The following three articles were written by Linda Skellam, a member of Leek Quaker Meeting, for publication in the local newspapers around the time of the Meeting’s Open Day in July 2005.
Quakers in Leek (Article 1)
Tucked away in a corner of Leek town centre, on the corner of Overton Bank and Salisbury Street, lies the Quaker meeting house. Surrounded by a high wall, which mostly obscures it from view, it is a building that many people may not have not even realised is there. It, along with the Quaker movement, has nevertheless, been a part of Leek, and its history since 1694.
So, who are the Quakers? What do they believe? What is their relevance in today’s society?
Quakerism began in the turbulent times of the mid-seventeenth century, a time when there was much religious and political conflict. The founder of the movement was George Fox (1624-1691), who grew up in Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire, a village that had practised a puritan tradition following the reign of Elizabeth I. At the time he was disillusioned by the lack of adherence to Christian values by those who professed to be of the Christian faith. He thus set out, at the age of nineteen, in search of spiritual help, and spent the next four years travelling across the country.
During the next three or four years he met many people, from differing religious groups, many of whom shared his views, and who were on a similar spiritual journey. It was while travelling around Westmorland, and Pendle Hill, that he encountered the Westmorland Seekers, a scattered group of people who were also all “eagerly awaiting fresh light in their search for truth”. Several meetings took place, at which he spoke and preached his beliefs – and it was through these first meetings that the Quaker movement, the “Society of Friends”, was born – the year was 1652.
The message that George Fox preached was quite simple – he encouraged people to listen to the spirit of God in their hearts, and obey its guidance in their daily lives, remembering also to follow the teachings of Christ. He told them that the spirit that had inspired the scriptures to be written was still “working and living in the hearts of men and women, ready to reveal fresh truths”, and reminded them that their bodies were “the living temples of a living lord”.
From this time on, men and women from the fellowship began to travel to spread the message – on their journeys they encountered much opposition and persecution, and there was much heroism within their ranks. This only came to an end when they had finally won the freedom for all men and women to worship according to the dictates of their consciences.
In fact, there was much dissatisfaction with the established church at the time, and a number of non-conformist groups had been formed. Some of these maintained connections with the church, others, such as the Quakers, were “completely outlawed, and were often on the end of violent opposition from the established church”.
However, the remote areas of the Staffordshire Moorlands proved to be a safe haven, owing to their isolated location, and were a place where Quakers could meet with a “reasonable hope of safety”. Villages such as Grindon, Horton, Ipstones, Basford, Heaton and Bosley, Ford and Waterfall were homes to the early Quakers – in 1658 it was documented that there could be anything up to 200 persons attending meetings within the Staffordshire Moorlands.
In 1694 this group of Moorland Quakers decided to build the meeting house in Leek, and records show that it was erected in 1697. Originally it was a rectangular shape, rather than the L-shape that you can see today. There were two entrances, one on the west gable end, which is now blocked, and one on the north side, which was presumably the original main entrance. The west door is of some interest, as it, and a mullioned window adjacent to it (also blocked) retain many of their original features. The window is typical of those in the 17th century, having chamfered mullions; the door way also has chamfered jambs, and a substantial stone lintel – it is wider than usual, which suggests that it may have been used as the entrance for funerals.
At Leek Meeting, several of the members were men of influence, including Joshua Strangman, who was a button manufacturer, plus several “button merchants”, including William Key, William and James Lucas and Joshua Toft at Haregate. A number of others were listed as being button men or merchants.
Joshua Strangman lived in St Edward Street, probably in the “Old House”, still present today, which is dated as 1724. John Wesley, when he visited Leek in 1744, wrote of him in his journal, “About 1.00pm, when we reached Leek in Staffordshire, I could not imagine who the Quaker should be who sent me word that he expected me to dinner, and I was agreeably surprised to find that it was my old friend Joshua Strangman, of Mount Mellick, Ireland, whom I have not seen for many years.” (Quote from “St Edward St and Broad St – past and present” by George Lovenberry.)
Sadly, in 1715 during the Old Pretender’s Rebellion, the Meeting House was broken in to, and the furniture and content’s were burned. Again, in 1745 when Prince Charles Edward (Bonnie Prince Charlie) passed through Leek, the Young Pretender’s soldiers broke in, threw out the furniture, and used the Meeting House as a stable and slaughterhouse. Leek Quaker, Joshua Toft, then acted to prevent further damage to the building by inviting them to Haregate, to discuss their provisions. (Ray Poole “Journey through Leek Town Centre”.)
From 1750 to 1780 the Meeting House was used as a Quaker School; in 1794 it was extended by the addition of a bay and forward wing to allow the addition of a staircase, thus creating the L-shape that is present today. In fact, you can still see the coat hooks used by the children, on one wall of the entrance hall.
However, in 1812 the membership had shrunk to 42, consisting mainly of the members of a few large families. Attendance continued to fall, and in 1850 Leek Meeting House was closed. It was reopened occasionally between the years of 1850 and the end of the century, but further reductions in membership caused its closure, again, in 1895.
It was following this, during a time when the building became derelict, that the Labour Church took it over, restored and repaired it, and re-opened the doors as the “William Morris Labour Church”. During these renovations, a student of William Morris, Walter Crane, designed and decorated the internal walls of the main meeting house room. It must have been a splendid sight, as it was described by the Book of the Opening (published by the Labour Church in order to raise funds) that it was; “furnished with old high backed pews, and has a comfortable upper chamber for small meetings; it will accommodate from 200 to 300 people if necessary. The walls are being lacquered to a rich red with stencil ornaments in colours to designs kindly contributed by Mr Walter Crane. The ceiling and overhead beams are being finished (as also the barrel sash windows) in pure white, and the woodwork painted a translucent green. The west and south upper windows will be draped with Morris blue velvet fabric, and the gas lighting is to be incandescent, with pink shades”.
It remained in the hands of the Labour Church up to 1932, when they generously relinquished the remainder of their tenancy so that the Meeting House could once again, be used by Local Friends – on it’s return to the Society of Friends, it was restored to its original simplicity, and the embellishments, including the Walter Crane Murals, were removed.
Quakers in Leek (Article 2)
Early Quakers, or Friends, were inspired by the thoughts and words of their founder, George Fox, who set out on a mission to persuade his fellow men and women to worship in a more personal way, finding that of God within themselves and not through the intermediary of a priesthood. He is quoted as saying, “Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy own mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life came.” He quickly found a following, and during the course of the 1650’s, there were somewhere between 40 to 60,000 practising Quakers, equalling the number of Catholics at that time.
From that day to this, Quakers meet together in silence, without the assistance of trained clergy, or leaders, and without any outward rituals, believing that the silence enables them to become more aware of a presence, of “listening to the quiet voice of God”. This silence can then enable the “ministry of the word of God” to be given to any of the worshippers, whether they are members, attenders (those who attend on a regular basis, but who have not chosen to apply for membership) or visitors, and during Meeting for Worship it is open for anyone to stand and speak – providing that they are prompted, or inspired, to do so by the Spirit – and not by their own ideas. It is certainly incorrect to arrive at the Meeting House with a prepared speech, or an idea of what one is going to say. The meeting begins when the first person enters the room, and closes one hour later – this is marked when two Friends (usually the elders of the meeting house) shake hands with each other, at which point all others present in the meeting will also shake hands. This is considered to be an expression of the communion of the meeting.
“Meeting for Worship” takes place within a “Meeting House”, which is not a church or chapel, as, Quaker meetings do not require consecrated buildings – they consider all places to be sacred. Where Friends do not own their own premises, meetings are often held in a hired room, or in a private home. (Leek Meeting is very lucky in this respect, having such a peaceful and historic building to meet in). The furnishings of the meeting room are simple, and there is no outward religious symbolism to be seen. The seating is arranged in a circle, demonstrating the equality of all who attend the meeting, and has a table in the centre – it is usual for this to display a vase of flowers, and significant books (including a copy of the Bible) during the meeting. At Leek meeting, as with many of the older Meeting Houses, the seating is in the form of wooden benches.
Meeting for Worship can be held any time of the day, or day of the week, but is more usually held on Sunday mornings, that being the most convenient time of the week. In the Quaker view, all days, as well as places, are sacred, not just Sundays. Because of this underlying principle, early Friends also rejected the idea of Christmas and Easter as religious festivals, early Friends even keeping their shops open on such days, as witness to this fact. More recently, some Meeting Houses will now hold a meeting for worship on Christmas Day. The meeting is public, and welcomes all who wish to attend.
( Leek Meeting for Worship takes place from 11.00 to 12.00 each Sunday.)
Weddings and funerals are conducted in the manner of Meeting for Worship; both are conducted mainly in silence, with the opportunity to speak for those who are moved to do so.
During a marriage ceremony, the bride and bridegroom are the first to speak, and make their declarations to each other. Each in turn uses the words: “Friends, I take this my friend ……. to be my husband/ wife, promising, through divine assistance (or with God’s help) to be unto him/ her a loving and faithful husband wife, so long as we both on earth shall live.” This is followed by the meeting for worship, and by the signing of the marriage certificate. During the meeting, all those present have an opportunity to pledge their support, and to ask for God’s blessings for the couple; this can become a source of inspiration and help to them for their forthcoming years. Leek meeting has seen two marriages: the first took place one hundred years ago, the second quite recently. Leek Quaker Elizabeth Morris, who also had a Quaker marriage ceremony, which was held at Wilmslow Meeting House, says of her wedding, “David and I went to the Meeting House together, and sat at the front, facing the other wedding guests. We were both happy to have a Quaker Wedding, and we had met the Quaker Registrar on several previous occasions. I think it was difficult for David’s family, and some of the other guests, to understand the proceedings, but many people commented afterwards that they had found it very moving and inspiring”.
In the introduction to funerals, in the Quaker book, “Quaker Faith and Practice”, Hardshaw East Monthly Meeting is quoted as saying: “Friends should come to a funeral with both heart and mind prepared. We want to experience a deep sense of communion with God and with one another, which we hope will comfort and strengthen those who mourn. There are at least two aims in our worship: to give thanks to God for the life that has been lived, and to help the mourners to feel a deep sense of God’s presence”.
Leek Quaker Alwyn Walmsley single handed kept leek meeting open from 1932 until 1936, when Eric and Doris Kent with their one year old son Alan joined the meeting having moved to Leek from Folkestone. The three (adult) Friends did much to improve the fabric of the meeting house, as well as upholding the meeting for worship. In 1955 Eric and Doris retired and moved to the Quaker Meeting House in Carter Street, Uttoxeter, where Eric restored both the Meeting House and house, having had little done structurally for some time due to small numbers in Staffordshire and hence lack of funds.
Memories of Staffordshire Monthly Meeting in 1940’s/50/s.
Comprised: leek, Uttoxeter, Stafford, Burton Meetings. A small Monthly Meeting (MM).
Regular Friends to MM included Alwyn Walmsley, Eric and Doris Kent (Leek): Parry and Anne Griffiths (Uttoxeter) – residents at no 39 Carter St: George and Fanny steel: Gertrude Storer (Stafford) Lilian Pitts (Burton).
Alan Kent 08.16
It is interesting to note that Leek Meeting House garden houses a Quaker cemetery, which currently is unmarked, the gravestones having been moved to Leek Cemetery some years ago. Among those interred there is one Margaret Lucas, who lived in Leek from 1714 to 1769. She has left a very interesting description of her life, which tells the story of her move to Leek after the death of her parents, of her subsequent life in Leek, and of the story of her convincement into the Quaker movement.
In Leek, she had been brought up by her Aunt and Uncle, as she had been orphaned at quite an early age. Sadly, they were both quite opposed to her becoming a Quaker, and her Aunt in particular demonstrated her opposition to this, sometimes in quite a violent manner. Fortunately, however, the story has a happy ending – through her persistence, her Aunt and Uncle finally came to terms with the changes, and accepted her back into the family. She went on to marry, and have a family of her own.
At the heart of the Quaker movement are the Testimonies, which describe, and give substance, to the ways in which Quakers try to live their lives, the better known of these probably being the peace testimony.
The Quaker Testimonies (Article 3)
Quakers or Friends (the society being known as “The Religious Society of Friends”) believe that there is something of God in everyone, that everyone is equal before God, and that all life is interconnected. They believe it is important to live simple and sustainable lives, and that we need to work to build peace in the world, learning to share the world and its resources. It is from these beliefs and aims that the Quaker Testimonies have been developed.
The testimonies themselves are therefore about the ways in which Quakers try to live their lives, and attempt to put their faith into practice. They arise from a deep, inner conviction, and challenge our normal ways of living. They are not fixed rules, nor are they written in any definite or unalterable way, but are guidelines that enable Friends to search for those ways in which the testimonies can have relevance in their own lives.
They also form a reflection of the society that we live in, and thus have changed over the ages. Issues such as the payment of tithes, and the use of outward religious symbols, were important to early Quakers; later there were issues with regard to integrity in business dealings, capital punishment and prison reform. Today, the testimonies include the following: simplicity; the earth and environment; peace; equality and community; truth and integrity.
The Testimony of Simplicity.
This testimony is one that is integral to Quaker faith, and Quakers aim to resist the temptation to define themselves and their position in society through acquiring possessions. An example of the commitment to simplicity can be seen in the form of Leek Meeting House. It has a beauty in its simplicity, which adds to the atmosphere of peace and tranquillity.
Early Friends believed that the love of luxury and self-indulgence might hinder a person’s spiritual life, and they paid much attention to both their forms of speech, and to their dress. Their clothes were plain, being made of a grey coloured cloth, with no frills. In the description of her own life, Leek Quaker Margaret Lucas (1701-1797) tells of the early Leek Quakers, of their use of plain speech (Early Quakers, would address each other as “thee” and “thou”, it being considered more simple a manner of address) and of her Aunt and Uncle’s disapproval of this practice. Later, the practice of wearing plain clothes and using plain speech was abandoned, as it was realised that simplicity is not solely dependent on outward uniformity, but on an “uncluttered, resilient and unselfconscious attitude to life”.
Today, this testimony has a greater emphasis on caring for the environment, and on living a sustainable life.
The Peace Testimony.
This is probably the best known of all the testimonies, both within and outside of the Religious Society of Friends, and is derived from the inner conviction that it is love that is at the heart of our existence. Although there are no set words that describe this testimony, Friends are deeply attached to the declaration made to Charles II in 1660, which begins, “We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoever”, and over the centuries it has been the aim of Quakers to “live in the life and power which takes away the occasion of all wars”.
Because of the levels of violence present in today’s world, this means that there are constant challenges to be met, and Quakers meet these challenges in many areas of the world. For example, in South Africa The Cape Town Peace Centre Committee has been working to encourage reconciliation between races, and has assisted in relief work in townships such as Soweto and Crossroads.
Nearer to home, the West Midlands Quaker Peace Education Project organises professional training courses for teachers, and other staff, along with workshops for pupils, in order to “promote an awareness of all kinds of conflict, and an understanding of how conflict, if resolved creatively and without violence, is a positive force for change.” (Taken from the Peace Education project leaflet.) The workshops aim to help schools, and pupils, deal with issues such as bullying etc. At least one local school has had some input from this committee.
Equality and community.
This testimony is derived from the fundamental Quaker belief that all people are of equal spiritual worth. In the early days of the Quaker movement, this was reflected in the equality of women within the Society, and through the refusal to use forms of address that recognised social distinctions, or hierarchy. (It is said that Quaker founder George Fox, on the occasion of being introduced to King Charles II, refused to remove his hat, and greeted him with the words “How fares thee, Charles Stuart?”)
In the present day, Quakers characteristically do not use titles such as “Mr”, “Mrs” etc, being introduced by using their first name and surname only.
In addition, this testimony is concerned with the ways in which our own life styles and behaviours increase inequalities. It thus concerns such matters as social inclusion, ethical investment, the avoidance of exploitation and discrimination, prisoners, and prison reform, and work with the homeless, asylum seekers, and refugees– and is thus of particular relevance in today’s increasingly multi-cultural society.
Leek Quaker, Barbara Martin (who has since left Leek for pastures new) was, until recently, working as the Quaker prison minister at a local detention centre for young offenders.
Of course, the most famous Quaker of all to be involved in this type of work was Elizabeth Fry, who became a Quaker chaplain at Newgate Prison in London. Horrified by the conditions that she witnessed there, she set about improving the conditions for the inmates, initially providing fresh bedding and clothes. Later, a school was set up for the children who resided there, and materials provided for the prisoners to knit, sew or make items that they could sell, thus providing them with am income with which they could buy their own clothing, food and bedding.
In addition, she was involved in campaigning to improve the conditions of those transported to Australia, and arranged for each woman to receive a bag of useful items, to help them on their way. These included a bible, two aprons, one black cotton cap, one large hessian sack (for transporting her clothes) and various items of sewing equipment, including sufficient material and needles etc to make a patchwork quilt. These quilts could then be sold, or used to provide proof of her sewing skills to a potential future employer.
Recently, Leek Quakers have been involved in the making up of bags of useful items that are then distributed to some of the local women’s refuges. These bags consist of practical items such as shampoo, toothbrush and toothpaste, pens and a notepad etc.
Quakers also appreciate the experiences of each individual, seeing them as being of value to the wider community. For example, Leek Quaker Elizabeth Morris spent time in Spain in the 1960’s, and felt that it was a life changing experience, but that it had no particular application in Quakerism. However, in 1991, she attended a World Conference of Quakers in Honduras, where she met Friends from Bolivia, Cuba, and other Latin American’s, and has kept in touch with many of them since. In the last 10 years she has visited Bolivia and Cuba, participating in Quaker Activities.
Truth and integrity.
Friends try to live their lives with honesty and integrity, aiming to be truthful in all aspects of their lives and with everyone. It was through this stance of honesty and integrity that many Quaker businesses gained their reputations, and thus thrived and became successful. For example, Barclays Bank and Lloyds grew in this way, as did Friends Provident and, of course, the chocolate manufacturers, Rowntrees, Fry’s and Cadbury’s.
More locally, were some of the local businessmen and manufacturers. William Key of Leek, button manufacturer, Cornelius Bowman of Catswall, Joshua Strangman, button manufacturer. In addition, Alan Key, James and William Lucas are listed as button manufacturers – presumably these men would have belonged to the family that Margaret Lucas (mentioned above) had married into?
A list of button merchants also includes John and James Gaunt, James Badnall, John Fynney, John Daintry and William Barker.