Quaker meeting house. 1787, extended in 1812, with later additions and alterations.
Reasons for Designation
Leighton Buzzard Quaker Meeting House, situated on North Street, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* as an C18 Quaker meeting house in a vernacular Georgian style, its restraint typical of the modest and unornamented style of these buildings for worship;
* the plan form and historic fabric preserved in the interior including the Elders’ Stand, timber partition with sliding sash shutters and other features provide evidence for the division of space and internal arrangements typical for earlier Quaker meeting houses.
* as a purpose-built meeting house with an attached burial ground established in the late-C18 in the town centre, reflecting the growing confidence and determination of Quakers to practice their faith.
* with 27-31 North Street, 33 and 35 North Street, and 37-51 North Street (all Grade II-listed).
The Quaker movement emerged out of a period of religious and political turmoil in the mid-C17. Its main protagonist, George Fox, openly rejected traditional religious doctrine, instead promoting the theory that all people could have a direct relationship with God, without dependence on sermonising ministers, nor the necessity of consecrated places of worship. Fox, originally from Leicestershire, claimed the Holy Spirit was within each person, and from 1647 travelled the country as an itinerant preacher. 1652 was pivotal in his campaign; after a vision on Pendle Hill, Lancashire, Fox was moved to visit Firbank Fell, Cumbria, where he delivered a rousing, three-hour speech to an assembly of 1000 people, and recruited numerous converts. The Quakers, formally named the Religious Society of Friends, was thus established.
Fox asserted that no one place was holier than another, and in their early days, the new congregations often met for silent worship at outdoor locations; the use of members’ houses, barns, and other secular premises followed. Persecution of Nonconformists proliferated in the period, with Quakers suffering disproportionately. The Quaker Act of 1662, and the Conventicle Act of 1664, forbade their meetings, though they continued in defiance, and a number of meeting houses date from this early period. Broad Campden, Gloucestershire, came into Quaker use in 1663 and is the earliest meeting house in Britain, although it was out of use from 1871 to 1961. The meeting house at Hertford, 1670, is the oldest to be purpose built. The Act of Toleration, passed in 1689, was one of several steps towards freedom of worship outside the established church, and thereafter meeting houses began to make their mark on the landscape.
Quaker meeting houses are generally characterised by simplicity of design, both externally and internally, reflecting the form of worship they were designed to accommodate. The earliest purpose-built meeting houses were built by local craftsmen following regional traditions and were on a domestic scale, frequently resembling vernacular houses; at the same time, a number of older buildings were converted to Quaker use. From the first, most meeting houses shared certain characteristics, containing a well-lit meeting hall with a simple arrangement of seating. In time a raised stand became common behind the bench for the Elders, so that travelling ministers could be better heard. Where possible, a meeting house would provide separate accommodation for the women’s business meetings, and early meeting houses may retain a timber screen, allowing the separation (and combination) of spaces for business and worship. In general, the meeting house will have little or no decoration or enrichment, with joinery frequently left unpainted. Ancillary buildings erected in addition to a meeting house could include stabling and covered spaces such as a gig house; caretaker’s accommodation; or a school room or adult school.
Throughout the C18 and early C19 many new meeting houses were built, or earlier buildings remodelled, with ‘polite’, Classically-informed designs appearing, reflecting architectural trends more widely. However, the buildings were generally of modest size and with minimal ornament, although examples in urban settings tended to be more architecturally ambitious. After 1800, it became more common for meeting houses to be designed by an architect or surveyor. The Victorian and Edwardian periods saw greater stylistic eclecticism, though the Gothic Revival associated with the Established Church was not embraced; on the other hand, Arts and Crafts principles had much in common with those of the Quakers, and a number of meeting houses show the influence of that movement.
The C20 saw changes in the way meeting houses were used which influenced their design and layout. In 1896 it was decided to unite men’s and women’s business, so separate rooms were no longer needed, whilst from the mid-1920s ministers were not recorded, and consequently stands were rarely provided in new buildings. Seating was therefore rearranged without reference to the stand, with moveable chairs set in concentric circles becoming the norm in smaller meeting houses. By the interwar years, there was a shift towards more flexible internal planning, together with the provision of additional rooms for purposes other than worship, reflecting the meeting house’s community role – the need for greater contact with other Christians and a more active contribution within the wider world had been an increasing concern since the 1890s. Traditional styles continued to be favoured, from grander Classical buildings in urban centres to local examples in domestic neo-Georgian.
Quakers living in Leighton Buzzard were recorded in early-C18 Visitations, but at that time they were meeting for worship at the C17 meeting house some 10km from the town in Hogsty End (Woburn Sands). It was not until 1761 that John Brook (1720-1790), a wool merchant from Yorkshire, registered his Leighton Buzzard house as a place for meeting for worship. Brook’s wife, Mary (about 1726-1782), was a notable peripatetic Quaker missionary who published a highly successful religious pamphlet in 1774 (she was buried at the Hogsty End Quaker burial ground).
In 1786 the clerk to the Monthly Meeting, John Grant, bought and demolished some properties on the west side of North Street. A new meeting house was built on the plot in 1787 and registered at the April 1789 Quarter Sessions by Grant with Joseph Brook, Benjamin Reed and Peter Bassett. In 1807 Grant purchased more land to the west of the new building for a burial ground. Then in 1812 the meeting house was extended to the north and the front elevation was refaced in red and blue brick.
The property, including adjoining tenements, was given to the Friends Meeting by Grant’s widow in 1844. The southern part of the building was being used as a schoolroom by 1880. The meeting house was restored in 1953 and underwent repairs in 1960. The south end of the meeting house was subdivided around that time. A small kitchen block was added to the south-west corner. A cottage attached to the north wall and still standing in 1937 had been demolished by 1970, leaving only a short section of coped brick wall fronting the meeting house’s toilet block.
Quaker meeting house. 1787, extended in 1812, with later additions and alterations.
MATERIALS: red and blue bricks laid to a mixture of bonds, clay tile and slate roof coverings.
PLAN: the meeting house is rectangular on plan, with a porch to the centre of the east elevation. There is a kitchen, square on plan, to the south-west corner, and a small toilet block to the north-east corner.
EXTERIOR: the single-storey meeting house stands in a courtyard to the west side of North Street, behind 27-31 North Street (Grade II) and just south-west of the Almshouses (33 and 35, and 37-51 North Street, also Grade II-listed). Oriented north-south, the meeting house has a brick plinth and a brick cornice. The hipped roof is covered with clay tiles.
The main (east) elevation is in blue brick laid to header bond, with red brick dressings. The six bays comprise, from left to right, a large timber cross window under a segmental arch, then a doorway with a pedimented doorcase under a segmental arch, and a second similar cross window. A timber porch with a gable roof covered in slates provides access to the main entrance. The last two bays comprise twelve-over-twelve sash windows lighting the main meeting room.
The north elevation is blind, whilst the south elevation includes one window opening lighting the small meeting room. The single-storey kitchen to the left has a hipped tiled roof. The kitchen block with a centrally-placed doorway obscures the south end of the rear (west) elevation; this three bay garden front in red brick laid to mixed bonds comprises three eight-over-eight sash windows under segmental arches. There is some diapering in blue brick to the southern end of the west wall.
INTERIOR: the meeting house is divided into the main meeting room to the north and ancillary spaces to the south. The double-leaf door of the main entrance leads from the porch into the plainly plastered main meeting room, which has a tall dado of horizontal boards. The dado is raised up behind the Elders’ Stand occupying the north wall. The Stand comprises three tiers of fixed backed benches accessed from either end. The front two benches have curved arm rests on turned balusters. The panelled partition dividing the main meeting room from the rooms to the south includes vertically sliding shutters. Its centrally-placed walkway leads into a lobby, followed by the small meeting room which retains some of its panelled dado. The kitchen is accessed from the small meeting room.