Our Friends in the north

Helen Roberts describes the Yorkshire Quaker Heritage Project at the University of Hull, Brynmor Jones Library.

George Fox, the charismatic founder of Quakerism, began his spiritual journey as a young man in late 1643. Many people at that time were in search of new forms of religious experience and worship, as they were living through times of religious and political ferment in England under Charles I. Dissenting sects such as the Baptists first emerged in the early seventeenth century, as well as the more disparate Seekers, who were not attached to any particular sect.

The most radical aspect of George Fox's emerging faith was the belief that Christ dwelt and manifested Himself within each person. Fox's ideas and his methods of convincing others of the Truth, brought him into direct confrontation with the established church. He was first imprisoned for blasphemy in Derby in 1650. It was after his release from gaol that Fox travelled north to Yorkshire to preach his message during 1651-52.

One of the earliest organised groups of 'Children of the Light' (as early Quakers often called themselves) formed at Balby in the West Riding after Fox's visit. This was one of the first settled Quaker meetings and was based on an existing Seeker community. It was also the source of the earliest advice on Quaker organisation and discipline, the Epistle of Balby Elders, issued in November 1656.

Of those who set out as travelling preachers to spread the message further, about a quarter came from Yorkshire. This included some of the most well-known figures in the band known variously as 'the valiant sixty' and 'the First Publishers of Truth' - Thomas Aldam and Richard Farnsworth of Balby, William Dewsbury of Allerthorpe, and James Nayler of West Ardsley.

Fox himself travelled the length and breadth of the North and East Ridings of Yorkshire, before spending a brief spell in north Lincolnshire and moving west through Wakefield and Bradford. It was on Pendle Hill that he had a vision of 'a people in white raiment' waiting to receive the Truth, and after preaching throughout the Yorkshire Dales, he found himself amongst the Seekers of Sedbergh. Part of a wider community centred on Preston Patrick in Westmorland, they were to prove crucial in the early history of Quakerism.

The origins of the national London Yearly Meeting can be found in the series of General Meetings first held in Skipton around 1657 to raise collections in support of ministering Friends. These attracted Friends from all the main centres of Quaker convincement in the North. Southern representatives also attended what proved to be the last meeting, in April 1660.

The Restoration brought with it a series of laws penalising all dissenters from the established church. This meant that for a period of almost 30 years until the Toleration Act of 1689, Quakers suffered much more systematic persecution for a wide range of offences. These included not attending church, holding meetings of more than five people, refusal to swear oaths and refusal to pay tithes. Within a few weeks of prohibiting Quaker meetings in January 1661, 400 Friends had been arrested in Yorkshire alone. The impact of widespread persecution, imprisonment and early death was felt especially amongst the ranks of the First Publishers of Truth.

Quaker meetings and their records

In September 1666, Fox was released from prison in Scarborough Castle to find the movement stagnating. He began a nationwide, and largely personal, review of the condition of Quaker Meetings, travelling from place to place to assist reform. It was at this point that a formal pyramid structure of Meetings at local, regional and national levels was devised and began to be implemented by Fox. Although he carried the great majority of Friends with him, it was not without opposition.

In the case of Yorkshire, Fox was present at the Quarterly Meeting in March 1669. The boundaries of five pre-existing Monthly Meetings were broken down and re-formed into 14 smaller units, ranging from Owstwick in the Holderness peninsula to Richmond in the Yorkshire Dales and Balby on the southern edge of the region. The majority remained stable until the late eighteenth century, when a long period of frequent change in boundaries began with the dissolution of Bridlington Monthly Meeting. It was not until 1858, with the merger of Pickering and Hull Monthly Meetings, that the pattern settled again. The last major change came in 1923 with the break-up of Brighouse Monthly Meeting. This history of regional reorganisation, which was even more pronounced at the level of Particular (or Preparative) Meetings in individual towns and villages, has made the tracing of records somewhat complex.

Fox attached special importance to written records, and many series of Quarterly and Monthly Meeting records date from the late 1660s. From the earliest times, minutes of Meetings, membership, financial and educational records, records of property ownership and registers of births, marriages and burials were kept. Particularly significant are the accounts of Sufferings. These are the records of imprisonment, fines, distraint of goods, excommunication and other penalties imposed on Quakers for their religious beliefs. Libraries of Quaker and associated tracts were also built up for spiritual and educational purposes.

Yorkshire Quaker Heritage Project

These roots have ensured that the region now has a rich variety of archives and printed material stretching back to the mid-seventeenth century, on which the Yorkshire Quaker Heritage Project is based. This innovative new project at the University of Hull Brynmor Jones Library has been funded for three years by the Higher Education Funding Councils under the Research Support Libraries Programme. Its aim is to increase awareness of and broaden access to Quaker sources held in Yorkshire and beyond.

I was appointed as Project Archivist in August 1999. I work in collaboration with the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds and the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research at the University of York (the Project partners), to create a range of electronic resources for researchers into the history of Quakerism in the region.

Collections covered by the Project

Over the years, the transfer of records from the direct custody of Quaker Meetings has resulted in their dispersal amongst regional universities, libraries and record offices. Their location and scope can therefore be confusing. The bulk of the surviving records are now held by the Project partners.

These range from the records of the Yorkshire General Meeting and its constituent Monthly Meetings (including Pickering and Hull, Brighouse, Knaresborough, Leeds, Settle, Thirsk and York), and libraries of Quaker tracts built up by local Meetings, to the papers of Quaker families, such as the Tukes of York, the company archives of the chocolate and confectionery manufacturers, Rowntree and Mackintosh, the archives of the pioneering Quaker-run asylum, the Retreat, and the social survey material of Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954).

A vital and ongoing part of the Project will be a survey of collections held by other repositories within Yorkshire and beyond, and of papers still in private hands.

Significant holdings are already known to be available at the various branches of the West Yorkshire Archives Service, North Yorkshire County Record Office, Durham County Record Office, East Yorkshire Archives and Records Service and Sheffield Archives. These include business records and records of local Meetings. National records of the London Yearly Meeting and Meeting for Sufferings relating to Yorkshire can be found amongst the holdings of Friends House Library.

The library also has numerous collections of personal papers of Quakers with connections to Yorkshire, which include MPs, travelling ministers, missionaries and First Publishers of Truth.

Potential areas of research

The potential for research into the history of Quakerism in the region is huge, given the breadth of Quaker influence and activity in Yorkshire. Largely due to lack of knowledge or awareness, some rich and varied collections are currently under-used by the academic community.

A number of gaps in Quaker historiography were identified by H. Larry Ingle in 'The future of Quaker history' (Journal of the Friends Historical Society, vol. 58 no.1, pp. 1-16). Of these, the role and achievements of women Friends, biographical research into early Quakers and Quaker involvement in the peace movement have been highlighted as subjects on which the Project will seek to encourage research and increase awareness of the original sources available.

At the University of Hull, there is interest from historians in studying religious tolerance, both in theory and practice, in late seventeenth and eighteenth century England. At a general level, constructive genealogical research - often a precursor to other types of social history research - will also be promoted.

Outcomes of the Project

One of the first outcomes of the Project has been the creation of a central Web site, attached to the existing University of Hull Archives and Special Collections site. At present, the main feature is a series of links to other electronic finding aids and information, ranging from the Project partners to the Quaker Family History Society and Friends House Library.

The site will eventually host an online database covering collections held by the participating libraries and elsewhere, name indexes to the Quaker archives held by the Brynmor Jones Library and a research guide to Quaker source material held throughout Yorkshire (which will also be produced in printed form). A team of volunteers is already indexing the minute books of Pickering and Hull Monthly Meeting (and its predecessors) for inclusion on the name index database.

By the end of the Project in July 2002, not only will a useful and accessible range of finding tools exist for researchers, but a project model for other regions to adopt will also be created. Those areas of strong early Quaker convincement in the north, such as Westmorland, Cumberland, north Lancashire and Durham, would be obvious places to start.

Further reading

The details of the early history of Quakerism in Yorkshire are based on the works of W. C. Braithwaite, The Beginnings of Quakerism and The Second Period of Quakerism (1961). Web site (under development): www.hull.ac.uk/lib/archives/quaker .

Helen Roberts is Project Archivist at the University of Hull Brynmor Jones Library.

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Last updated: 24 January 2000