12 September 2023

Oxford Quakers
have a story
that goes back to
a meeting in 1654

The Quaker Meeting House at No 43 St Giles, Oxford … Quakers have been in Oxford since 1654 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

The Quaker Meeting House in Oxford is at No 43 St Giles, between Pusey House, Saint Cross College and Blackfriars Hall to the south, and the former Saint Benet’s Hall to the north. This stretch of Saint Giles also includes the Oxfam shop and the Eagle and Child, once the meeting place of the Inklings but ‘temporarily closed’ for a long time.

Although the present meeting house on Saint Giles dates from 1955, Quakers have been meeting in Oxford regularly since 1654, when they first met at the house of Richard Bettrice, a surgeon, in New Inn Hall Street.

In those days, Oxford Quakers were visited by many prominent missionaries, including the early converts was Thomas Loe, later associated with the conversion of William Penn.

George Fox, the founding figure among Quakers, visited Oxford in 1656 and, despite the rudeness of undergraduates, held ‘great meetings.’

Most of the early Quakers in Oxford were small tradesmen and artisans, although Richard Bettrice was a surgeon. Their practice of interrupting services in the city’s churches brought them into collision with the authorities, and some were whipped out of town, others imprisoned.

On the other hand, the vice-chancellor of Oxford, John Owen, who was an Independent, showed leniency and paid one Quaker’s gaol fees. In the same way, Thomas Williams, a Baptist mayor, refused to confirm sentences of whipping on some Quaker missionaries and he allowed a meeting at his house, where his son was converted.

Thomas Williams also intervened to prevent undergraduates ducking three Quakers, among them the missionary Elizabeth Fletcher who had walked the streets naked as a sign that God would strip those in power.

Quaker meetings were disrupted by undergraduates, who broke down the doors, brought in ‘their dogs and their drink,’ insulted the women, sang bawdy songs, and set off fireworks.

Official persecution increased after the Restoration. In 1662-1663, at least 15 Quakers were imprisoned, some more than once, for unlawful assembly, absence from church, or refusing the oath of allegiance.

Meetings continued, chiefly at Bettrice’s house, and he was fined heavily around 1670. There was difficulty over the use of the house in 1670, and in 1687 the Quakers bought land for a meeting house and a burial ground behind Silas Norton’s house at Nos 63-64 St Giles Street, now part of the site of Blackfriars Priory and Blackfriars Hall.

When William Penn visited Oxford in 1687, he addressed a meeting in Norton’s garden. The meeting house, later entered from Pusey Lane, was completed in 1688, with financial help from other Oxfordshire Friends.

A visitor in 1715 found the undergraduates comparatively quiet at the weekly meeting, which was attended by people ‘of some fashion.’ But he also witnessed the ransacking of the meeting house by a mob during the Jacobite riots that year. Although over £55 worth of damage was reported after the riot, no claim for compensation claim was made, presumably to avoid giving sworn evidence.

By 1735, there were only four or five Friends in Oxford, and the centre of Quaker activity in the area in the 18th century was at Witney, Weekly meetings appear to have ceased altogether after the death in 1745 of Thomas Nichols, one of the most active Friends in the county.

The Quarterly Meeting used the Oxford meeting house occasionally for convenience, and paid for its upkeep until it was sold in 1867. A few Friends continued to live in the city but an average attendance at the meeting house of about 100 reported in 1851 probably referred to the Quarterly Meeting.

The Oxford meeting was revived in 1888, largely by CE Gillett, and the former Scottish Presbyterian church in Nelson Street, Jericho, was bought as a meeting house. In the later 19th century, the meeting, influenced by the Evangelical movement, was unusually ‘advanced,’ with provision for hymn-singing and an emphasis on conversion to Christianity rather than to the Society of Friends. However, the meeting reverted to a more traditional Quaker style of worship in the 20th century.

A drawing of the 1950s meeting house in Oxford in the meeting’s newsletter

Membership increased from 68 in 1919 to 173 in 1946, and 268 in 1972. In 1906 the meeting moved from the Nelson Street chapel, which was sold in 1921, to No 40 Canal Street, and from 1907 the Friends occupied rented accommodation at No 21 George Street until 1919 and at N. 115 High Street, until 1946. They then moved to No 43 St Giles Street, which was bought in 1939. A stone on the façade bears the date 1660.

The present Meeting House in the garden at No 43 St Giles dates from 1955, 300 years after Quakers were first recorded in Oxford.

Oxford Meeting gathers on: Sundays, First Sunday of each month: 10:30 to 11:30, followed by tea and coffee, 12:30 to 1:30pm: Meeting for Worship for Business; all other Sundays: 9:30 to 10:15, followed by tea and coffee, 11 to 12, including children’s meetings, followed by tea and coffee; Tuesdays: 7:30 to 8, followed by a shared breakfast; Wednesdays: 11:30 to 12:15, followed by tea and coffee.

The present Quaker Meeting House at No 43 St Giles dates from 1955 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Intriguing history which I never knew - and I'm a Quaker!