11 February 2023

The Georgian meeting house
is part of a 350-year Quaker
presence in Northampton

The Quaker Meeting House at the north end of Wellington Street in Northampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During my self-guided tour and walk around Northampton, I went in search of churches and chapel, cathedrals and castle ruins, and also found the site of a mediaeval synagogue, the present modern synagogue, and the Quaker Meeting House on Wellington Street.

The Quaker Meeting House and burial ground are at the north end of Wellington Street, a short distance south of the busy junction with Lady’s Lane, from which they are separated by a public green open space.

The meeting house appears to be the only historic building of interest in this area of Northampton, and most of the neighbouring buildings are commercial, apart from a small Pentecostalist church next door.

During their early days, Quakers in Northampton were severely persecuted. Many were arrested and held in the gaol. For example, in 1659 Margaret Palmer was held for 27 months ‘in close confined among Murderers, Thieves, Whores, and some called Witches, in a close nasty place, where her friends were not admitted to see her, otherwise than through the key-hole of the door.’

The House of Lords noted on 3 September 1660, ‘That there are great Multitudes of Anabaptists and Quakers, that assemble themselves together in great Numbers, to the endangering the Peace of the County of North’ton; and that they scatter abroad seditious Papers against Ministry.’ It ‘recommended to the Justices of the next Assize for that County, to give special Charge and Directions to the Justices of Peace, and all other Officers, to take Care to suppress and prevent such Meetings; and that the Sheriff of the County do take special Care to prevent such riotous Meetings, and preserve the Peace of that County.’

By the end of 1660, about 40 prisoners were being held in ‘the Low-Gaol, twelve Steps underground.’ They were ‘locked up every night among Felons, and in Winter the Gaoler kept the door fast sixteen hours together, and they lay so close one by another, that he who was up last could hardly let his Foot between them to go to the Place where he should lie.’

Other Quakers were not allowed to visit them, and food and necessaries were often kept from them.

However, Quakers became more accepted in 1662. They bought a barn, a garden and a small piece of ground in Crackbowl Lane, now Swan Street. Meetings were held there from 1668, while the garden was used as a burial ground. In 1705 a meeting house was built on a new site in Kingswell Street.

A new meeting house was built in Kingswell Street in 1705, and Quaker meetings continued there for the next 125 years. A new meeting house was built in 1829-1830 on land on Wellington Street, which was bought from a Quaker named William Collins, and the old building was later sold. The new site included a burial ground, replacing the Swan Street burial ground which was also sold.

When it opened in October 1830, the building was described as ‘an elegant plain edifice and so constructed as to be made perfectly comfortable by steam ... during the severity of the winter season ... About 600 persons can be conveniently accommodated.’

The meeting house built in 1830 is rectangular in plan with a hipped overall roof. The external walls are of brick; the north and west sides are laid in Flemish bond with grey headers and red stretchers, the south and east walls are of plain red brick. The roof is cov
ered is Welsh slate.

The main front to the north has a Doric columned brick porch off-set slightly to the right (west). The east half of the front has two tall, single small-paned timber sash windows lighting the main meeting room; the west half has six modern rectangular small-paned timber windows on two storeys. The wall rises to a moulded timber cornice, which is continued on the west elevation.

This front has an entrance with a modern timber Doric-columned surround. To the left (north) of the doorway are two modern rectangular timber windows on both ground and first floors.

The front porch now leads to an internal stair hall with a modern door into the main meeting room. This room rises the full height of the building and has a flat ceiling with no cornice and curved corners at the eastern end. The side walls have panelled dados with benches and there is a raised stand across the full width of the east wall with curving stairs and curving ends to the mahogany handrail. The other parts of the building appear entirely modern.

It seems likely that the building originally had only two full-height meeting rooms divided by timber screens. But, by the 1880s, the western meeting room had been subdivided.

The timber screens were replaced in 1962 by a solid wall. A floor was inserted over half of the west or women’s end in 1966, and the windows on the north and west sides of the building was altered to reflect the internal change. More internal alterations were made to this part of the building in 1988.

The burial ground to the north of the meeting house has been used for burials since 1831, the date of the earliest grave marker. The last burial was in 2014. The burial ground was elaborately landscaped in 2012 with the help of a legacy, retaining the headstones. The space is now enclosed by 20th century brick walls

The meeting house has Grade II Listing since 1968. Sadly, my view of the meeting house from the street last week was rather spoiled by car parking. The meeting house has been used continuously by Quakers since it opened in 1830 and more recently by other community groups.

Sunday meetings for worship take place at 10:30.

Beside the meeting house, Christ Image Assembly (CIA) is church that held its first service in 2014. The church is a branch of the Global Ministry of Christ Image Assembly, based in Lagos, Nigeria. The pastor, Dr Henry Akintunde, is the Lead Minister of CIA Northampton and is also a General Practitioner (GP).

Christ Image Assembly beside the Quaker Meeting House in Northampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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