A Friendly Society
By Peter Daniels
Quakers have a radically simple religious outlook, based on meeting in silence to discover a deeper sense of God, without elaborate ritual or priestly hierarchy. Women and men participate fully: all people are equal before God, and each person is unique and precious. This belief has led to Quakers (or ‘Friends’) being much involved in work for peace and social justice. All very modern, but Quakers have been meeting in Stoke Newington for over 300 years.
The movement gathered around George Fox, who travelled in the 1650s preaching the word as the Spirit moved him. He often stayed with Mary Stott in Dalston, to keep away from persecution by the authorities in London. In 1668 he set up a girls’ school in Shacklewell which Mary ran. In 1698 a regular Quaker meeting started in two rooms in Church Street, on the site of the Daniel Defoe pub.
This meeting existed until 1741. Many Quakers then lived around Stamford Hill, and tended to go to Tottenham, a meeting which continued through the 18th century. Meanwhile, some successful city Quakers, like the Hoare family of bankers (who built Clissold House) and the chemist William Allen, started living in quiet rural Stoke Newington but still worshipped at city meetings. Then in 1821 Gracechurch Street Meeting House burned down. This inspired local Quakers to build new premises in what is now Yoakley Road (then Park Street), with a meeting room 44 by 36 feet, plus gallery, and a row of ten almshouses.
Stoke Newington Quakers were very active, especially William Allen who was busy campaigning against slavery, visiting prisons with Elizabeth Fry, and developing allotments for labourers in Lordship Road. Christine Majolier, a young French Quaker, describes William Wilberforce visiting the allotments and being weighed in the scales used for vegetables – he weighed only 76 pounds, including the five pounds of iron stays he wore. (Incidentally, Wilberforce, who wasn’t a Quaker, wanted to be buried with his sister and daughter in Stoke Newington but Parliament voted for him to be buried in Westminster Abbey.) Another enterprise was Susanna Corder’s girls’ school in Fleetwood House, where the Fire Station is now. Its prospectus said ‘particular attention should be paid to the state of mind of each child’; the girls learnt astronomy, physics and chemistry as well as classical and modern languages. Susanna also commissioned what seems to be the first school bus, to take pupils to the Gracechurch St meeting house until the new local one was built.
In 1827, the ageing William Allen married the elderly rich widow Grizzell Birkbeck, which provoked a rash of satirical cartoons including Robert Cruikshank’s ‘Newington Nunnery in a Pretty Considerable Uproar’ suggesting that Susanna Corder had hoped for William’s hand herself.
In 1860, an Ojibwa woman from Canada called Nahneebahweequay came to petition Queen Victoria about land rights, and stayed in Stoke Newington with Christine Majolier, now Alsop, and her husband Robert who was active in the Aborigines’ Protection Society. In the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, Friends War Victims Relief Committee included William and Joseph Beck, brothers who also had strong local interests – William as a local historian, and Joseph as one of the people who saved Clissold Park.
At the end of the 19th century Stoke Newington had the highest concentration of Quakers in London, but the meeting declined, while other meetings took on more of the Quaker energy that led to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for unobtrusive ‘silent help from the nameless to the nameless’ in shattered Europe. By then, few members were left locally, and a much smaller meeting house replaced the old one in 1957. Unfortunately, the almshouses were also demolished, so there was no longer a group of elderly Quakers to keep the meeting going, and the new building was sold to the Seventh Day Adventists in 1966.
By 2000, there were more local Quakers again, and a new meeting started. This currently meets in St Mary’s Community Centre in Defoe Road (every Sunday, 10.30). Work for peace and justice continues, with projects coordinated by Quaker Peace & Social Witness from Friends House on Euston Road. Stoke Newington Meeting has ‘adopted’ the work in northern Uganda to help build peace in a little-known civil war.
Would you like to find out more? On Saturday 29 September at 2.30, Marigold Bentley of QPSW will talk at Defoe Road on Quaker peace work. Quaker Quest will run four evenings on aspects of Quakerism at Tottenham Meeting House, 594 High Road N17: Weds 26 Sept to 17 Oct 6.30pm for 7.00pm, more details www.tottenhamquakers.org.uk. Quaker Quest also takes place every Monday 6.30pm at Friends House, 173 Euston Road NW1.
www.stokenewingtonquakers.org.uk contact James 0208806 6121, Precious 020 7254 6721
www.quaker.org.uk 020 7663 1017 for general information