A Quaker meeting house dating to 1670.
Reasons for Designation
Hertford Quaker Meeting House, dating to 1670, is listed at Grade I for the following principal reasons:
* as the oldest purpose-built Quaker meeting house still in use in the world;
* because of close and evidenced associations with some of the earliest members of the Quaker movement, including its founder, George Fox.
* as an exceptional historic survivor of a C17 Quaker meeting house which retains its essential historic form and character as when constructed;
* as evidence of the development of the meeting house type, including the insertion of the raised bench for travellers and elders and the division of the space which became typical for Quaker Meeting Houses;
* for the survival of significant quantities of historic and original fabric, including original timberwork such as the movable panels.
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 member’s houses, barns, and other secular premises followed. Persecution of non-Conformists 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.
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. 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. Traditional styles continued to be favoured, from grander Classical buildings in urban centres to local examples in domestic neo-Georgian. The work of Hubert Lidbetter, an architect long associated with Quakerism, demonstrates a range, from the solid Classicism of Friends House, London (1921-7) to the more contemporary style of the 1964 Sheffield meeting house (now in alternative use). In the post-war period, a small number of Quaker buildings in more emphatically modern styles were built; examples include the meeting house at Heswall, Merseyside, 1963 by Beech and Thomas, and buildings by Trevor Dannatt, of which the Blackheath Quaker Meeting House is one.
The first Quaker presence in Hertford dates to 1655 when James Nayler (an important early Quaker) arrived in the town. George Fox first visited the town in 1656. Meetings were initially held in private houses and inns. A local butcher purchased land to serve as the community’s burial ground. The number of Quakers in the town and surrounding area increased rapidly and reached several hundred in the late 1660s. The decision was taken to build a dedicated meeting house on land provided by another local Friend. This was completed in 1670 and is in the plain and austere style which became common for the movement, with use of simple and unadorned materials. Fox visited the new meeting house on at least two occasions. An indenture of bargain, still held by the meeting and dating to 1669, between William Adams and others, sets out the agreement to build the meeting house. The upper rooms were used for smaller meetings and latterly as accommodation. In the 1680s doors and benches were burned during a period of persecution and the building left derelict for a period before being repaired. In 1717 sash windows were installed, but were replaced in 1731 by casement windows, with the lower openings bricked up. The raised benches also date to 1731. There was no space provided for a women's meeting within the building, instead a smaller hall, initially known as the priory rooms, was built on the other side of the small front court in 1738.
The meeting house has been in continuous use since its construction, although by the 1980s the building was in very poor condition and so in 1981 an internal steel frame was inserted to provide necessary additional support to the walls and roofs but without affecting the exterior character of the building. The work cost £80,000 and was supported by the Department of the Environment. The project is commemorated by etched inscription in one of the small window panes which itself is in imitation of C19 etchings on another window.
A Quaker meeting house dating to 1670.
MATERIALS: the building is constructed of red brick in irregular bond, with a plain-tiled roof. There is an internal steel framework which provides structural support.
PLAN: the building is near square on plan, although the roof is composed of one main pitch and two axial wings projecting towards the north.
DESCRIPTION: the principal elevation is to the north and has large twin gable heads facing the street. There is a single leaf, timber door to the right which is the main entrance to the building. There are four, high level windows, that to the far left has been formed by partial bricking up of a former doorway. The other windows, which are now casements, have been created by the partial blocking of larger window openings, which were formerly sashes; the one to the right has a later stone inserted above dated 1670. There are two tripartite windows above, sited within the gable heads. A cast-iron downpipe in the centre of the elevation takes water from the roof valley between the two pitches which is delivered to the rainwater head through an opening in the brickwork at the meeting point of the two gables. The gables have moulded coping.
The east elevation has two further high level windows again in partially blocked openings. The south elevation has larger windows with timber mullion and transom and a timber boarded door to the left. The window to the right is a blocked up doorway, mirroring that on the north elevation and meaning there were originally four doorways into the meeting house. There is a small gabled dormer to the left set just above the wallhead. The west elevation is partially obscured by adjacent buildings and contains a shouldered chimney stack which rises at the ridge.
INTERIOR: a lobby which extends the full width of the building contains a large, brick-lined, fireplace with a heavy bressumer. Between the fireplace and rear door is a timber stair to the gallery above with square newel posts topped by ball finials, and a chamfered handrail. The meeting house takes up the remainder of the space and is reached through a panelled door set within a timber screen. The screen has panels which slide vertically into a lower dado partition to open the screen and allow the lobby to be used as an overflow space.
The meeting hall is full height and the timber roof structure is exposed to the collar beams. There is a tall chamfered pillar with angled bracing, supporting the main tie beam. The Hall retains many historic features including the Travellers (Quakers who travelled in the ministry) bench with dado panelling ramping up to the highest bench, and two plainer benches below. There are hooks behind the bench which is where the visitors hung their hats during meetings. The gallery has two small chambers which are separated by a timber partition with a historic plank door. The meeting hall can be viewed through removable timber panels within the screen. The screen has historic graffiti some dating to the early C19. There is also graffiti etched into the glass of one of the windows, and as noted above this was replicated in the 1980s to commemorate the structural repairs to the building. The original roof structure remains in situ, although some timbers have been replaced.