22 August 2022

350 years of Quaker
meetings and burials
in Sheffield and York

The Quaker Meeting House on the corner of Saint James Street and Vicar Lane in Sheffield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

When Horace Walpole visited Sheffield in September 1760, he wrote: ‘I passed through Sheffield, which is one of the foulest towns in England, in the most charming situation. There are 22,000 inhabitants making knives and scissors; they remit £11,000 a week to London. One man there has discovered the art of plating copper with silver. I bought a pair of candlesticks for two guineas. They are quite pretty.’

Walpole’s candlesticks were of Sheffield Plate. The man he referred to was Thomas Boulsover (1705-1788), a Sheffield cutler who is best remembered as the inventor of Sheffield Plate in 1743. He discovered that when silver and copper were put together and the silver melted, the fusion of the two metals produced an ingot which, when rolled out into a sheet, had all the virtues of a single metal.

One of the leading cutlers in Sheffield at the time, Robert Sutcliff, was also a prominent Quaker and businessman. The few Quakers whose names appear in the history of 18th century Sheffield exercised an influence out of all proportion to their number. They included cutlers such as Robert Sutcliff, Thomas Colley and George Crapper.

During my visits to Sheffield and York last week, I visited the two cathedrals in Sheffield, Church of England and Roman Catholic, the sites of three former synagogues in Sheffield, and a number of churches in York. In addition, I also visited the Quaker Meeting House near the cathedrals in Sheffield, and a Quaker burial ground in York.

Quaker meetings have been held in Sheffield since 1668 … a plaque at the entrance to the Meeting House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Quaker meetings have taken place in Sheffield since 1668. Within 20 years of George Fox, the founding figure among Quakers, bringing his radical message, Quaker meetings sprang up at Tickhill, Balby and Woodhouse, followed by Upperthorpe and Sheffield in 1668-1669.

The Shaw family lived at Brookside and its neighbouring farm, The Hill. George Shaw bought the Brookside estate from Richard Rawson of Hatfield House in 1649. GeorgeShaw, and his father, Robert Shaw , and his brother, William Shaw of The Hill, welcomed George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends or Quakers, to their home on several occasions between 1652 and 1660.

The Shaws suffered harassment from the curate of Bradfield for not paying their tithes, until 1684 when a verdict was given against them and they had to pay damages and costs. When George Shaw died in 1708, he was buried in Bowcroft Cemetery where his tombstone records, ‘He suffered much for bearing testimony against payment of tythes.’ The Bowcroft cemetery at Stannington was used by one family only – the Shaw family of Brookside and The Hill, who were buried there between 1708 and 1731.

Meanwhile, Sheffield Quakers bought land for a burial ground off Broad Lane in 1676, at what is now a vacant lot beside McCague’s Garage. At that time Quakers in Sheffield met for worship at sites like this or in their own homes.

Land and buildings for a meeting house and stables were eventually bought in 1707. This was situated on the west of Scargill Croft, off Hartshead, now the top end of Meeting House Lane. An orchard was then bought as a burial ground on the east side of Meeting House Lane and, over the next 100 years, various meeting houses were built on this site.

At one point, the Meeting House had seating capacity for up to 800 people. A Friends’ Adult School building, seating 500, was added in 1871. However, during the bombing raids in the Blitz in World War II, the main buildings were gutted by fire in December 1940.

Friends met in temporary accommodation until 1947, when Sheffield Council erected a temporary wooden building on the site of the old adult school.

Eventually, the whole site was bought for redevelopment with land exchange and a grant from the War Damage Compensation Scheme. A replacement meeting house was built on High Court, on the south side of Hartshead in 1964. This, in turn, was bought for redevelopment, and the Society of Friends moved into the present Sheffield Quaker Meeting House on Saint James Street in 1991. Friends House on Hartshead was never actually redeveloped.

The Quaker Meeting House on Saint James Street fits into the character of the Cathedral Conservation Area in Sheffield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The present Quaker Meeting House at 10 Saint James Street, Sheffield, on the corner with Vicar Lane, is a fine piece of architecture, fitting into the character of the Cathedral Conservation Area. Sheffield Central Meeting is large, with up to about 60 people attending on Sundays.

There is a second, smaller Quaker meeting in Sheffield at Nether Edge in rented premises at Shirley House on Psalter Lane. Nether Edge Meeting has a typical attendance of 10 to 15.

Both meetings have their main meeting for worship from 10.30 to 11.30 each Sunday, and the two meetings are closely linked, sharing many activities.

The two Sheffield Quaker meetings, together with Balby (Doncaster) Meeting and Hope Valley Meeting, which meets at the Quaker Community in Bamford, are grouped together as Sheffield and Balby Area Meeting which meets regularly as the co-ordinating meeting of Quakers in the area. The original Balby meeting, one of the world’s oldest Quaker Meetings, dates back to ca 1652.

The grave of the Quaker abolitionist John Woolman in the burial ground in Bishophill, York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

In York, I visited the Quaker Burial Ground in Cromwell Road, Bishophill. This burial ground opened in 1667 and closed for burials in 1854. It is now managed by Friargate Quaker Meeting House and leased as a garden to the York Housing Association.

Four of us entered the garden by the residents’ gate to see the headstones, repositioned around the perimeter walls of the garden. The burial ground was bought on 1 November 1667, was extended with an adjoining garden in 1823, and closed for burials on 11 December 1854.

By the mid-19th century, the now-distinctive form of Quaker headstones – small, round-topped, identical in shape and size – had been widely adopted to reflect the Quaker belief in the equality of all humans in life and death. Dates were originally inscribed in numbers only to avoid using names of days and months derived from the names of pagan deities.

However, some of surviving headstones in Bishophill predate this custom. The headstones are fixed along the edges, amongst old brick walls, lime trees, terraces and flower beds.

The surviving headstones include are those of the American Quaker John Woolman (1720-1772), a prominent spiritual writer and an early abolitionist, who came to England seeking Quaker support for the abolition of slavery but died of smallpox in York in 1772.

Other headstone we saw include those of the American lawyer and grammarian Lindley Murray (1745-1826) and his wife Hannah (Dobson) Murray (died 1834), and William Alexander (1768-1841), businessman, educator, bookseller, publisher and author, who wrote under the name Amicus.

Here too are the graves of several members of the Tuke family, a family of Quaker innovators involved in establishing Rowntree’s Cocoa Works, the Retreat Mental Hospital, one of the first modern asylums, and three Quaker schools, Ackworth, Bootham, and The Mount. They include: Elizabeth (Hoyland) Tuke (1729-1760), who was born in Sheffield, Esther Tuke (1727-1794), founder of The Mount School, Henry Tuke (1755-1814), Mary Maria Tuke (1748-1815) and William Tuke (1733-1822), who founded The Retreat.

The burial ground in Bishophill closed for burials in 1854 and was succeeded in 1855 by the large Quaker burial ground shared with The Retreat in Heslington Road and still in use. Although the burial ground is now closed for burials and the interment of ashes, the scattering of ashes may be arranged.

The burial ground in Bishophill includes the graves of many prominent York Quakers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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