Quakers in Yorkshire and a Mosque in the heart of East London

This is a transcript of episode 28 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dr Joe Flatman, Remona Aly, Hazel Southam and Shahed Saleem as we continue our journey through the history of faith and belief in England.

A History of England in 100 Places is sponsored by Ecclesiastical

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This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Hello I am Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Historian at the University of Roehampton and you are listening to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places.

In this series we explore the 100 amazing places that help tell the story of England. Today we reveal the final top 10 locations in the Faith & Belief category as chosen by the Judge, The Very Rev Dr David Ison, from your nominations.

Today I'm joined for the last time by journalists Hazel Southam, and Remona Aly as well as Historic England's Dr Joe Flatman.

Remember, you can join in our conversation. Just use #100 places to tell us about the irreplaceable locations on your doorstep. If you're enjoying the series, don't forget to subscribe so you don't miss an episode.

We begin with the Quakers and one of the oldest Quaker meeting houses in the world. Founded in 1689, the Farfield Quaker meeting house sits along the Dales Way in West Yorkshire. The year in which it was founded is key in the story of this modest stone building, for 1689 was the year the Act of Toleration was passed by Parliament. This was an act permitting non-conformist groups the freedom to worship (as long as they swore allegiance to the king and weren't Catholic!). This meant a group of Quakers who held secret meetings in this part of Yorkshire were able to openly worship and found this building, one of the earliest Quaker meeting houses.

In his notes, Judge David Ison points to the rootedness of Christian nonconformism in the English landscape.

David Ison:
I wanted to find something which spoke of the nonconformist tradition. It was the Reformation in the 1500s which opened that up to what can be called dissent or nonconformity. There were punishments administered by the government initially for nonconformity in religion.

The Quakers were one of the earliest dissident groups in the 17th century and they were persecuted. The Farfield Quaker Meeting House in West Yorkshire- I have a soft spot for it because I used to live in Bradford, so it's not too far away. It is one of those country places which remind you of the whole aspect to religious history, which again sometimes gets forgotten now. And the importance of the nonconformist and dissident tradition in shaping, again the economic life and the social life, of our country was enormous in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Hazel, what is the story of the Quakers in this particular part of Yorkshire?

Hazel Southam:
So in this particular part of Yorkshire the Quakers really have a chap called Anthony Myers to thank, who was a local yeomen, a local farmer. He allowed them onto his land and gave them, not exactly a barn, because it's a lovely little stone building over in the corner, as a place that they could worship in safety, without any persecution.

It does seem bonkers, doesn't it actually, that Quakers should have been persecuted when their whole ethos is about modesty, tolerance, pacifism…that slightly plays with my head. But anyway, good old Anthony Myers gives them space and it is a space that is still there today.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Does it reflect these qualities that you're talking of in terms of the Quaker faith?

Hazel Southam:
Very much so because it is incredibly simple. There are no adornments. I guess the idea there is that you are not distracted, but you are able just to focus in on God. So, mindfulness several hundred years ago.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Most importantly perhaps, this building represents a point in time when the nation's freedom of belief and the acceptance of other versions of things took a liberal step forwards and it still stands as a testament to that today.

There are still 17,000 Quakers in Britain today, but I think it's really important to remember that there was a stage in which nonconformism was something that had to be approved by an act of Parliament in our history. Do you think we take our religious freedom for granted these days?

Remona Aly:
For sure, we absolutely we take it for granted! We have so many religious freedoms in the UK compared to other places in the world. There is religious persecution that is sadly prevailing against so many people. So I'm very grateful to be in Britain in the 21st century.

Hazel Southam:
Me too because both of us can go to our respective places of worship and worship freely and honestly and openly without any fear of what might happen to us. I think that we maybe as a society overlook that opportunity. This whole series is called 'Irreplaceable', and think our little local places of worship are the irreplaceable ones. I dare anybody, whether they have a faith or not, just to go in to their local place because we need to keep that sense of religious freedom going. We need to explore it for ourselves, whatever that might mean- all the doubts that come with that, and we need to keep those spaces redolent with prayer for future generations.

Remona Aly:
Quaker Meeting Houses are just such wonderful places for different religious groups to come together. Recently I know there was a Humanist and a Muslim dialogue that took place in a Quaker Meeting House. I just love that bringing together.

Joe Flatman:
It is such a space that you could do that. Quakers would totally welcome that.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Actually that speaks to the history of Quakerism as well. Their central belief, that all people are created equal in the eyes of God, was so important in the past because they were actively campaigning for the abolition of the slave trade before we have William Wilberforce because they didn't believe that one person could own another.

The Quakers formed a petition committee and campaign group to lobby Parliament in the late 18th century, boycotted Caribbean sugar and commissioned a Wedgwood design featuring a slave in chains with the words, 'am I not a man and a brother'. So the journey this group have taken in gaining their religious freedom, along with their egalitarian principles, put them at the forefront of early parliamentary lobbying, and social change in this crucial area of the abolition of slavery.

I suppose there is a sense in which the way in which religion can work towards social justice is commemorated in this Meeting House of the Quaker faith. That still is the case though, of course, isn't it?

Remona Aly:
I think that is a fantastic aspect of the Quaker faith that they fought for social justice and stood against oppression. That really speaks to me for sure and I think it speaks to many people of faith. Also, the Quaker women were very, very important in the spreading of the Quaker faith. There was spiritual equality between men and women, and that's something that speaks to my own faith as a Muslim.

Often women seem to be written out of our histories. We need to bring them back in. There is a rich legacy of women's contributions. So for the Islamic tradition, there is a lost legacy of female scholars. One scholar found 8000 accounts- a modern-day scholar found over 8000 accounts of female scholars. Yet that is something that is missing from, not just from our history books, but also from our consciousness.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
That is very interesting, isn't it? I think the Quakers were a particular group of Christians who really took to heart the notion of priesthood- the priesthood of all believers and everyone being equal.

We are now off to our 10th and final Faith & Belief location, for which we are going to East London.

David selected a building that has been a centre for multiple beliefs and congregations since its construction in the 18th century.

David Ison:
Brick Lane Mosque is in some ways the most interesting of all these places, because of its history over a relatively short amount of time. The way that different faiths and beliefs have shaped the places around them, and yet how the place has shaped the expression of that belief.

So you have this building which starts as a place for French Huguenots, becomes a Methodist church -that's a very different Christian tradition- and then turns into a synagogue as the Jews move out into east London and then becomes a mosque as the Muslim Bangladeshi community moves in.

So you've got this huge adaptation and it's about the fact that we are willing to adapt and change. I think it's a very proud history really that in this area of London, it has been able to accommodate so many different people from different backgrounds and different faiths and help them to become part of wider society.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
This building has a fascinating history and been a faith centre for an ever-changing community since its inception. It's now housed the three Abrahamic religions across three centuries and it's a building with many layers of history as David was saying. Tell us more about the history, Joe?

Joe Flatman:
The history is spoken both through the survival of this building, but then the communities around it. So, back in the mid 18th century it was built as a French Protestant church. At that time this part of East London, which was already by then really quite developed and built up, would have had a lot of French Protestants, the Huguenots communities around it, who are effectively refugees, let's call them refugees. They are fleeing persecution. So at that point, you would have heard French being spoken in that area.

It then changes as London changes and becomes a different type of multicultural area. In the 19th century it becomes a synagogue and that is where you get a lot of traditions, still, of which there are fragments to this day in East London of the Jewish communities. Then again in the 20th century, we see the changes again of the Jewish communities in London- they are still in London, but they tend to have moved to different areas.

The swathes of the next immigrant communities in that bit of London with Muslim communities, particularly ones of Bangladeshi origin, the site then gets turned into a mosque much more recently, in the 1970s.

This is as David said earlier- it is the microcosm of different types of communities coming in and they focus on that religious site, but they are not exclusive to it. That is why people to this day want to go to an area like that because you get that incredible buzz of humanity.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
There is a sense in which this particular building has been a refuge for the Huguenots, for Jews fleeing persecution even after partition, and thinking about Muslims coming to this country.

Remona Aly:
It's a wonderful sanctuary for all these different religious minorities. Brick Lane mosque is almost like this Olympic torch of faith that passes from one religion to the other and it just keeps burning. It's just such a wonderful example of this kind of harmony of different religions and this kind of flourishing of that. It is like a canvas that is coloured by so many different religions.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
You have a personal relationship with this mosque, don't you?

Remona Aly:
I have prayed there. I feel quite connected to the concept of it, especially the minaret that has been recently erected. It's not quite part of the building, but it's kind of on the street so it's kind between two worlds and I feel that kind of symbolises what I am as well. A lot of the first-generation immigrant communities feel where you are kind of from two places, but also there is a beautiful harmony with that as well. You are kind of like the outsider and the insider and you have this beautiful harmony of different worlds coming together. I think that is really symbolised in the mosque in Brick Lane.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
It is now named, Jamme Masjid and today it is a spiritual hub for the Muslim community in this part of London and beyond. What does Jamme Masjid mean?

Remona Aly:
Jamme is the Arabic word for a congregation. So it's about a community coming together and worshipping. Actually, it's more of a universal word really for all the different communities that have worshipped there in the past.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
We went along to hear more.

Shahed Saleem:
My name is Shahed Saleem. I'm an architect and the author of book called The British Mosque: an architectural and social history, where I look at the architectural narrative of the mosque in Britain.

We are standing on Brick Lane in East London in Spitalfields, just very close to the City and we are standing outside the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid, which is the Brick Lane mosque.

It is a very handsome Georgian building that was built in 1743 and just on the side of it there is a three-storey house which was built at the same time. When we enter, we enter through the main doors of the house and then we go through a side door into the main prayer halls, so we'll do that now.

So today we've come in just after the midday prayer. There are some people here who are carrying out their own private prayer in the mosque, so it is very quiet. So people just coming and going.

This is a fully functioning mosque. There are five daily prayers. They start from early in the morning at sunrise, then there is one around lunchtime, mid afternoon, sunset and evening. There is a prayer time/prayer clock that gives you the timings of all the prayers throughout the day, so people come from the local area and they'll take part in the congregational prayers. Then on the left-hand side there is set of double doors and this connects through to the prayer hall, to the main worship space.

So if we go through the doors here…

So now we are standing inside the main prayer hall. This space you see here, there are a few people carrying out their private worship, but other than that it's empty at the moment. You can really get a sense of scale and size of the hall. This was the original Huguenot church. It's been a Methodist chapel and it's been a synagogue and now it's a mosque.

In the corner, which is a Southeast corner of this prayer hall, you can see there is what called the Mihrab, which is a place where the Iman will lead the congregational prayer. That is facing towards Mecca.

I think this has the capacity for probably about 1500 people in the 2 prayer halls. Here they would have sermons in Bengali, English and parts of it would be in Arabic. There would be a lot of local people who are of predominantly Bangladeshi origin who will be coming and using the mosque. Then there will be a lot of people coming on Fridays in particular, who are working in the area, because the city is very close by.

This area of Spitalfields has been undergoing rapid changes. It has always been a place which has changed through the coming of communities, resettling of different communities and communities moving again.

So this street, Brick Lane that we are on, has really seen a huge amount of very intense social, cultural and economic activities, from street markets, a large brewery just up the road, which was a big employer in the area and a very significant part of this area as well, to the Spitalfields market, which is one street away.

When the Bangladeshi community settled here and the Jewish community, there was a big clothing trade. People used to say when you stood on Brick Lane you could hear sewing machines going all the time.

The mosque is a building within that area, which is emblematic again of that process of change. So all of the social and cultural processes. So it is very resonant with all of that life and activity.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Education, of course, is often an element of religious buildings. This particular building was originally a vestry and school for the French Protestant Chapel but that is true for lots of religions isn't it?

Hazel Southam:
That's right. If you think about rural churches in the UK, they will have probably been the place where children had what little education they did, a few hundred years ago. Sunday school would be the first place you might learn to read and write. There may have been nothing more than that. So actually places like this give you, not just your faith, not just a sense of refuge, which is fantastically important, but also an education as well.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
There is something about that sense that faith provides a unifying factor. Either for children being educated, for the community, for being a sort of anchor, especially for those who are coming to the country for the first time it's an anchor in a place that's unfamiliar to them?

Remona Aly:
Yes, exactly. It is an anchor. When people came from the Indian subcontinent, they established two things: they established places to worship, mosques, or Gurdwaras or temples and also they established places they could eat. So meat shops were also established in the Muslim communities. It was somewhere that they needed to focus, all the community had to come together. They needed a place that they could call their own, in a land that was becoming their new home. So they need to lay their own roots really and feel that real sense of belonging and new identity that was forging.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
What I really love about this one, our last one to end on, is that it does have these layers. It tells the complexity of the religious story of England in its own building within its own bricks.

That is where we finish our Faith & Belief category. We hope you have enjoyed hearing and learning about these inspiring places.

To recap, we have covered:

  • Stonehenge in Wiltshire
  • The Holy Island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland
  • Lady's Well in Northumberland
  • Canterbury Cathedral and St Martins Church in Kent
  • St Andrews Church in Essex
  • Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Birmingham
  • Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire
  • The Jewish cemetery in Falmouth, Cornwall
  • Farfield Quaker Meeting House in West Yorkshire
  • Brick Lane Mosque in East London

Of course there are so many more important locations besides. So before we go, I asked David Ison if he thought anything was missing from his top 10 list?

David Ison:
The additional choice that I came up with has a particular resonance, I think, because of its nature as an institution. Those are the two churches of St Bartholomews- St Bartholomew the Great and St Bartholomew the Less, in Smithfield, London. Originally there was a mediaeval priory founded by somebody called Rahere, in fulfilment of a religious vow as a place to care for the sick and needy and that came became St Bartholomew's Hospital- Barts.

St Bartholomew the Less is a chapel basically within the environment of Barts Hospital and just over the road is the old Priory Church of St Bartholomew famous in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. It is a wonderful medieval survival and wasn't bombed in the blitz or burned down in the Great Fire of London. The fact that Barts Hospital still survives is a fantastic testimony to that continuity of care, which comes out of the vision of faith.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Thank you very much to David, Hazel, Ramona, and Joe for such an interesting discussion of these fascinating places.

I am Suzannah Lipscomb and next time we will explore the top 10 places in our Industry, Trade, and Commerce category, which have been chosen by Dr Tristram Hunt from your nominations.

Why not get in touch and join the conversation using #100 places. While you're at it, leave us a review on iTunes. See you next time.

This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group. When it feels irreplaceable, trust Ecclesiastical.

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