to earn their living by commerce and not through the professions. When it came to sea-bathing Quakers may not have been Puritans but they were a bit prudish. So in the days before bathing costumes they invented “Modesty Hoods” for the bathing machines on Margate sands. You undressed in the covered waggon which was then pushed down into the water. Then you lowered the hood over the back steps and climbed down into the water in your altogethers. The inventor was Friend Benjamin Beale, but his success was cut short by the storm of 1767 which wrecked his bathing machines. Similar machines were later used by Princess Victoria but after she became queen she decreed, in 1862, that bathers ought to wear bathing dresses. The custom lived on and notices on beaches in Fascist Portugal – sorry, another autobiographical footnote – insisted that men’s costumes must cover their arm-pits and should not be sleeveless.
Had I been a serious historian, a sort of Doreen Rosman type scholar, I should have quoted a document dated 1851 which she gave to me. In that year there were 28 places of worship in Canterbury. The Countess of Huntingdon’s chapel had 200 worshippers morning and evening, the Independents in Guildhall Street 500 morning and evening, the Zoar Chapel 40 morning and evening, the Synagogue 20 and 28, the Hugenots 21 once a day only, and the poor old Quakers a mere 9 in the morning, nine in the afternoon, and none in the evening. They were almost invisible, so why did Maureen round me up to talk about them? Well because they survived and revived, partly through the efforts of the Rowntree family. They became strong enough to stand up against the militaristic jingoism of 1914. From being eccentric they became almost mainstream in exploring the diversity of Christian traditions. Their dependence on lay folk to lead services was imitated. Their long-held belief that women were equal in the sight of God was embraced by most – though not quite all – Church traditions. And now the Countess of Huntingdon is almost – not quite, but almost – forgotten, the chapel of the Independents is now a part of Debenhams, the Synagogue is a music hall, and the Zoar chapel is down to penny numbers of Strict and Particular Baptists. But members of the Religious Society of Friends, all three score of them, still meet in Canterbury.
Before you go to rescue your horse from the Pound in Pound Lane ought I to see if anyone wants to linger to ask a question?