History of Quakers in Folkestone

Folkestone Quakers Part 1: 1655 – 1967

from Karl Showler’s “Review of the History of the Society of Friends in Kent”

The Quaker sect was founded in the middle of the 17th century, while England was ruled by the parliamentary victors of the Civil War. In that generation of religious experimentation the Society of Friends was established.

The First Quaker Missionaries came to Kent in 1655 from the North of England, their base being the rapidly expanding Quaker group in London. In the early summer of 1655, two men, William Caton and John Stubbs, arrived in Folkestone from Dover on a preaching tour around the Kent coast. They were received in Folkestone by Thomas Nichols and his wife, the town’s first Quakers.

The anti-Quaker preaching of the local clergy seems to have led to interest in the new sect and several townsfolk took sides with the missionaries. A small group gathered regularly for the religious Quaker practice to meet in silence awaiting one or more of the congregation to be moved to address the gathering. On some days several Friends would feel led to speak, on others no one would interrupt the silence.

The nearby port of Hythe has never supported a Quaker meeting house, the port’s men preferring to come to Folkestone. At Hythe the two original missionaries were received by the local Baptist congregation and allowed to preach. Subsequently the Baptists divided into two factions, half supporting Friends Caton and Stubbs, the other half seeking to prevent their work.

The ringleader of the anti-Quaker group suffered an accident, which was rather naively regarded as a divine judgement by the pro-Quakers.

It is important to follow the adventures of the two missionaries on to Lydd, for there they contacted a remarkable ex-priest Samuel Fisher, one of the leading figures in the National Quaker dispute with the other theologians of that generation. His book, “Rusticus ad Academicos”, is one of the few theological works written by a Quaker still quoted today. Samuel Fisher had given up a Church of England living to become the Lydd Baptist’s pastor. Before becoming a Quaker, indeed before Quakers existed, he and a number of other men in East Kent has arrived at a religious view very near that of the Quakers. Samuel Fisher with the support of the local magistrates encouraged the Quakers and so gave the Society of Friends a firm root in the district about Folkestone.

George Fox who did so much in the foundation of the Society of Friends, came to Kent in 1655, and it is reasonable to assume he passed through the town when travelling from Romney to Dover. There is circumstantial evidence that the beating up of George Rofe in the presence of the mayor Hythe may have occurred as a result of Fox’s visit. A petition for the redress of George Rofe is to be found in the Kent County Archive, Maidstone, signed by many persons who played a part in early Kent Quakerism. Although a number of imprisonments and beatings up are recorded in different parts of Kent between 1655 and 1660, Folkestone Friends were not involved. However, in the latter year Thomas Nichols, Mark Teddiman, William Hunt, Thomas Hedgecock, Lawrence Squire and Stephen Goden were taken out of a peaceable meting: and when tendered the Oath by the Mayor, refused to swear, it being against their principles. They therefore suffered twelve weeks in prison.

When the Church of England returned to power with the restoration of King Charles II, the dissenting sects were all bitterly persecuted, Friends at Folkestone and Hythe suffering with the rest. Robert Latch of Cheriton had his corn taken from off his cart and his wife, who was pregnant, thrown into a ditch.

It would seem some old scores were being paid off against those who had supported the Parliamentary Party.

In the Autumn of 1670 the Mayor of Folkestone had the majority of the Folkestone Meeting arrested. Thomas Tunbridge, who was preaching, was taken with Nicholas Lad, Nicholas Homewood, Samuel Hambrook, Henry Smith and Thomas Nichols, in whose house the meeting was held. All went to prison rather than take the Oath. The mayor sent again to the meeting place and took the names of those who remained in the building. Several visitors from other parts of the county had their horses impounded in lieu of fines.

By 1683 Dover is recorded as having a Meeting House, the first in Kent, and in the following year Folkestone’s is recorded as being locked up on the Mayor’s order.

In addition to those Friends at Folkestone who had already been in trouble, the Widow Lushington shared with other Friends in a joint fine of £11.5.0. for meeting in the street.

At the end of the sixteen sixties the Quakers in Kent following the example of other counties, set up a chain of interlinked meetings to strengthen those who were suffering local persecution. These area meetings met monthly and the “East Kent Division” embraced Folkestone, Swinfield, Waltham, Ashford, Mersham and Lydd meetings. With the growth of the meetings at Ashford, the “Division” was split into two with the titles of “Folkestone” and “Ashford” Monthly Meetings.

Folkestone remained a stronghold of Quakerism throughout the 18th century. In much of the county, the Quaker meetings closed as the Wealden iron industry declined and the prolonged war with France made coastal trade difficult. There is a little evidence that many Kentish Quakers either migrated to the Midlands or emigrated to America.

Friends in Folkestone played a leading part in the organisation of their society in the county, the “Folkestone Monthly Meeting” re-absorbing that of Ashford in 1767. It was during this century that the “Women’s” meetings for “Church Affairs” were set up both at local, district and county levels, and as we shall see, the female Quakers of Folkestone were not slow to make use of their position. Of course, the male meeting was the senior of the two at any level but the Women’s Meeting was of considerable influence in many matters. It was this training in public affairs which made the Quakeress so good at organising others.

By the end if the eighteenth century the Old Folkestone Meeting house was getting too small for the meeting and rather out of repair. The building was extensively repaired, but the “Women’s Monthly Meeting” for Folkestone sent forward the following minute to the County Meeting:

“That a convenient room be provided for the Women’s Quarterly and Monthly Meeting without the inconvenience we now labour under.” (30.3.1795)

With a rapidity that puts us all to shame the new site was purchased and a brand new building constructed for £616.16.8d (17.4.1799). This building is the one being reopened in 1967 after major reconstruction.

It was planned to construct a number of tenements beside the meeting house, which was built at the side of the plot to allow room for them. It was anticipated their rents would defray the running costs of the main building. One financial crisis after another prevented this happening, although during the first decade of the 19th century Folkestone Friends cherished a real hope of constructing them.

Folkestone was the second of a number of Kent meeting houses either reconstructed or extensively repaired during the Napoleonic era. Kent Quakers did not re-embark on such a general reconstruction of their different premises until after the second world war. This time however Folkestone is the last of the Quaker buildings to be attended to.

Although it may well seem that the importance of Folkestone as a centre of Quakerism was in decline by the close of the 18th century, all the east Kent meetings were joined together in one monthly meeting called “Folkestone”, the community at Rochester getting its own monthly meeting status after many years subordinate to Canterbury. There is slight evidence that Rochester was as large if not larger than all the small East Kent groups put together.

However, in the opening decade of the nineteenth century (1811) the reverse was true and in East Kent there were about 100 Friends’ families, and in the Medway Towns about 50.

At Folkestone such families as those of Marsh, Jacobs, Elgar, Nicholls, Hall, Brown and Blundell played an important part.

One should not imagine that Quakers at this time were goodie goodies, and Folkestone Friends were as aberrant as those from other Kentish Meetings. For example John Benwall was privately visited for “visiting Public Houses, excess in drinking, and other misconduct”. His subsequent disownment, death, and widow’s appeal for help to Rochester Meeting was to be a “cause celebre” in local Quaker circles.

If there were a number of Friends who were disowned from the Society for misconduct there were also others who tried to do their best for the fellow members. Elizabeth Nash agreed to take Mary Tustin for 8/7d. per week if Kent Quakers provided her bed and bedding. No doubt Mary was an early au pair girl. The older children of Poor Friends were often taken into the homes of their richer coreligionists on agreed terms to be taught a trade or profession. Boys were apprenticed for seven years at a premium of £40, the common fund or “stock” of the county meeting their expenses.

In those uncertain days even wealthy Friends could lose all their money and be glad to take advantage of the highly developed welfare services, which helped members in distress.

It is true that the eighteenth and nineteenth century Quakers tended to be an inward looking, closely knit body, but at the same time many others were drawn into Friends circle, and a few adopted the old fashioned manner of speech and dress called by Quakers, “plain”.

When Queen Victoria came to the throne Folkestone meeting was entering upon a slow decline. The advent of the London to Dover railway did not halt this loss of influence, enthusiasm and attractiveness. Other Meetings became the centres of creative drive, and by the mid eighteen sixties the Folkestone meeting house was shut, but fortunately the property was not disposed of.

Quakerism in Kent, during the latter half of the 19th Century was revitalised by an enthusiastic evangelical movement. Founded in part on the Kent Quakers’ tradition of being willing to spend quite large sums of money on public lectures to attract interested persons to the beliefs of the Society, the Evangelicals went even further. After two very successful public lectures in Maidstone and Rochester they reopened Folkestone meeting house, where there was no traditional element to offend by their unwanted enthusiasm. The zeal of those involved in the work had its reward in attendances of 30 at the Sunday morning sessions and 50 at the evening, the latter being a mission meeting in the more conventional manner. Adult Schools, Bands of Hope, Bible reading, and sewing groups, helped to reach the industrial population of the town. Such was the impact of the work at Folkestone that in conjunction with a group of Quakers from Ashford, a cottage was taken at Aldington and a village mission commenced. Later a Mission Hall was added to the property and a Quaker family went into residence as missioners.

The construction of the large barrack complex at Shorncliffe did not check the propagation of Quaker ideals, although the inhibiting effect of government establishments at other Kent Quaker centres was noted. By 1895 Folkestone was the largest Meeting in the Quarterly or county area. Indeed the Monthly Meeting status, which had been vested in a single monthly meeting for the county in 1874, was divided between three meetings centred at Rochester, Canterbury and Folkestone. The experiment of smaller monthly meeting units did not work due to the shortage of experienced and able Friends to run the organisation. It was found expedient to amalgamate the Folkestone and Canterbury Monthly meetings, and they have remained united ever since. The name “Folkestone” was dropped from the joint title in the nineteen sixties.

In 1898 Folkestone Friends felt strong enough to open a second mission in addition to the original one in the town, this time adjoining the barracks at Cheriton.

Until 1916 the Mission work continued to thrive. In thirty years the number of Quakers in the county rose 100% to 231, with about 100 habitual attenders at the silent meetings but not in membership, and 150 on the roll of the different mission centres.

In the years immediately preceding the 1st world war Folkestone’s Quaker numbers began to decline. The generation who had revived the meeting grew old, and lacked the energy to reach out to a new generation. The Quaker emphasis on Peace and Temperance isolated friends from an increasingly secular populace. The war itself was a turning point for all Quakers. The introduction of conscription in 1916 tested members, and by the end of the war Membership for the whole county had fallen to a 20th century low of 198.

A detailed history of the last fifty years of Quakerism in Kent (1918 – 1967), and of Folkestone’s contribution to it, has yet to be written. It is clear a deep concern for the poor and unemployed took root in the county during the interwar years, and many friends helped through the Adult School Movement. The unemployed were encouraged to come to the meeting houses for education and small jobs. Coal clubs were organised and clothing distributions made.

The steady migration of Quakers into the South East made good the wartime decline and in 1934 the pre-war numbers were regained. The second world war again caused a decline in numbers and by 1944 over 50 Friends had left the county. Since 1945 this loss was more than made good both by new members and by migration into the county.

Today (1967) there are more Quakers in Kent than at any other time in the last two centuries.

In reoccupying their old but renewed meeting house, Folkestone Quakers will be able to go forward with renewed hope continuing a centuries-long tradition of service and silent worship which has been the especial mark of their sect.

The still small voice may at times have fallen to a whisper, but we look forward to its continuing with greater clarity to a generation that is again looking to Quakerism for religious inspiration.

Karl Showler, 27 October 1967

There’s now a gap in the written story of Quakerism in Folkestone. Part 2 takes up the story in the year 2000. What happened in the 50 years up to 1967, which Karl Showler at the end of Part 1 said had yet to be written, has not been written … as far as we are aware … nor for the last three decades of the 20th century.  Of course some of it could be gleaned from the archived minutes of meetings.

Phil Gould, January 2017

Folkestone Quakers Part 2: 2000 – 2017

What has happened to Folkestone Quakers in the twenty-first century?

by Phil Gould

Part 2 is a story of transition in how Folkestone Quakers think of themselves as a Meeting, of how events sometimes make it necessary to change. To be more specific … is ownership of its own Meeting House crucial to a Meeting’s identity, as had been the case for hundreds of years? If not, what really is a Quaker Meeting, and can it be what it is without owning a Meeting House?

The Meeting House was originally built in 1798 and had been rebuilt in 1966. It was by then underused and deteriorating. By the year 2000 the Meeting was struggling to keep it going with an aging membership that had dwindled to six.

Folkestone Friends Meeting House
Folkestone Friends Meeting House
The story is recorded in the minutes:

Our present premises in Harbour Way are inconvenient of access, hidden from the public eye and grossly underused. We have fought to maintain the grounds to little purpose except tidiness and have suffered from fly tipping and vandalism. Significant expense would be required to bring the fabric of the building up to scratch and to have the grounds properly maintained.

We have a nucleus, albeit small, of members and attenders and we feel that the Meeting should continue. After prayerful consideration of the other alternatives, we decide that a fresh appraisal of the sale or lease possibilities should be undertaken (Oct 2002).

The auction is arranged to take place on 28th May, with a guide price of £100,000 plus (May 2003).

Renewed contact has been made with the Seventh-day Adventist Church on The Bayle and the offer for us to use it is still open (May 2003).

(Seventh-day Adventists celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, which is why they were able invite the Quakers to use the church on Sunday.)

We have started to hold Meeting for Worship at the Seventh-day Adventist Church on The Bayle and have found the SDA people very helpful over the arrangements (Jun 2003).

But some members were still holding on to the idea that owning their own Meeting House was crucial to their identity:

Whilst we would like to undertake some outreach in the area, we feel that for this to be realistic we need to have a more viable and stable Meeting to which to invite enquirers than exists at present – and our efforts to organise activities, such as shared lunches and discussions, have not been well supported in the past.  We feel that the Meeting needs some fresh impetus for the new growth and that this would best be encouraged by starting to look for a suitable new Meeting House on which to base our presence in the area.  Now that the sale of our old Meeting House has produced some funds, this should be possible if the right premises can be found. (Sep 2003).

The search for an alternative Meeting House produced no results. The Seventh-day Adventists were helpful and supportive, and in spite of feeling that this environment was not entirely conducive, Quaker Meetings for Worship continued to be held at the Seventh-day Adventist church for four years.

Then the Folkestone earthquake happened in 2007. It made the Seventh-day Adventist church unsafe. So the next Meeting for Worship was conducted at the home of Derek and Janet Pierce. Meanwhile, another member of the Meeting, Dorothy Douse, was a trustee of the Folkestone charity, the Rainbow Centre, and this opened the way for the Meeting’s next move. The journey continued:

Following an offer by the Rainbow Centre Trustees for us to use their new Quiet Room for our Meetings for Worship, we have now held our Worship there three times and find it very suitable for our needs in the medium to long term (Jun 2007).

The Meeting settled in to the Rainbow Centre, built as an office block in the busy heart of Folkestone, owned and run by a well-known and highly-regarded local charity. It had advantages such as being close to the bus station, and disadvantages such as intrusive noise from the busy street below. Members felt good about the association with the Rainbow Centre charity, but after 8 years it began to dawn on an increasing number of them that it might be possible to find a more conducive venue.

Experimental meetings were held at a small friendly hotel in the centre of Folkestone with quiet meeting rooms looking out over gardens. This hotel was also used by the members for informal monthly get-togethers for coffee and chat, as part of their wish to get to know each other better outside Meetings for Worship.

Following the experiment some members were ready to move to the hotel. But the Meeting realised the decision to move from the Rainbow Centre would be a hard one. The reason was that there were differences of view about the appropriateness of holding Quaker Meetings in a hotel.  And so, early in 2016, with help of a facilitator from Quaker Life, they ran a ‘threshing’ meeting to try to achieve clearness. Here’s part of the minute from the ‘threshing’ meeting, held on 7 February 2016:

Following the ‘Threshing’ Meeting held the previous day Friends have met to discern the way forward. We seek unity as to the next step. There is love and care expressed in the Meeting but, as yet, no clearness. … We need to examine more deeply what we want as a Meeting and why this process continues to cause us discomfort. We need to take time for that process, and our longer-term perspective on venue. We would like to create a Steering Group to take this forward.

Richard Bush Threshing Meeting Facilitator 

The steering group drew up a checklist of criteria for assessing and comparing venues. With the help of the checklist possible venues along the main bus route between Folkestone and Hythe were identified. The one that ticked most of the boxes was the church hall at St Paul’s, Sandgate, a wooden building standing in parkland alongside the church. The Vicar, Church Wardens and members of the Anglican congregation were warmly welcoming of the Quakers. A trial Meeting for Worship was held in May.

It proved to be a quiet, pleasant and suitable environment for Meeting for Worship. It was available on Sunday mornings. There was space in it to keep a small library, a well-equipped kitchen area for refreshments and the social side of meetings, plus the convenience of free parking, and the spaciousness of a parkland setting. Notice was given to the Rainbow Centre, and regular Meetings for Worship were begun on the last Sunday of July 2016.

The number of regulars (members plus attenders) in Folkestone Meeting had by this time grown to 14 … despite the fact that at least six had died and others moved out of the area since leaving the Meeting House in 2003.


So to return to the questions mentioned at the beginning … is ownership of its own Meeting House crucial to a Quaker Meeting’s identity? If not, what really is a Quaker Meeting, and can it be what it is without owning a Meeting House?

Carl Showler in Part 1 describes the essence of the Quakerism of the early Quakers in the 1650s … “a small group gathered regularly for the religious Quaker practice to meet in silence awaiting one or more of the congregation to be moved to address the gathering. On some days several Friends would feel led to speak, on others no one would interrupt the silence.”

But is this not also the essence of Quakerism today? One difference may be that today there is less uniformity of religious belief and language among Quakers. Language and ways of thinking and talking about spiritual matters are changing and evolving. Many would prefer, today, to say that the reason they attend Quaker Meetings is simply to come together in stillness and silence, with no one telling us what to believe, just the peace and quiet to discover for ourselves.

Folkestone Quakers have had the opportunity to discover from experience that if that’s who you are, you don’t need to own a Meeting House in order to be it. The story of the Folkestone Quakers so far this century is of learning to exercise their freedom to choose a place that helps them be who they are.

And there must be further discoveries in store on this journey.

Phil Gould, January 2017