History of Lincolnshire Quakers

From the faith’s origins to the present day, the county of Lincolnshire is steeped in the history of Quakerism.

The Children of the Light Come To Lincoln

From 1647 onwards, news had spread across the county of Lincolnshire that a young man named George Fox and his followers were preaching a radical message. They called themselves the Children of the Light and many in the county came to hear him speak when they arrived at the city of Lincoln in 1648.

At the time, the English Civil War Period was drawing towards its bloody end and the city of Lincoln had been caught in the middle. The Royalists were to the south and west, whilst the Parliamentarian forces were to the north and east. Therefore, many battles and skirmishes had taken place resulting in much suffering throughout the county.

The men and women of Lincolnshire who met and heard George Fox and the Children of the Light in 1648 were people whose world had been turned upside down by the changing religious and political ideas of the time.

And, at the time, Lincolnshire had had a history of rebellious religious leaders who had consistently defied the Church of England since its formation a century earlier. Therefore, many in the county were receptive to Fox’s preaching of peace, freedom and end of war.

In Lincolnshire, the Children of the Light had gained some more followers.

Persecution and Imprisonment

It would be six years later in 1654, when Fox and the Children of the Light returned to the county. By now they were now known as Quakers and described themselves as Friends of the Truth. Despite the civil war being over, both religious toleration and freedom of worship were in short supply.

Oliver Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector of the recently formed Commonwealth of England and the Quakers, seen as rebellious trouble makers, were systematically persecuted by the authorities for their beliefs.

Part of the mistrust that the Quakers were held in came from the fact that they were often perceived as being aligned with groups such as the Fifth Monarchists or Royalists who sought to end the Commonwealth.

During this period there was much talk of plotting and traitors. Despite their claim of refusing to take up arms, the Quakers were never believed and so the persecution continued.

John Whitehead was one of the Friends who entered the city of Lincoln in 1654 and, after preaching at the cathedral, he was arrested and kept prisoner at Lincoln Castle for four months.

It was also in 1654 that Elizabeth Hooton, generally regarded as Fox’s first ever follower, found herself briefly a prisoner in Lincoln Castle having previously been incarcerated in Derby and York prisons. She was known to have preached around Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire in the 1640s making her also the movement’s first female preacher.

A year later, in 1655, Fox wrote a letter to Oliver Cromwell declaring:

“I who am of the world called George Fox, do deny to carrying on glory of any cardinal sword against any or against the Oliver Cromwell or any man. In the presence of the Lord I declare it.”

The letter contained the signatures of two witnesses, one of which belonged to Robert Craven, the sheriff of Lincoln. He and he wife had become Quakers.

Between 1655 – 1659, the persecution of Quakers in Lincolnshire intensified and one example is with the labourer, Thomas Bromby, who lived in the village of Fillingham. He was imprisoned at Lincoln Castle in 1657 for not paying his tithes (the tax to the Church of England). Bromby was treated so harshly whilst there, he died just a year later from his ill-treatment.

The Restoration

In 1660, the Commonwealth crumbled away and the monarchy restored. King Charles II signed a declaration of intent allowing dissenting sects to worship in peace if they were not disruptive. Across the country Quakers were released from incarceration and 21 were set free from Lincoln Castle.

However, the local magistrates knew that the Quakers, on the grounds of not swearing oaths, would not swear an oath to the newly appointed king. So,  subsequently 86 Friends were arrested from the city of Lincoln and the surrounding area.

Despite the threat of arrest, two years earlier, in 1658, the first known marriage in ‘the manner of Friends’  had taken place in Lincoln between Ann Lammin and William Willows. The ceremony took place in the house of local Quaker Martin Mason. Mason was an outspoken critic of the social conditions of everyday Lincolnites and the hypocrisy of local church leaders. He commented:

“The poor it seems, must be preached into patience and contentedness… but the priests and the proud ones, who live in pomp and plenty, may purchase land and possessions without any check.”

Martin Mason

Mason was one of many early Lincolnshire Friends who came together as a community to help those who had been persecuted, imprisoned, fall sick or widowed.

This Friendship would prove invaluable in 1662, when the Quaker Act came into force making a non-licensed religious meeting of more than five people illegal.  The Quaker Act was designed to suppress religious groups that were still seen as a threat to both the King and the Government, and yet the Quakers were meeting more boldly than ever.

The Conventicle Act of 1664 went even further banning all religious meetings and fining those who did not attend their local parish church. This act forced many dissenting groups to meet and worship in private but the Quakers, in sheer defiance, refused to do this.

Between 1660 – 1689, there were 335 recorded Lincolnshire Friends who were imprisoned for breaking civil laws, mainly due to the two Acts designed to punish them. A further 58 were imprisoned for non-payment of tithes. During this period 11 Friends died in prison.

Friends from the north of the county were sent to Lincoln prison and those in the south were sent to prisons in either Boston or Spalding. Although all three had terrible conditions, Boston and Spalding were especially cruel in their treatment of Friends. There is a record of 18 Friends visiting imprisoned Friends at Spalding Prison, only for soldiers and a constable to throw them, the visitors, in jail.

Growth of Lincolnshire Quakers

Despite attempts by the authorities to quash the Quakers, their numbers continued to grow as they met illegally in both public and private spaces. In 1667 around a 100 local meetings (with 18 area meetings) were taking place in Lincolnshire, as shown in the map below.

Lincolnshire meetings pre 1689

In December 1667, George Fox revisited Lincolnshire and he recalls in his journal the continuing strife of local Friends:

“And from thence we passed into Lincolnshire. And on the day called Christmas Day at his house who had been formerly the Sheriff of Lincoln, we had some men friends of all the meetings in the county, and all was quiet. And after the meeting was done we passed away from events to a friends house and I was very weak and they threatened to come and break up our meeting but the Lord’s power chained them blessed and be his name, and our meeting was quiet.”

George Fox

Because of the growing number of Friends in the county, it was decided that there should be a dedicated place to bury deceased Quakers. Therefore, in 1669 Abraham Morris purchased land in Newland, inside the city of Lincoln, for use as a Quaker burial ground. The burial ground exists to this day and can be found behind the later constructed Lincoln Meeting House, although it’s no longer used.

In 1670, the second Conventicle Act was passed into law imposing even steeper fines on dissenting religious groups. At the beginning of the year eight friends were imprisoned in Lincoln Castle and by the end of the year, after the introduction of the act, 74 friends had been arrested and many of them thrown into the prison.

Twelve years later in 1682, William Penn purchased land in America, in what is now East Jersey. The following year, in 1683 Gertrude Holland from Beckingham Meeting bravely went out there alone. She was followed to East Jersey in 1684 by several Friends from Beckingham who took their families with them.

Lincolnshire Friends were now part of the New World.

The Act of Toleration

In 1689, William and Mary came to the throne and the Act of Toleration was passed. This allowed many previously outlawed religious gatherings to legally meet. In September of 1689, Lincolnshire Friends were granted certificates to hold religious meetings throughout the county. The licensed meetings in the county were as follows:

  • Sleaford
  • Brant Broughton
  • Careby
  • Fulbeck
  • Manthorpe
  • Post Witham
  • Swinderby
  • Thurby
  • West Willoughby

For the city of Lincoln, Friends decided that a new purpose-built Meeting House was needed. Unused land at the Quaker burial ground was chosen. Friends raised around £28 towards the initial construction and work began in September 1689, continuing throughout the winter months. The winter was harsh and slowed down the work, but finally the Meeting House was ready to open in March 1690 at a total cost of around £68.

Friends from across the county came by foot or on horse to the opening of Lincoln Meeting House. The first ever meeting saw the marriage of Abraham Morris senior and Isabel Youmans, a step-daughter of George Fox from his marriage to Margaret Fell.

Following the Act of Toleration, in 1690 there was an Act of Indemnity which meant Friends were allowed to be released from prison. For the first time it was recorded that there were no prisoners In Lincolnshire or none that have died in that year. However, the act did not protect Friends who subsequently refused to pay tithes.

By the end of 1695 new meeting houses had been built with licences granted. Chronologically these were in Welbourn, Beckingham, Navenby and Waddington.

Slowly, the 17th century drew to a peaceful close and a new generation of Lincolnshire Friends emerged. These were the children of the first generation Friends, who had witnessed the many sufferings of their parents.

They would not forget.

Quietism

As Quakerism entered the 18th century, the initial explosion of the faith was over. Many of the first generation Friends had died and the society entered into a period of reflection known as Quietism. Whereas before, Quakerism had been outspoken and outlawed now Friends were allowed to legally gather and say what they wanted. This resulted in the Society looking inwards as it looked to consolidate the faith it had struggled so hard to gain acceptance of.

For Lincolnshire Quakers, consolidation began with the opening of a new meeting house. In 1701, Thomas and Sarah Robinson gave, ‘in loving kindness to Friends’, a thatched barn in the village of Brant Broughton as a meeting house for the use of Friends for a 1,000 years. This meeting house, with Thomas and Sarah’s initials above the doorway, looks just the same today as it did then, although its thatched roof has been replaced with tiles.

Thomas Robinson was a landowner and, earlier in 1677, had been sent to Lincoln Castle for non-payment of tithes. Only nine days before his incarceration Robinson’s first wife Mary had died leaving him to look after their small children.

Another Meeting House was built in 1705 at Gainsborough. It was built at a cost of £150 and is the oldest non-conformist place of worship in Gainsborough.

Welcome news came in 1711, when Lincoln Friends decided to stop paying for the prison room at Lincoln Castle as it was no longer needed.

Of the many original Meeting Houses in Lincolnshire that were licensed during those first few years, after the passing of the Toleration Act, only Lincoln, Gainsborough and Brant Broughton remained in continual use for Quaker meetings.

In 1752, the Society of Friends was now 100 years-old and once again there were the stirrings of revolution. The second half of the 18th century was the time when there were strong fears that the trend towards revolutionary forces uprising in mainland Europe would spread to England.  Radical ideas of freedom, love, liberty and free speech were put forward by Lincolnshire revolutionaries such as John Wilkes and Thomas Paine, both of whom were regarded with suspicion by the authorities.

Friends and other dissenters again found themselves been suspected of having some connection with ideas of subversion.

This sense of revolution coincided with the decline of Friends in the latter years of the 1700s, resulting in the closure of Stamford and Mumby meetings. By 1768, there were only a few Friends living within the city of Lincoln. Therefore, the centre for Quakerism in Lincolnshire shifted to Brant Broughton and its surrounding villages.

Another reason for the decline in numbers in the late 18th century was the rapid advancement of technology and industry. This was creating opportunities for the migration of families out of Lincolnshire and into the new and emerging industrial towns. Local records show that several daughters of Lincolnshire Quaker families married into Quaker families who had resettled in industrial areas.

Due to a lack of Friends living within the city Lincoln Meeting House was closed for regular meetings. The Meeting House was, however, opened for both special occasions and visitors.  Many of these visitors were from overseas and mainly came from America bringing up-to-date news and messages.

Influential Friends involved in the industrial revolution also visited Lincoln Meeting House giving thought-provoking ministry. These included Friends such as Edward Gurney, William Rowntree and Peter Bedford who came to speak about their humanitarian concerns and their hopes to create better social conditions for the poor.

Spreading the Message

Friends started the 19th century as a vital movement in the process of becoming a highly organised society. They had won a significant degree of religious liberty and had achieved a significant impact in Britain and the American continent.

By the end of the century, their strong principled stands and strict discipline resulted in them being more of a dissenting community and even a sometimes despised minority. Internally, some Friends were growing restless about increasing rigidity in the worship and disciplinary life of the Friends community, which was to result in rather dramatic schisms and internal conflicts.

Friends were also making an impact on society in general. With Meeting Houses up and down the country, travelling Friends became common carrying news of the work they were doing. In 1805, William Tuke visited Lincoln Meeting House to speak about the Retreat, a home in York he had founded for the care of mentally ill patients. The Retreat had been running since 1796 and was proving successful in the pioneering way it cared for its patients compared to the mental asylums of the day.

Later, in 1814, Friends must also have listened with equal sympathy to Elizabeth Fry who, just before her first visited Lincoln Meeting House, had been introduced to the prison reformer Peter Bedford.  Fry returned in 1824 and by that time her own efforts in prison reform had become well known.

It was also during this time in the early 1800s that there was a growing disquiet within the Society against the slave trade. A minute from a 1727 Lincoln Meeting reads:

“It is the sense of this meeting that the importing of Negroes from their native country and their relations by friends is not a commendable nor allowed to practice, and that practice is censured by this meeting.”

Lincoln Meeting

This minute proceeded the Quakers’ 1796 International Movement Against Slavery, which the Lincolnshire meetings approved of and supported.

The number of Lincolnshire Friends diminished once again. The Meeting House at Waddington closed in 1826, with Boston following in 1836.  The Quaker burial ground ceased to be used for burials.

By 1846, Lincoln Meeting House had stood for over 150 years but still no weekly meeting took place within its walls. The bills were still being paid as the building was used for other purposes such as being used as a temporary infant school.

From the 1850s onwards, the beginning of the third century of Quakerism, the whole of Lincolnshire could only record 70 – 80 Friends and meetings were only held in Brant Broughton, Gainsborough and Spalding.

It was in 1859 after a conference of Friends in Yorkshire that it was accepted marriage to a non-Friend need not bring automatic disownment from the Society. Also, in 1861, retaining plainness and dress became optional. Thus, the society had adapted to the changing times. These two changes would attract new Friends to Lincoln.

Despite the small number of Friends in the county, the 1860s saw a new Meeting House being built in Sturton, a small village halfway between Lincoln and Gainsborough. This was to accommodate a small community living in the village and nearby areas. A new Meeting House was also built in Brigg near Gainsborough. However, both meetings would not stand the test of time and would eventually close after only a few years.

By 1885, Lincoln Meeting House was reopened for Quaker meetings as a few new Friends had moved into the city.  The Meeting House was now in use by Quakers and non-Quakers alike. Thus being open to all once again, Lincoln Meeting House returned to being at the heart of Quakerism in Lincolnshire.

The Anachronism of War

Towards the end of the 19th century the Boer War (1899 – 1902) took place between Britain and the Boer settlers of South Africa. Friends across the country were determined that the 20th century would be more peaceful. Nationwide, Lincolnshire Friends distributed pamphlets urging for a non-violent solution. Minutes of a Lincolnshire meeting record:

“In the fact of the present deplorable state of affairs in South Africa we feel that it is well to publicly make clear our position as a Society on the question of war.”

Lincoln Meeting

The Peace Association organised a public meeting to be held jointly with Friends in Lincoln. The meeting was well attended and got media attention, as shown in this headline from a local newspaper report:


WAR AN ANACHRONISM IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

The Society of Friends which holds as one of its distinctive tenents that – ‘All war is contrary to the mind of Jesus Christ’ – is represented in Lincoln by a number of earnest and enthusiastic women.


The quest for peace in the 20th century attracted a new wave of Friends to join the society and this was keenly felt in Lincolnshire. In 1910, a new room was built onto the right-hand side of the 1689 Meeting House. The ‘1910 Room’ can seat 130 people and is now the main entrance to Lincoln Meeting House. The original entrance, the door on the left of the building, is now a side-door.

In 1914, hopes for peace were soon shattered with the outbreak of World War I. As the fighting started, Lincolnshire Friends made appeals for the safety of foreign nationals living in the county. Tribunals were set up for local Conscientious Objectors, of which many were Quakers. Lincolnshire Friends closely monitored the progress as, in total 24, cases were decided.  20 were dismissed, two were exempt from combat service and two given absolute exemption.

Lincolnshire Friends, to help with humanitarian war work,  supported the newly formed ‘Save the Children’ and the Quaker’s own ‘War Victim’s Relief Fund’. One young Friend, Arthur Butler aged 18, signed up for the Friends Ambulance Unit.

At the end of the war, Lincolnshire Friends organised public meetings and distributed pamphlets campaigning against military training in schools. The post-war flu epidemic swept through Lincolnshire and the number of people attending Quaker meetings dropped once more. Elderly Friends had died and younger Friends were increasingly moving away to explore opportunities further afield.

The 1930s brought the Great Depression, started by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. To train unemployed workers in Lincoln, the Workers Education Association began running classes in the 1689 room of the Meeting House. Classes run to to this day, but are held in the larger 1910 room.

In 1934, Linconshire Friends hosted a meeting of the Northern Friends Peace Board. Quakers were watching, with rising alarm, the escalating tensions in Europe and discussing could be done to calm them.

The following year, Linconshire Friends allowed the Meeting House to be used for the Peace Ballot of 1934 – 35.  The Peace Ballot was a nationwide questionnaire in Britain comprising of five questions that attempted to discover the British public’s attitude to the League of Nations and its goal of worldwide peace.

Stand Fast in the Faith

At the start of 1939, Lincolnshire Friends were once again appealing for the safety of foreign nationals. Several public meetings were held and pamphlets distributed, all to strive for a peaceful resolution before war with Germany broke out. On Sunday, 3rd September, two letters were read out at Lincoln Meeting. The first was from German Friends appealing for help with homeless German refugees in the county. The second letter was from Meetings for Sufferings, which ends:

“Stand fast in the faith; quit you like men; be strong. Let us try to live in this spirit and meet with courage all the calls for service which will come to us.”

Meetings for Sufferings

When Lincolnshire Friends returned home from that morning meeting it would be to the news that Britain was at war with Germany. Lincoln Meeting House became a local beacon for refugees and, in February 1940, Friends organised a social gathering for them. After the event, the Quaker Stephen Gravely wrote:

“Those of us who had the privilege of being present will remember the occasion with not with sadness, but happiness.”Meetings for Sufferings

Stephen Gravely

In 1942, Gainsborough Meeting House was hit by bomb damage and repaired as Friends gathered round to provide assistance. With regret, the iron railings around Lincoln Meeting House were taken away by the Ministry of Works for the war effort.

The campaigning went on.

Lincolnshire Friends supported the plea that in the event of an Allied Victory, unlike the last world war, the German people should be treated fairly and not condemned for the crimes of a few. Part of a 1944 statement by Lincoln Meeting reads:

“It was futile to deal with war apart from it’s causes… there should be concerntration upon cause and prevention and to plan for relief during and after the war. There should be absence of retribution; avoidance of resentment and to work towards world peace.”

Lincoln Meeting

In May 1945, Linconshire Friends were anticipating the end of the war, however Friend Stephen Gravely died before hostilities ceased. Aged 88, he had been a constant presence at Lincoln Meeting and involved in several charities.

After the war, Lincolnshire Friends supported relief work in Europe, China and Africa. There was also concern for prisoners of war and the local pacifist farming community.

By the 1950s, there were 136 Lincolnshire Friends in membership of the Society and several regular attenders. In 1954, Friend Albert Tuck, a former Lincoln mayor, died and Lincolnshire Friends recorded, “His vigorous personality, integrity and services to the city and to his Meeting.”

During the 1960s, nearly all the Meeting Houses across the county were in need of repairs, especially those in Lincoln and Spalding. Lincoln Meeting House had deteriorated so much that the 1910 Room was temporarily closed.

In the 1970s, Lincoln Meeting House became a Grade II listed building.

In 1989 Lincoln Meeting House celebrated its tercentenary.

Lincolnshire meetings in 1989

Into the 21st Century

The new millennium saw Lincolnshire Friends focus on family with regular outings, camping and walks.

In 2001, Brant Broughton Meeting House celebrated its tercentenary.

By the end of 2018, Lincolnshire Friends had had another busy year. There was a Heritage Open Day, the Doncaster Conversation Club visited on a day trip and the Northern Friends Peace Board held their second ever meeting in Lincoln.

Newark Meeting House also had its official opening.

Lincolnshire meetings in 2018

There was also a memorial service for Friend Susan Davies (1921 – 2018). After retiring from her nursing career, Susan took a degree at the Open University, which resulted in her writing Quakerism in Lincolnshire.

In 2019 another memorial service was held for Friend Eric Rand (1929 – 2019) at Brant Broughton Meeting House. Like Susan, Eric was much-loved and came to the Quakers later in life. He worked as a school teacher in Essex before retiring to Lincolnshire where he and his wife Norma began attending Meetings. Eric was laid to rest at Brant Broughton’s burial ground.

The autumn of 2019 saw new fencing erected at the rear of Lincoln Meeting House. The money was been provided by the Burtt Trust. The Burtt family were successful Lincolnshire farmers who had been Friends since the 17th century. They had paid for the original iron railings that were taken down for the WWII war effort.


Many thanks to the late Susan Davies and her book Quakerism in Lincolnshire, an invaluable source. If you wish to read more about the history of local Friends then her book is highly recommended and is available to buy from Lincoln Meeting House.

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