This article written by Roger Howell a Quaker and local historian was published in the Thornbury Parish Magazine in September 2004.
This year sees the celebration of 350 years of Quaker involvement with the city of Bristol and its surrounding area. George Fox (1624 – 1691) was the son of a weaver from Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire and had been apprenticed to a shoemaker and wool dealer. His parents had originally intended him for the ministry in the Church of England, but at 19 the young George felt spiritually troubled and began a quest for enlightenment. The Civil War had already broken out and political and religious upheaval were evident almost everywhere. Fox’s quest led him to travel, at first in the Midlands between 1643 and 1651, seeking out and observing the many different forms of religious expression then flourishing, and developing his own insights. In 1647 he began to preach and was often engaged in dispute with officials both clerical and secular. In 1651 he travelled north into Yorkshire and the following year into Lancashire and Westmoreland. Here he came into contact with, and was much influenced by, the sect known as Seekers, and in conjunction with them between 1652 and 1654 the basic tenets of the ‘Children of Light’ or ‘Friends of the Truth’ as they called themselves, although they had already been popularly nicknamed Quakers, were established. Swarthmoor Hall near Ulverston in Lancashire became their base and from there in 1654 missions, usually consisting of a pair of preachers, were sent out to spread their beliefs to the rest of the country.
So it was that on 12 July 1654 John Audland and Thomas Airey, both of yeoman stock from Westmoreland, visited Bristol and preached there for two days. John Audland came again in September, this time with John Camm, a yeoman farmer from Cammsgill, near Kendal. They spent a fortnight, from 7-21 September, holding meetings in and around the city, and as a result a permanent group of Friends was established in Bristol. Amongst other places they preached at Filton and Elberton and, no doubt, amongst the crowds that attended these meetings were some of the inhabitants of Thornbury. Quaker records have preserved the names of at least two of them.
‘Edward Parker of Thornbury was convinced by John Audland and John Camm at their first coming amongst us. He had a public testimony for the truth and continued faithful to his death, and on his dying bed gave a very living testimony for the truth to many Friends and others about him, when his last words were ‘Come Lord, thy servant is ready’ and then departed this life in the year 1667’.
Also Eleanor Cannings of Thornbury was convinced at the same time. ‘She was often exercised in bearing a faithful testimony for the truth against the priests, for which she suffered and endured many and great abuses from the rude people and continued a sincere true hearted Friend to the end of her days. And on her dying bed she gave many good exhortations to Friends about her, saying, a little before her departure, she was well satisfied and was going to a better habitation. She was buried at Hazel the 19th day of January, 1702, about the 73rd year of her age’.
Members of the Parker and Cannings families, both from Morton, occur frequently in the Quaker records, as do also members of the Packer, White, Marsh, Parslow, Smith and Motley families, also from Morton. From Kington the Thayer, Hopkins, Shipway and Walker families are often mentioned, and from Thornbury itself the Champneys, Thurston, Mabbott, Penduck, Marsh, Hawksworth, Gayner, Taylor, Cooksey, Young, Clarke, Pitcher, Glover, Barton, Longden and Pearce families. By 1677 there were enough Quakers in Thornbury to have a Meeting House of their own which was in John Street. In 1702 this was rebuilt and in 1794 it was rebuilt again. In 1715 John Barley left his dwelling house which was next door to the Meeting House, to the Friends in his will. The house was then converted to two tenements and rented out. By 1793 they were in a ruinous state and it was decided to demolish them and open the ground up to the Meeting House and its burial ground which lay behind it. Until 1720 most Thornbury Quakers were buried in the Burial Ground at Lower Hazel which had been in use since 1656, but after 1720, though some Thornbury Quakers continued to be buried at Hazel, most were buried in Thornbury.
In the first half of the 18th Century Quakers flourished in Thornbury. The Journal of Thomas Story, published in 1747, records several visits to Thornbury. One of these dated 7 March 1716 states that he was accompanied by several Friends from Bristol and attended a monthly meeting at Thornbury which was pretty large. After the meeting they had some refreshment at John Thurston’s. An entry for 18 June 1722 records that,
‘That evening I lodged at Abraham Lloyds on my way to Thornbury, to the burial of our ancient and honest friend John Thurston. It was on a first day of the week, and as he was a man well beloved and much esteemed of Friends and neighbours in his lifetime, so many came to our meeting on that occasion and the Lord gave us a good time and many were reached and satisfied. Things opening very plainly to most understandings who had any love for truth and concern for religion’.
Bishop Benson’s Survey of the Diocese of Gloucester for 1735 under Thornbury states that the population was about 1,800 with one Papist, 40 Presbyterians, 50 Quakers, meeting, school. Absenters 30 masters and mistresses of families. In the 1743 survey, ‘and school’ was deleted. In 1750 the Quakers were recorded as 30.
Since the days of George Fox, Quakers had always taken a great interest in education. Many Quakers became teachers and many Quaker schools were established. In 1691 a Friends’ School for both sexes is recorded in Thornbury and previous mention was made of Quaker Schoolmasters, John Cooksey in 1685 and William Burton in 1690/1. William Burton had a long career in Thornbury. He married Sarah Weeks of Alveston on 22 January 1690/1 and was buried at Thornbury on 31 January 1731/2 aged 72. Perhaps the school closed a few years later if it was the same school mentioned by Bishop Benson’s survey of 1735 but deleted in the 1743 survey. Later in the century Robert Young, frequently described as a yeoman, is also described as a schoolmaster in 1793. Other Quaker schoolmasters include Joseph Benwell mentioned in 1809 and James Moxham in 1821 and 1824.
The Quaker population had obviously begun to decline by 1750 and probably continued to do so in the second half of the century. By 1816 the meeting was very small and it was suggested that it should either unite with Olveston or that men and women Friends should be permitted to sit together; up until then men and women had always held separate meetings. The latter course was obviously taken as Thornbury meetings continued until 1847, when it was decided to discontinue the meeting at Thornbury and its members were to consider themselves as members of the Olveston meeting. The following year the decision was taken to let the redundant building out for use as a school or some other suitable purpose. It was for a while, in the second half of the 19th century, used by the Council School for the infant classes. The building was sold in 1934 to the Tucker Brothers of John Street and was used by them as a builder’s warehouse. In the 1980s it was finally demolished and the sheltered accommodation for elderly called Quaker Court was erected on the site.
A Quaker presence was maintained into the 20th Century by the Gayner family and was beginning to expand again by the time of the demolition of the Old Meeting House. The now flourishing Group of Quakers meets every Sunday at 10.30am in The Chantry. Information concerning events connected with the celebration of 350 years of Quakers in Bristol can be obtained at the Town Hall and at Thornbury Museum. There is a leaflet entitled Q350, and copies of The Bristol Quaker History Trail, price £1.
(The Quaker Records from which much of this article is drawn are lodged at Gloucester Record Office (GRO D 2052)).