History of Quakers in Plymouth 1654 - 1945

(Lecture given at the Plymouth Athenaeum 17 March 2016 by Martin Wyatt)

In the summer of 1654 two Quaker preachers from the north of England came into Plymouth. At that time England was still unsettled. The Civil war was some five years in the past, but the country had not settled down into a stable form of government. Oliver Cromwell had been installed as Lord Protector in the previous year and was ruling basically with the support of the Army. Cromwell's instincts were mainly in favour of toleration of different sects, but the way in which national policy was implemented depended very much on the great people locally. We know that at this time Plymouth was a puritan town. During the Civil War it had been the only Parliamentary stronghold in the West Country. But the dominant form of puritanism was Presbyterian, with fixed Calvinistic beliefs and definitely supporting the role of the clergy and the existing social hierarchies. The new preachers who had arrived were subversive, both religiously and socially. They were religiously subversive because they told people that they did not need a hireling clergy but should rely on their own inner light, and, even worse, that it was possible to be without sin. They were socially subversive because they treated everyone as equal: they would not take their hats off to anyone, and they addressed a social superior as “thou” or “thee” when it was accepted that one should use the plural “you” to people of a higher standing.

The two Quakers who arrived in 1654 were John Audland, well known in early Quaker history, and Thomas Airey. They were part of a particular movement at this time to send out travelling ministers, usually in pairs. There was a way of going about this evangelising work that was already well-established. Either beforehand or on arrival the travelling ministers would make enquiries about groups or individuals who were likely to be sympathetic to their message. Presumably this was the case in Plymouth, because it was reported that they were received “of many who were waiting for the Lord's appearance”. So it seems likely that there had already been some people in Plymouth thinking along the same lines. However, following up such contacts was not all they did. They “Stayed . . . about 4 or 5 days, and had severall Meeteings . . both publick & private, & one the first day (First Day meaning Sunday) the sd John Audland went to one of the Steeple houses in this Towne” (this probably meaning St Andrew's church), “& testyfied against the preist & there worship, & also sounded Truth amongst them, for wh the sd John Audland recevied from the people in the Steeple house pritty much abuse ; and the sd Thomas Arey, he went to the Baptist Meeting, & sounded truth amongs them, who stod in great opposetion to his testimony.” However, some people were convinced, and in March 1655 two other travelling minsters, Thomas Salthouse and Miles Hallhead arrived to carry on the work. Audland and Airey had been and gone, but Salthouse and Hallhead first gathered the Plymouth sympathisers into a Quaker meeting, and their staunchness under persecution helped to confirm the new converts. They were both taken up by the Mayor of Plymouth and imprisoned on the pretext that they would not take the oath abjuring the Pope. As Quakers would not take any oaths, this was a fairly common way of dealing with them. They were sent to Exeter and imprisoned there. Salthouse, released in 1657, returned to Plymouth and continued to work in Devon and Cornwall. Other travelling ministers, including George Fox, came and went, but Salthouse now based himself in the West Country and continued as a mainstay of the Plymouth meeting. Salthouse and Hallhead were followed by Margaret Killam and Barbara Pattison. This of course was a fresh scandal, that women should preach. They too were ill-treated and imprisoned, and went back to London to publish a pamphlet: A warning from the Lord to the teachers & people of Plimovth. With a few queries to the parish teachers of this nation, that have great sums of money for teaching the people. From them which are scornfully called Qvakers, but witness the teaching of Christ. In this they said, “Thus saith the Lord, I have sent my sons and daughters from far, I have raised up prophets among you . . . but some of my messengers you have imprisoned, and others you have evil entreated.”

The Army captain Henry Hatsell wrote to the Secretary of the Admiralty on 28 May 1655: “The Quakers are still in prison being very stiffe and are like to be sent to the Common Gaole, our quiet westcountry people do judge them to be men of a strange humour.”

There is a good deal of information on individual Quakers at this time, put together by Douglas Selleck in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association, vol 98, 1966, which of course is in the Athenaeum library This and the succeeding article in vol 99 have been one of the main sources for this lecture. Anyone wanting more information on these Friends can look there. However, the main point to mention is that in Plymouth as elsewhere in the country, the Quakers appealed mainly to the middling sort. There were very few gentry among them, and not many labourers. The people who were convinced were small farmers, merchants and suchlike. These were people who were accustomed to think for themselves. In Plymouth some quite substantial citizens joined the movement, and often their servants did also.

In February 1660 one of the travelling ministers, Alexander Parker, reported that “We are come to Plymouth this day& had a very large meeting of precious friends – all is quiet to us and our friends at present.” In September of the same year, a Plymouth Quaker, Priscilla Cotton, reported: “The priests are much shattered & the Baptists are much shattered & there is an inclination in the people after truth and since deare Thomas Salthouse came last among us he hath beene very servisable in Rideing up and down amongst Friends at theire meetings, and friends have been refreshed and strengthened & verily I see a nessaty for his abiding in these p'ts some time for there is need both in Cornwall and Devonshire. Meetings have been prity Large & some Baptists and others have come to meetings & one Baptist lately convinced of the Truth amongst us who said he never heard the truth in all his life before he heard Thomas Salthouse declare among us, though he be old in years . . . . We injoye our meettings peaceably & the wicked is much chaned down at present.”

This, however, was the high point for the early Plymouth Quakers. 1660 was the year in which the monarchy was restored. In 1661 the Fifth Monarchist uprising prompted a new level of persecution of all suspicious groups, Quakers among them, although the Quaker leadership had published its first declaration of pacifism. In 1662 the Quaker Act was passed, targeting the Quaker refusal to take oaths and also their holding of meetings. It was strengthened by the Conventicle Act of 1664. On the first proclamation banning Quaker meetings and requiring justices of the peace to administer the oath of allegiance, all the men of the Plymouth meeting, so it was said, were imprisoned at Exeter, but the meeting was kept up by the women.

There are gaps in our knowledge at this point, though we do know that in 1666 Plymouth Quakers were taking fresh supplies to a ship in the Sound that contained London Quakers whom the authorities were trying to transport to Barbados.

In 1669 the amount of information we have on Plymouth Quakers increases. George Fox had been going round the country, setting up what he called Monthly and Quarterly Meetings. These were meetings to deal with worldly affairs and church discipline. The Quarterly Meetings covered larger areas. In our case it covered Devon, and was called interchangeably either the Quarterly Meeting or the County Meeting. The Monthly Meetings typically contained one to three “particular” meetings, in our case either Plymouth and Kingsbridge or Plymouth on its own. The Men's Meeting was always called the Monthly or Quarterly Meeting, but there was also a parallel Women's Meeting, with different functions. Now, these meetings kept minutes.

The earliest minute book we have in Plymouth starts in 1669, and is for an unnamed Monthly Meeting which covered Plymouth and Kingsbridge to begin with, and then, from 1676, just Plymouth. The writing is difficult to read in places. It is written in dark brown ink on light brown paper, and the scribe tended to start off writing carefully and then degenerate; he crammed lines together so that symbols overlap (this is the worst aspect), and he deleted words with a sort of spiral motion which could go anywhere.

The first minute is about a collection which had been ordered by the Quarterly Meeting. There are four other minutes from that meeting, one of which deals with a dispute with Mary and Nicholas Cole. This dispute dragged on. Mainly it was about Mary Cole not coming to meeting, and having dealings with a priest. In 1671, it was reported that she had been visited by Friends from the Men's Meeting, and also two Women Friends from the Women's Meeting, so that we learn that there was also a Women's Monthly Meeting, though no minute book has come down to us. As time passed, there were also minutes about other Friends who did not come to meeting, and answers in writing were often requested.

The minutes also tell us other things, perhaps indirectly. We gather that the so-called Monthly Meetings were by no means monthly, or, if they were, there were meetings when nothing was recorded in the book; that John Light, a prosperous clothier, was the leading Friend in Plymouth, followed by Arthur Cotton; and that when the leadership in London arranged a meeting of county representatives, it was the Plymouth Friends who were asked to appoint the representative. Early on, there is a rota for two Friends to attend the Quarterly, or County Meeting each quarter.

National events were probably impacting on the local situation in ways we cannot know. In 1672 Charles II issued a Declaration of Indulgence, suspending the penal laws against nonconformists and Roman Catholics. In the following year, however, he was obliged to recall Parliament, and Parliament in turn obliged him to revoke the Declaration. It is likely that there was still no strong enforcement of the laws until 1675, when the king issued an order for the penal laws to be strictly enforced. During this period of comparative calm, the Quakers acquired their first permanent meeting house.


The lease of two buildings in Bilbury Street was acquired in 1674 in the name of John Light. Old maps appear to show that at this time streets did not have definitive names. In older documents the location is always referred to as Bilbury Street, but more recently it was referred to as Treville Street. It was in the area of Bretonside, and the roundabout which goes round Charles Church now goes through part of what was the Quaker burial ground at the back of the building A fund was raised for adapting the building, and we have a record of who paid how much. The adaptations meant that parts of the building could still be used for residential use, as there were tenants, who later gave rise to concern about their disorderly behaviour and had to be given notice. In one case a Quaker, Katharine Martindale was allowed to live there rent free, subject to conditions. In May 1681 John Light, who had made the biggest contribution to the work on the building, was still owed £8 on it, but this was immediately paid off.

The first burial ground, on the Hoe, was rented before the first meeting house was acquired, and on the 16th of 4 mo 1674 it was ". . . unannimously concluded, that noe [person??] whatsoever shall be buried in our Burrying place but such who are faithfull friends …. & with which friends have unity."

Another way in which the meeting was becoming institutionalised was in the provision for marriages. In 1676 the Monthly Meeting set down the form for a certificate of marriage. The man and woman marrying both made the same declaration. A bit later in the same year consent was given to the marriage of a Friend from Kingsbridge to one from Mevagissey. According to the scheme laid down by George Fox, there should also have been consent from the women's meeting, but whether or not it was given, nothing was said about it.

In the midst of all the persecution and the getting organised, Friends still found time to fall out with each other. In 1674 there is a paper, signed by six Friends, setting out 16 Articles of dispute between Matthew Crooker and Richard Browne of Lyneham, and giving the decision on each of them. The disputes were mainly about nasty things that Richard Browne had said about Matthew Crooker, but one of them was about a maidservant whom Matthew Crooker had taken from Richard Browne, with his consent. She had then returned to her former master, who refused to give her back. All the decisions went against Richard Browne, and in some cases he admitted that he had been wrong, or would have been wrong if he had said what was attributed to him. It seems that the maidservant had no say in what happened. At the end, the paper urges that “from henceforwards you wold not lett or suffer any Roote of bitternesse to take place & grow in you. . ." Richard Browne continued to be in fairly good standing, as he was given a paid job by the Quarterly Meeting. In 1680 however, he was in trouble for having given recognisance for his appearance at the Assizes (he should have maintained that his word was good enough, and let himself be imprisoned). Later on, Matthew Crooker was admonished for backsliding, and then had a dispute with someone else, in which he was adjudged to be in the wrong, but the dispute did not prevent his being in good standing.

We know about Richard Browne's appointment to the paid job, and get a look at the wider picture in Devon because there is a Devon Quarterly Meeting minute book starting in 1676, though we know that Quarterly Meetings were held before then. In this the first minute is about arranging for Richard Browne of Lynon to "transcribe all such Papers as doe come abroad for the Service of Friends of this County" and payment for labour and charge about it. Clearly, this was the method of disseminating instructions and exhortations from the central leadership. For communications with the leadership, Arthur Cotten of Plymouth seems to have been the correspondent. We know that he wrote to George Fox, and later on the Quarterly Meeting appointed him to gather up the reports of sufferings to send in.

The minute book shows that Quarterly Meetings were held regularly, though there are several meetings where nothing is recorded except the date of the next meeting. In two of the years the spring meeting is appoynted for "The 5th day in the Assize weeke". This minute book, the Women's Quarterly Meeting minute book and the Plymouth and Kingsbridge minute book contain various lists of the Monthly and particular Meetings in Devon dating from different times. When these are compared, it is clear that Meetings came and went in other parts of the county. Plymouth and Kingsbridge seem to be comparatively stable compared with what was going on elsewhere, and we have already seen Plymouth's importance as the meeting which would send a county representative to London when one was needed.

The Women's Quarterly Meeting minute book dates from 1681, which is when the women first started holding Quarterly Meetings. On being commissioned to acquire a book for the minutes, women Friends of Cullompton went out and purchased quite a large book, into which the first entries had been carefully copied, in a clear round hand, well spaced. On the whole the women had much better writing than the men. In several subsequent meetings, there is much about a woman Friend who got married by a priest, and does not know she has done any evil. There seems to have been considerable forbearance due to pleading by her sister. Another Friend walking disorderly was given shorter shrift, and a testimony given against her. In both cases, the women's meeting seems to have taken the initiative and largely dealt with it, but brought in the men's meeting to finalise the action. After a few meetings, attendance falls, and the records are largely accounts of money raised for Quakers in need, with records of how they were allocated, and complaints about non-attendance at the meetings. Collections are sometimes said to be from named meetings, sometimes said to be raised at this QM, very occasionally given as from a named man, with none from a named woman. To begin with, all the disbursements were to women.

In 1675 persecution had been resumed again, with a particularly severe outbreak in 1677. We are told that in Plymouth “Quakers were generally kept out of their meeting-house, and then performing their worship in the open street . . . . they suffered exceedingly, not only in winter, by the sharpness of the weather, but also in summer; for it was more than twelve months that they thus kept their meetings in the open street, being grievously abused by the rabble and the soldiers; for beating and punching seemed not sufficient; fiery squibs and burning coals were thrown among them, and filthy excrements cast down upon them out of a window.” Richard Samble and three others were fined as a preacher because he had been on his knees in prayer.

In 1685 James II came to the throne. The Quakers had reason to think he would be favourable towards them, and presented him with a petition showing the number of Quakers in prison in each county. There were 104 in Devon, more than any other county except Yorkshire, which was much larger, though Devon was almost equalled by Bristol on its own. In the same petition it was said that Plymouth's Quaker serge-makers would have kept above 500 poor people in work if they had not been imprisoned. It is worth noting that in 1686 several families of Plymouth Friends, with considerable numbers of servants emigrated to the new Quaker colony of Pennsylvania in America. Yet in the same year, it was agreed to hold two Meetings on First Day (i.e. Sunday) and at this time the Monthly Meeting was approving one or two marriages a year. In 1689 a certificate was provided to Philadelphia for Francis Rawle, who had emigrated there, showing that he had no marriage commitments.

In 1688, there was the Glorious Revolution, with William of Orange landing in Torbay, and in 1689 there was the Toleration Act. This put an end to serious persecution. In 1696 there was an Affirmation Act, making it unnecessary to swear oaths, though the wording of this was not settled to the satisfaction of all until 1722. After this it was no longer possible to get the better of Quakers simply because they would not swear oaths in court. From then on, the only serious problem for the Friends was their refusal to pay tithes. As only a few of them remained as farmers, and the collection of tithes in towns had been virtually abandoned, this was not a major issue for most of them. The record of distraints in West Devon for 1796 shows that there were seven Friends in country parishes who had animals or wheat distrained for nonpayment of tithes or church rates, though at this time there were also Friends in Plymouth who had property distrained for non-payment of what was called the Rate for manning of (the) Navy, which was levied by the Overseers of the Poor. The disruption caused by distraint was aggravated by the additional charge, and by the constable frequently taking goods to a value greater than what was owed. By 1856, however, the accounts of distraints in West Devon had been reduced to the annual distraints on George Fox of Kingsbridge.

The Quakers settled down to become a solid respectable sect, with their own peculiarities. They retained the practice of addressing others as thou or thee, long after it had ceased to be a social statement, and had become just an oddity. Because they had an insistence on plain clothing, they had evolved a sort of uniform which was practical in many ways, but distinctive, as they did not follow the fashions of the times. These distinctions set them aside and made them easily recognisable. They also began to define their membership. There were two reasons for this. One was that they could then disown those people who might otherwise bring them into disrepute. The other was that they were careful to take care of their own members who had fallen into difficulties through no fault of their own, so they needed to know who those members were.

As for their position in local life, the Toleration Act had done just what it said, it tolerated: it did not enable participation in public life or going to English universities (though a few did go to Scottish universities). Since they could not put their energies into the political and other public fields, the more active Quakers made their mark in commerce, in technological development and in science.

It was out of this sort of background that we get William Cookworthy. Cookworthy is mainly known these days as the first person in Europe to work out how to make porcelain, and as the discoverer of China Clay in Cornwall, but there is more to him than that. He was born into a Quaker family in Kingsbridge in 1705. Hisfather, a weaver, died when he was 13. When he was 15 he was apprenticed to Sylvanus Bevan, a London apothecary who was also a Quaker. No-one seems to know how this came about, but it was not unusual for a Quaker tradesman to take an apprentice from a distressed Quaker. This was one of the mechanisms by which the Quakers took care of their own. What was unusual was the distance. Cookworthy walked to London. He took to the apothecary work so well that Bevan took him into partnership, and within a short time he came to Plymouth to set up a branch of the firm of Bevan and Cookworthy. The business became very successful, but after his wife died, Cookworthy reduced the amount of time he spent on it, leaving it in the hands of others. He spent more of his time in scientific enquiries. At this time much progress in science was being made by people working on what interested them, and corresponding with others in the same field. It was through correspondence of this sort that much scientific discussion was carried on. Later in the century, when Gilbert White came to publish his book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, it was natural to do so in the form of a series of letters, because that was how it originally came into being. Cookworthy was part of a network of correspondents pursuing their scientific interests, which in his case have been described as geological chemistry.

In addition he played a prominent part among Quakers locally. He was acknowledged as a minister and was appointed as an elder. There was one issue over which he fell out with other Quakers in Devon, to the extent of writing his own statement of dissent in the minute book. This was over the question of trading in prize goods. Quakers were pacifists, and in general it was against their principles to receive any benefit from the conduct of war. However, when ships from an enemy country were captured and sold with their contents, some Quakers were not above trading in these goods. Some even went further and had shares in privateers, though this was unequivocally condemned by the Yearly Meeting in London. Cookworthy argued against the trade in prize goods. He was rebuffed but would not relent in his condemnation of the practice, and although he did not succeed in getting the wording that he wished, it did die out. He also had an interest in the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg and translated some of his works. He died in 1780, having already sold his porcelain business and the patent. In the 1950s, when Quaker remains, including those of Cookworthy, were removed from the old Charles Street burial ground and re-interred at Efford, there was considerable distress when it was realised that his new grave would be modestly marked, in keeping with the other graves in that area of the cemetery.

The Treville Street premises were giving the Meeting continuing problems. In 1802, a special meeting was held to consider their future, and it was agreed to launch a fund for their reconstruction. The houses which had formed the Meeting House were demolished, and the new Meeting House was completed in 1804.

I am now going to jump forward to the second world war. This means leaving out quite a bit, including the setting up of Fox and Crewdson's charities, the establishment of the Treville Street Adult School, a considerable amount of work with children and young people, the acquisition of a second Meeting House in Mutley, the selling of the Treville Street Meeting House, the construction of a new larger Meeting House in Mutley, the closure of the Charles Street burial ground associated with Treville Street, and the setting up of the Swarthmore Settlement, sometimes known as the Swarthmore Institute or the Swarthmore Centre.

The major reason for this jump is that in 1945, Plymouth Quakers decided to draw up a minute setting out what had happened to the Meeting and its members during the Second World War, and I think it gives a vivid picture of Quakers at that time, and it points up the differences from the early days.

Plymouth Quaker Meeting was by then located within the Swarthmore building. At the beginning of the war the building was undergoing extension and adaptation to improve the facilities for the adult education activities of Swarthmore Settlement. The work was completed in 1940, when a grant was successfully claimed from the Ministry of Education. Some things went on as normal. The minute records that during the bombing raids the building was only hit once, when the roof was damaged by incendiary bombs. Two Meetings for Worship continued to be held each Sunday, though after the heavy raids of 1941 the evening meeting was changed to the afternoon for a time. When it went back to the evening, an afternoon meeting was held once a month “to help meet the needs of Friends residing at a distance”. These had been having serious difficulties with transport.

There were no fatal casualties among Quakers as a direct result of the raids. Eight businesses associated with Quakers had their premises destroyed, though as several of them are still going strong, they must have recovered from the setback. Some children were evacuated to the USA or Canada, and some families with young children moved out of town.

Ten men and one woman were registered as conscientious objectors. Most were granted only conditional exemption, dependent on their occupation. One of these joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, but five others who were presumably not liable for military service also joined either the Friends Ambulance Unit or the Friends Relief Service. Three people from Plymouth not connected with Quakers also joined the F A U. Nine men served with the armed forces. Advice was given to conscientious objectors facing tribunals or with other problems.

However, it looks as though the greatest impact on the life of the Meeting came from the building functioning as what was called a Rest Centre. This helped people made homeless by the air raids. The City Council provided beds, bedding, equipment and medical supplies. The building was staffed by 18 members  of the Meeting and members of St John Ambulance Nursing Division. During the raids of March and April 1941, when the Rest Centre was open day and night, there was also support from a contingent of the Friends Ambulance Unit. A War Victims Relief Committee gave other help to people passing through the Centre. The minute records: “The horror of the nights of March and April 1941 will ever remain to us a fitting commentary on the futility and tragedy of modern warfare. Night after night, homeless citizens, bewildered, fearful and distraught, came or were brought to Swarthmore. All rooms including the Hall and (at times) the Meeting House were used to accommodate them. Evening by evening they were removed to outlying districts to clear the premises for anticipated raids of the coming night. Pitiful were many of the stories to which we listened in those days.” The building was also used for meetings of refugees from the Channel Islands.

To end on a slightly more cheerful note, Swarthmore Settlement continued functioning as an adult education centre throughout this time, and even extended its activities. It added First Aid and Home Nursing classes to its original selection. Chamber concerts and plays were put on. One concert was held by candlelight. This was after the roof had been damaged and the lighting system was not working. Because other buildings had been destroyed, Swarthmore was used for events for which it would not normally have been considered, including royal visits.

So Quakers in Plymouth had gone from being dangerous subverters of the social order and defiers of religious convention to being a solid part of the local community, contributing to the life of the city. Most of this change had come about in the first 50 years, made possible by the Toleration Act of 1689. A further step forward had been made in 1832 when Quakers gained the right to vote and be elected. There has been at least one Quaker Alderman in Plymouth. It is evident that the work that Quakers were doing in the war was only a continuation of the work they had previously carried out. But all that is now history.


Plymouth Quakers 1654 – 1945TIMELINE
John Audland and Thomas Airey the first Quaker preachers
1655 A regular Meeting established
1669 Establishment of Plymouth Monthly Meeting (business meeting)
Date unknown: the first burial ground (on the Hoe) acquired
1674 Bilbury St (Treville St) premises acquired
1689 Toleration Act
1726 William Cookworthy arrives in Plymouth and sets up shop in Notte St
1802 Proposal to rebuild Treville St Meeting House
1804 Rebuilding completed
Before 1899: property in Mutley Plain privately acquired for a second Meeting House
1917 – 1921 Sale of Treville St Meeting House, leaving only Mutley Plain
1917 76 & 78 Mutley Plain acquired by trustees of Plymouth Preparative Meeting
1920 Swarthmore Institute started
1924 New Meeting House built within 76 & 78 Mutley Plain (Swarthmore)

Primary sources
Plymouth Monthly Meeting first minute book
Devon Quarterly Meeting first minute book
Devon Women's Quarterly Meeting first minute book
Manuscript documents and printed minute held at Quaker Meeting House, 74 Mutley Plain (soon to be
transferred to Plymouth & W Devon Record Office)

Secondary sources
The First Publishers of Truth. ed. Norman Penney. Headley Brothers. 1907
Plymouth Friends: A Quaker history. A.D. Selleck Transactions of the Devonshire Association vols 98 & 99
1966 & 1967
Trust Property within the County of Devon (Devon & Cornwall Quarterly Meeting of the Soc of Friends).
Francis Dymond. Privately printed. 1899
History of the Quakers. William Sewel. London 1722
William Cookworthy. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
The Beginnings of Quakerism, & The Second Period of Quakerism. William C Braithwaite.