History

Quakers first appeared in Evesham in 1655, when two travelling preachers, Thomas Goodaire and Richard Farnsworth, visited the town.

The first known Quaker meeting took place in the summer. This was held on a Sunday in Bengeworth in the house of Thomas Cartwright, which was probably in Port St. The Presbyterian minister brought his congregation, which included some magistrates, and stirred them up against the Quakers. Thomas Cartwright was arrested along with Humphrey Smith, a travelling preacher from Herefordshire.

They were brought before the justices the following day. There was a long theological argument and it was suggested that the Quakers were papists, so they were told to swear the oath of abjuration. They refused to swear an oath, because the swearing of oaths implies a double standard of truth. The Quakers insisted that they told the truth at all times and that they should “swear not at all”. As a result of refusing to swear the oath they were sent to prison. Whilst in prison Humphrey Smith preached through a grating to a crowd which gathered outside.

Several magistrates wanted to hand the Quakers over to a hostile crowd. But another magistrate, Edward Pitway, prevented this. He had been Mayor of Evesham in 1648 and later became a Quaker.

The next day Humphrey Smith, and some others, were committed to ‘a filthy, dark, close hole’ in the main gaol. This ‘hole’ was open to the air, so that townspeople were able to throw in stones and dirt. Humphrey Smith managed to preach to Quakers outside. But the justices came and imprisoned those who lived in Evesham in the Town Hall. Those from outside the town were put in the stocks.

Fifty Quakers and sympathisers sent a complaint about the treatment of Humphrey Smith and other prisoners to Oliver Cromwell. Edward Pitway and Thomas Cartwright were amongst those who signed the document. But Robert Martin, one of the magistrates, encouraged a crowd to throw “shovels full” of dirt into the dungeon and had Quaker books burnt at the market cross.

The Mayor sent for all the prisoners and for other Quakers living in the town and questioned them about the letter to Cromwell. He considered the letter to be a libel against the justices, so many more Quakers were imprisoned until the next Sessions.

The Sessions were held in the autumn and a number of Quakers were sent to prison, or sent back there, for keeping their hats on. The Quakers refused to defer to authority by taking their hats off, because they believed that all human beings are equal in the sight of God. Thomas Cartwright said: “I have lived in swearing, lying, drunkenness and profaneness until now and none of you ever questioned me. But now I have left it, I am punished without cause.” Most of the Quakers were fined and sent to prison, from one Session to another, until they were ready to come to court with their hats off.

Edward Pitway also appeared before the Sessions because the magistrates had not forgiven him for protecting the Quakers. He said that he was prepared to prove that the complaint to Cromwell was true. He was fined £20 and deposed as a magistrate.

The Mayor, Edmund Young, was set on persecuting the Quakers. One Sunday a number of Quakers were arrested for holding an illegal assembly. Fourteen were imprisoned and six put in the stocks. The Quakers are said to have been in the dungeon for 14 weeks.

Humphrey Smith described the sufferings of the Quakers in a letter which was sent to London for publication. He wrote:

The prison or hole where we are all kept is not twelve foot square and one gaol hole belonging to it four inches wide, wherein we take our food and straw to lie on. And we are forced to burn a candle every day by reason the prison is so dark and so close; and so many in one little room, and so little air, with the stink of our own dung … Sometimes, when the days were hot, the breath of some prisoners was almost stopped … and when the days were at their coldest, we have no place to make a fire or to walk to keep our bodies warm.

George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, visited Evesham towards the end of 1655. He wrote:

I heard that at Evesham the magistrates had cast several of my Friends into prison; and they had heard of my coming … at night we had a large and precious meeting and Friends and people were refreshed with the word of life and with the power of the Lord. And next morning I got up and rode to one of the prisons and visited Friends (there) and encouraged them, and then I rode to the other prison, where there were several in prison. And as I was turning away from the prison, and going out of town, I espied the magistrates coming up the town to have seized on me in prison. But the Lord frustrated their intent, that the innocent escaped their snare, and the Lord God’s blessed power came over them all. And exceeding rude and envious were the priests and professors (those who professed the Christian faith) about this time in Evesham.

Margaret Newby and Elizabeth Cowart, from Westmorland, came to visit the prisoners. They went to the prison after a large meeting at Edward Pitway’s house. When Margaret Newby began to preach, she was arrested and put in the stocks. In her own words:

A Friend did hold me in her arms, the power of the Lord was so strong in me, and I cleared my conscience. And I was moved to sing; and Friends was much broken and the heathen was much astonished. And one of them said that if we were let alone we would destroy the whole town. And the Mayor (Edmund Young) came … and took hold of me and Friends did hold me and strove with him, and at length he tore me from them … and put both my feet in the same stocks, it being the fifth hour at night, and said we should be whipped and sent with a pass to our own country. And charged us we should not sing and, if we did, he would put both our hands in also. Nevertheless we did not forbear, both being moved eternally by the Lord to sing in the stocks, each of us with both legs in, and remained until the tenth hour of the next day. And the Mayor … sent his officers to fetch us out, the which officers said that these stocks were prepared for George Fox, against he came to the town, and then … we were by the officers conveyed away on the backside of the town.

The two women were much swollen and bruised and it was a cold season. Their hands as well as their feet may have been in the stocks and they had to lie on the ground.

Later another woman Friend, Mary Clark from London, came to remonstrate with the Mayor about such treatment; he had her put in the stocks for three hours.

In the spring of 1656 (five months after the letter was sent to Cromwell) a reply was received through Major-General Berry. Berry summoned the Evesham Magistrates to see him at Worcester. The Quakers were released on his orders.

For a number of years the Quakers met in private houses, usually those of Edward Pitway, Thomas Cartwright, Thomas Hyatt and John Washbourne. They still suffered persecution from time to time. When they were prosecuted for non-payment of church rates, goods were taken from them beyond the value of that legally required. William Simpson was sent out of town for exhorting the people in the streets of Evesham to repent and fear the Lord. Thomas Woodrove was jailed for three months for a similar offence. Others were imprisoned for being at a meeting, or having hats on in court or speaking to a priest.

Quakers came from elsewhere to give Evesham Friends support and encouragement. George Fox visited Evesham again in 1656 together with John Camm. And George Whitehouse and William Dewsbury, Publishers of Truth from the north, were in Evesham in 1657.

Early in 1660 Edward Pitway and two other Friends were arrested and sent to prison for refusing to swear. Next day 20 Friends were taken from their meeting and imprisoned. A few days later 45 Friends (34 were women) were imprisoned. In the next week 15 more were taken including 13 women. So 83 Friends - 47 of them women - were imprisoned in less than a fortnight. Local officials clearly considered them to be a threat to society, probably because of their refusal to pay church rates. The Quakers criticised priests and clergymen for being more interested in financial gain than anything else. They also felt that the clergy served no useful purpose. George Fox encouraged people to look to their Inward Teacher, the Light of Christ within.

The site of the Meeting House in Cowl Street was purchased in 1676. A meeting house was built that year, but it had to be largely rebuilt (in brick) in 1698.

The burial ground beside the Meeting House was provided in 1721. There had been an earlier burial ground on Waterside. This is now in the garden of the Northwick Arms Hotel, which is on the site of Edward Pitway’s house.

The meeting room in Cowl Street dates from 1698 and has two unusual features. There is a stand with two rows of benches for the elders of the Meeting. Each row of benches has a vertical panel in front of it. There used also to be a third row of benches, but the two main benches would have seated as many as 30 Quakers.

The second unusual feature is in the old oak wainscoting. Several names are scratched on it, with various dates from 1698 (when the meeting house was rebuilt) until 1712. It is thought that the meeting house was used as a school in its early days as the names scratched on it are those of young Friends who were adults there a few years later. Records show that a school was operating there in 1713.

In 1823 the cottage next door to the meeting house in Cowl Street was bought and in 1838 the room over the passageway was enlarged. In 1874 the warden’s house was improved. The meeting house was extensively reconstructed in 1870 and further work was carried out in 1892. The six pillars in the meeting room are thought to date from 1870 and it may be that this was when the lobby was added. It is thought that the roof of the meeting house was originally thatched.

Starting in 1877 Quakers in and around Evesham undertook a great deal of mission work. This mainly took the form of mission meetings held in meeting houses and in specially built mission halls. Some Quakers also preached in the streets.

In the early 1880s Evesham Quakers (“Friends”) started a mission meeting on Sunday evenings, in place of the evening meeting for worship, and there was soon another on a weekday evening. The response was good and a Bible class, together with adult and children’s school, was established in 1883/4.

An early leader of the movement was Alfred W. Brown. He was a recorded minister and preached in the streets of Evesham. But he died in 1891 at the early age of 32. George Ash then came from Gloucester to lead the mission work.

Cottage and tent meetings, and some adult schools, were started in the villages of Cleeve Prior, Littleton, Badsey, Aldington, Harvington, Broadway, Ashton-under-Hill and elsewhere.

In 1892-4 the meeting house at Evesham was altered and enlarged to deal with the new work.

William W. Brown built the “Cowl Street Hall” in memory of his son Alfred W. Brown. It is thought that this is the derelict brick building between the meeting house and the “Blue Maze” and that after being sold by the Quakers it was eventually taken over by the Jehovah’s Witnesses before they moved to a new “Kingdom Hall” on the opposite side of Cowl Street.

In 1890 Evesham Quakers recorded at a business meeting (“preparative meeting”) that they endeavoured through their adult school and mission work to promote “physical, moral and intellectual as well as spiritual well-being”. Adult school classes and mission meetings were open to everyone, not just Quakers.

Other work included the visiting of the sick (one Friend worked full-time on this - it seems mainly Bible reading); special missions to, for example, pea pickers; occasional meetings lasting several days; and special temperance meetings - these, and some other work, being run jointly with other non-conformist churches.

In the proceedings of London Yearly Meeting of 1902 it was recorded that

Evesham with Badsey and Littleton may well be glad that 700-800 persons are influenced directly by the agencies of Friends - and many more indirectly by visitations.

Mission work in the Vale of Evesham was facilitated by representatives of the Home Mission Committee. These were: George Ash (1891-1905), Mark Lawson and Charles H. Siddle (1905-1917), Asher Davidson (1909-1917), and Richard H. Smith (1920-1931). From 1917 onwards important roles were played by Arthur E. Thorne (Evesham), Walter Stewart (Badsey), Thomas Bubb and Frederick Bubb (Littleton). Philip Bayliss, grandson of Thomas Bubb, now plays a leading role in the Littleton Fellowship.

There has been a fairly steady decline in membership of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) since 1914. In the Vale of Evesham there were 128 members in 1915 and only 31 in 1991. This is not the place to speculate on the reasons for this decline, let alone any possible remedies.

In the 1980s the meeting room was in a poor state and was substantially refurbished by members of the meeting. The outer vertical panel of the stand mentioned above was removed and new parquet flooring was laid.

Members of the Religious Society of Friends are members of an Area Meeting (formerly “Monthly Meeting”), which is a grouping of local meetings within a certain geographical area. Business meetings are held monthly, which is why the body used to be called a “Monthly Meeting”. In 1986 Evesham (and Littleton) Friends made a historic decision to leave Worcestershire and Shropshire Monthly Meeting and join together with Banbury, Broad Campden, Ettington and Sibford to form the new Banbury & Evesham Monthly Meeting.

At about the same time Evesham Quakers worked together on a major renovation of the meeting house. They discovered how a common task, done with zeal and affection” could “bind the meeting ever more closely together.