Quaker Meeting Houses Assessed
The deliberate simplicity of the Quaker place of worship.
Quaker Meeting Houses Heritage Project
Historic England is working on the jointly-funded Quaker Meeting Houses Heritage Project with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). The aim is to provide a survey of all Quaker meeting houses in England that are currently being used for Quaker worship.
The Quakers have extended the project to cover Scotland, Wales and the Channel Islands and two buildings significant to Friends (as Quaker members are known), Friends House in London and Swarthmoor Hall in Cumbria.
The work is being carried out by The Architectural History Practice, on whose work this article is based.
17 years ago, Quaker Meeting House of England (Butler 1999) identified 1,300 extant and former meeting houses across Britain. Today there are 475 Quaker meetings (congregations) in England, Wales and Scotland. Of these 354 have a dedicated meeting house, while the rest meet in rented premises or private houses.
Quakers have their origins in the religious and political turmoil of the mid-17th century. George Fox, the main protagonist of the movement, turned his back on the established church, pouring scorn on its practices.
Fox claimed that each person can have a direct relationship with God, hence there was no need for priests or churches (‘steeple houses’, as Fox called them). Instead Friends met together for silent worship in all kinds of venues, including barns, orchards, hilltops and each other’s homes.
Intolerance and persecution were constant threats to their ability to meet. Such persecution affected all those who chose not to conform to the established church, but Quakers were singled out by the passing in 1662 of the Quaker Act, which led to imprisonments simply for attending Quaker meetings.
A few meeting houses were built in this time of persecution, for example Broad Campden, Gloucestershire (1663), the earliest meeting house still in use, and that at Hertford (1670), the oldest in continuous use.
The meeting in Hertford had started as early as 1655 (just three years after the foundation of the movement), gathering in the local butcher’s house. He purchased land to serve as the community’s burial ground and subsequently a meeting house was built on a plot belonging to another local Friend.
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.
The earliest Quaker meeting houses were distinctive for their simple, functional design; built by local craftsmen, they sit modestly in the landscape as ‘with no necessity to provide for music or any set form of service, a meeting house is more a domestic than an ecclesiastical building’ (Lidbetter 1961, 4).
This resulted in buildings with simple internal spaces, their arrangement reflecting the way in which Quakers worshipped. There are no liturgical requirements that control the design of the building, no priest or altar, no stained glass, coloured decoration or moulded ornament. Walls and ceilings are usually plainly plastered and were originally lime-washed, and floors are laid with stone or plain pine boards, housing simple fittings (today, usually, chairs surround a central table). This environment supported the Quaker way of worship.
The use of words such as simplicity and plainness – used to describe both Quaker buildings and sometimes the Quaker approach to worship itself – somewhat masks the complexity and influence of Quakers and their architecture.
Their origins were as a radical movement and this was to be reflected in Quaker public witness (for example in their vocal opposition to slavery). Equally Quaker buildings are infinitely more varied and responsive than the usual simple characterisation suggests. Furthermore, Quaker adaptation to new social challenges is matched by, or perhaps reflected in, their buildings’ evolution in response to the contemporary environment.
These points might be well-illustrated by the examples of the meeting houses at Brigflatts, Yorkshire and Blackheath and Kingston upon Thames in London.
Brigflatts (1675), on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, is associated with visits to the area by George Fox. Listed at Grade I, it is the earliest purpose-built meeting house in the north of England. Its construction is typical of the late 17th-century vernacular in the area and the building retains many historic fittings. Its setting includes a burial ground, in continuous use since 1656 and the burial place of the poet Basil Bunting; a garden, a paddock and a warden’s house; and a little-altered gig house and stable with classroom (the latter listed at Grade II).
The interior retains a wealth of oak fittings, including a minister’s stand (a raised area on one side of the meeting house where Quakers travelling in the ministry would have sat); fixed benches; a wide staircase (with dog gate); raised galleries on three sides; and an Elders’ bench. Elders are appointed individuals responsible for the spiritual life of the meeting.
A screen remains, with panelling and hat pegs: this screen was originally moveable, and such hinged or sliding wooden partitions often divided the main meeting room from the room formerly associated with the women’s business meeting. Meeting Houses at Kendal and Manchester still have the original early 19th-century winding gear for such a screen in situ.
The Blackheath Meeting in south London had several bases in Woolwich and Deptford before the 1970s, including, at different points, both their own small meeting house and rooms within various buildings owned by others.
In 1972 a new concrete building was designed by Trevor Dannatt, a notable figure in post-war Modernist design. It was described at the time as a ‘modern building to fit in with the forward-looking community around it’ and received a Civic Trust Award in 1973 and a commendation by the Concrete Society in 1974.
It is described by the project as a ‘small, jewel-like Brutalist design (terms not usually conjoined), ingeniously planned to overcome and then exploit the level changes presented by the site. The chamfered square plan form evokes a medieval chapter house, and the raised square lantern acts as a beacon’.
Kingston is a multi-purpose building designed by John Langley of Tectus Architecture: it is a single-storey, flat-roofed pavilion, with a colonnade of pale steel supports. It was a joint winner of the ACE/RIBA award for religious architecture in 2015, noted for its achievement in providing a vital community centre with a moving and well-composed meeting room. Making extensive use of natural light and surrounded by an informal garden, the meeting house reflects directly the modern Quaker priority of sustainability and adaptation to climate change; the building is leading the way as Quakers endeavour to also make their own lives and their older meeting houses as environmentally friendly as possible.
Kingston’s focus on the broader community highlights another important feature of Quaker meeting houses: they are not regarded as sacred spaces, as Quakers maintain that the whole of life is sacramental and that no place or date is more sacred than another. This enables meeting houses to be used for a wide variety of purposes and the current project is demonstrating a high level of communal value and community use, reaching far beyond the Quaker community itself.
Edinburgh Central Meeting, housed in a converted Victorian building above the Grassmarket, provides a venue for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, while Kendal (1818), which was proving too large for the local Quaker population, has been divided to provide a home for the Quaker tapestry. On a more modest scale, but important locally, yoga classes, playgroups, peace groups and fellowship groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and others all benefit from using meeting houses as a venue for their activities.
Vital information on an unsung heritage.
The current project will consider questions of heritage values, accessibility, sustainability, management and community use as they relate to Quaker meeting houses, so as to provide a baseline of vital information for a largely unsung group of fascinating and surprisingly varied buildings that reflect the history, attitudes and ethos of the Quaker movement.
Dr Ingrid Greenhow is a Quaker with a strong interest in the historic environment. Her MSc in Historic Conservation led on to a PhD comparing approaches to the conservation of ruins in England and Norway. As a translator, she has worked on a number of publications for the Norwegian Directorate of Cultural Heritage. For the last two years she has been involved with the Quaker Meeting Houses Heritage Project , which supports better management and appreciation of the Quaker built heritage in its historic, architectural and communal contexts.
Dr Linda Monckton FSA is an architectural historian who joined English Heritage, now Historic England, in 2003, first as a Senior Investigator and then later as Head of Research Policy for Places of Worship. She is currently an Historic Environment Intelligence Analyst in the Research Group. She has published widely on religious buildings from the middle ages to the present day.
Quaker Meeting Houses Heritage Project data is being made available through the Archaeology Data Service website.
Butler, D 1999 The Quaker Meeting Houses of Britain. 2 vols, London: Friends Historical Society
Butler, D 2012 ‘Seating in the Quaker Meeting House’ in Skidmore, C (ed) Sitting in Chapel (The Chapels Society Journal, 1), 28‒38
This page was first published in May 2016