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1. Welcome

Welcome to our section on Bristol’s Quaker History.
This is a temporary page. It is written to give some guidance as to the factors which gave rise to the Quaker Sect in the mid-17th Century. It also attempts to show how, through the severest of persecution of its members, it had become a conservative religious organisation by the end of the same century.
A more complete section on the Early History will be posted in due course - watch this space!

2. How did Quakerism begin?

Quakerism grew directly out of the English Revolution (1640-49). This Protestant Revolution had freed up numerous ‘ordinary’ men and women from the constraints and control of the old feudal monarchal state. The Revolutionary years and the excitement of radical change (the armed challenge to and the eventual overthrowing of the English monarchy and its State) allowed an unprecedented freedom of thought and expression among the masses of people in Cities and towns and in the countryside. The Protestant philosophy of ‘individualism’ (that each person could communicate directly with God, without the need for an intermediary State authorised person) meant that those who accepted this way of thinking were empowered to challenge local or national authority. For if you claimed to be acting under the direction of God, “doing God’s will’ then you could claim to be answerable to a higher power than that represented by your local Lord, Corporation, Magistrate or General. In a very real sense the English Revolution had the effect of changing people’s perspective from one of ‘looking back’ to one of ‘looking forward’. With the expansion of land clearances and land owners obtaining control over the countryside, people were forced to move and live in towns. These displaced people’s lives were disrupted as was the way they began to perceive the world. These people became wage-earners, they were the emerging working class. Britain’s involvement in the Slave Trade changed the way that Merchants, landowners and employers looked at all labour. Slavery coupled with a newly emerging capitalist class meant that class differences were accentuated across Britain. Coupled with this was a new protestant ethic which equated ‘poverty with sin’ and ‘profit with God’s will’.

During and following the English Revolution people in Britain formed into numerous radical Protestant sects; Seekers, Puritans, Separatists and, significantly, groupings who had no name. Following the execution of Charles the First there was an explosion of printed and vocal propaganda from Radicals of all kinds. One such radical was George Fox the ‘founder of Quakerism’. By 1652 the extremely radical movement, ‘Quakerism’, was formed. For five years or so before this time Fox had been preaching throughout England. During this period he had been imprisoned in Derby gaol on a charge of blasphemy and imprisoned at Nottingham for interrupting a church service. From 1652 the numbers of people who claimed to be Quakers mushroomed. Fox tapped into the popular resentment across the country towards ecclesiastical authority. Fox, like many protestant Radicals preached that there was only one authority, Christ and that everyone could discover Christ within his or her own heart. His slogan was, "Christ has come to teach his people himself". Today this may not seem like a Radical slogan but in the 1650s after eight years of Revolutionary War, which saw people exert their will over the Authority of the State and its Church, this slogan was a liberating call. This challenge to the State Authority under the Commonwealth was to lead to numerous Quakers being imprisoned.

It should be noted that early Quakers opposed the idea of sin - they saw this very much as a way of ‘controlling’ people. Their dogma and self beleif marked them out for persecution. Every part of the State machine was used against them; magistrates, judges, prison warders and the clergy. They were often charged with the crimes of blasphemy and disturbing the peace. Charges were brought against them by the very local authorities they were challenging. Despite this continual harassment, by 1660 there were 40,000 Quakers in the country and by 1700 perhaps as many as 60,000.

Quakerism, originally a name given to ‘Friends’ as a term of derision from its opponents, started in the North of England and spread to the South and Wales like ‘a whirlwind from the North’.

3. Early Quakerism in Bristol

The first Quakers arrived in Bristol in 1654. One of the first Bristolians to join the Quakers was Denis Hollister, an MP in the previous year’s ‘Barebones Parliament’ and future father-in-Law of William Penn. Quakerism became so popular in Bristol that there were no halls or meeting places large enough to hold the numbers of people attending their gatherings and meetings had to be held in the fields around the City.

Clergy in Church of England churches spoke out against Quakerism. Bristol Quakers, seeing themselves as Apostles disrupted the services in Church of England churches (including St. Philips and the Cathedral). When Quaker,James Naylor, entered Bristol and was placed under arrest, branded, tied to a cart and flogged through the City’s streets, he was never to recover from this treatment. Bristol men and women Quakers were flogged in Bridewell Prison. The Sect was extremely political, and confrontational, Fox, met with Oliver Cromwell frequently between 1656-68. Members were fearless in their opposition to control over their meetings and worship by the state. But with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 this Radicalism began to decline. They now entered a period of counter-revolution, the period of small presses independent of State control ended. Gradually, over the following decades, Quakers became non-political. Increasingly Quaker meetings came under the ‘guidance’ of their more conservative, wealthier members. Instead of holding a philosophy of direct action and involvement in political affairs, (a philosophy based on a belief that Eden was due to be created on Earth), an outlook of ‘Inner Light’ and reflection came to the fore. This was a direct result of the deliberate and ruthless persecution they suffered from the new Monarchical State. In 1661, the Corporation Act prevented Quakers from holding public office and following apprenticed trades. Quakers refused to swear oaths (saying that their word alone was good enough), this led to them being open to punitive fines for non-swearing. Laws forbid them from recovering debts, administering estates or taking up the freedom of cities. As ‘non-freemen’ they were not allowed to carry out trade of commerce in the Port of Bristol. Their harassment in the City was such that the Merchant Venturers paid local people to inform on Bristol Quakers. In 1662 Hollinster and 65 other Quakers were rounded up and arrested, joining 125 other Quakers in Bristol’s Prisons.

In 1664 the State passed the Conventical Act. This Act said that no more than four people could meet in any one house for worship. Anyone breaking this law faced imprisonment and a fine. Bristol Quakers, and other non-conformist sects, were caught under this Act. However there were occasions were juries of Bristolians refused to persecute their neighbours and when three Bristol Quakers were sentenced to transportation to North America or the West Indies sailors refused to carry them.

In 1670 a second Conventical Act was passed which excluded Bristol Quakers from their Meeting Rooms including their new Room at Friars.

In 1673 the Test Act was passed which obliged all people of England to take Oath and Communion according to the Church of England.

During the period 1676-81 Quakers were relatively free of persecution. There then followed a mass round-up of all members of non-conformist sects. 1,500 people in Bristol were effected - their meeting rooms closed down and were pursued and harassed my officers of the City at every turn. Unable to meet in their own Meeting Rooms and Chapels these congregations went out into the quarries and glens around Bristol. They met in Stapleton, Knowle, Brislington, Durdam Downs, Leigh Woods, etc. At Crews Hole (Screze Hole), then east of Bristol, on the River Avon, they built an amphitheatre to hold hundreds of non-conformist dissidents. At Baptist Mills, Conham and Brislington thousands of people would gather and hear dissident preachers. At St Anne’s Woods the local State used dogs, whips and guns against such congregations. Preachers were ambushed and put into Gloucestershire Goal.

In 1676 one preacher drowned as he crossed a river in an attempt to escape. Preachers would go about in disguise. Miners from Kingswood attended many of these meetings. Numbers of those people attending these unlawful gatherings were too great for the City’s goals and there are records of prisoners dying of suffocation. The City Sheriff ‘caught and shut up’ over eighty men and women who were outside of Lawford’s Gate returning from an open-air meeting. Quakers who were imprisoned were known to have married inside the jail and it may well have been that they used their jail as a place of worship. Certainly their children, left alone in the City, organised their own meetings for which they were flogged with whalebone sticks and put in the stocks. In 1681 the Friars Meeting House was damaged to the cost of £150. Trained bands went around the City possessing Quaker buildings, closing down their shops and nailing up their doors and windows. Quakers meeting in the open in the streets of Bristol suffered a torrent of abuse and missiles thrown by their fellow citizens. The Friars Meeting House was allowed to re-open but was soon attacked with some Quakers put under arrest while the others (some 101 people) were trapped in their Meeting House, which was nailed up, for some six hours. In 1685 100 Quakers were released from Bristol’s jails as part of an amnesty of 1,500 released nationally under a pardon by James Second. Quakers still suffered abuse and discrimination, in 1685 Hollister, Pyott (of Lower Easton and a friend of Fox) and Gouldney were attacked in Corn Street.

After these waves of persecution came to an end the conservative strand of Bristol Quakers had taken control and any thoughts of the sect being Radical in the sense of challenging the State and authority on a National and Local level were not entertained. By 1728 leading Bristol Quakers were no longer plain modest people, rather they came to their Meeting Houses in carriages and had discarded their distinctive plain dress.

I hope that these notes give some insights into the lives and actions of the Quakers; Darby, Gouldney and Penn who are discussed on other pages on our Web Site.

Jim McNeill
Living Easton
March 2001