25 May 2024

The former Quaker
meeting house in
Leicester has had
a variety of religious uses

The former Quaker meeting house on Prebend Street, Leicester, was built in 1876 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing recently (23 May 2024) about the former Congregational Church on Oxford Street, Leicester, and how it was converted into the first fully consecrated Jain Temple in the western world.

Leicester is the most ethnically diverse city in Britain, and it was interesting during my visits this week and last week to learn how a former Quaker meeting house in Leicester has become the spiritual home of a group that are seen as on the margins of mainstream Sikh traditional.

George Fox (1624-1691), the founding figure in the Society of Friends or Quakers, was born 400 years ago in Leicestershire in Fenny Drayton, then known as Drayton-in-the-Clay, in July 1624.

When George Fox first visited Leicester in 1648, he found a considerable body of supporters there. On that visit he took part in a theological discussion with the Vicar of Saint Martin’s – now Leicester Cathedral – and made a number of conversions. George Fox was jailed numerous times, including in Leicester and Nottingham. But ever since, there has been a Quaker meeting in Leicester, although it never was a very large one.

The borough records include two letters from about 1655 from Quaker prisoners in the town gaol, one who was jailed for refusing to take off his hat in the presence of a magistrate.

Samuel Brown’s petition to be licensed as an apothecary in 1669 was refused because he was a Quaker, although in 1699 another Quaker, Joseph Smith, was admitted to the freedom of the borough.

Friends or Quakers acquired a site in Soar Lane, Leicester, in 1680 for a burial ground and built a meeting house on part of the site in 1680-1681. There were said to be 13 Quakers living in Saint Martin’s Parish in 1709. As time passed, and Quaker numbers grew in Leicester, the site was enlarged gradually to cope with the number of burials.

A new meeting house was built in the centre of the site in 1768 and the old building was demolished. In 1791, it was said that the Quakers of Leicester maintained ‘more of the original simplicity of dress and manners characteristic of their body, than was to be seen in other towns.’

When the Quakers of Saint Martin’s parish refused to pay church rates, it was agreed that they should pay twice as much poor rate as the members of the Church of England.

By 1848, the former Baptist chapel in Soar Lane had been taken over by the Quakers as an adult school and mission chapel, although it was abandoned about 1895.

An important benefactor and member of the meeting in the 19th century was the industrialist John Ellis (1789-1862). He was responsible for the Leicester and Swannington Railway, which opened in 1832 and allowed the Leicestershire coalfields to prosper.

A plaque is a reminder of the former Friends’ Meeting House on Prebend Street, designed by Edward Burgess and built in 1876 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Meanwhile, the Quaker meeting house on Soar Lane and the surrounding site were acquired in 1876 for development by the Manchester Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, later called the Great Central Railway.

A new site was acquired in Prebend Street, and a new meeting house was built there in 1876, designed by Edward Burgess (1847-1929), a Quaker and who went on to become a prominent Leicester architect. His legacy to Leicester includes the central reference library on Bishop Street, the former Leicester Savings Bank building in Greyfriars, the former Wyggeston Girls’ School (1877-1878), now the Leicester Age UK building on Humberstone Gate, and several Victorian coffee houses for the Leicester Coffee and Cocoa House Company Ltd.

Among his many buildings of distinction, two of the finest are the Victoria Coffee House on Granby Street and the terracotta-faced Alexandra House on Rutland Street. The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner describes Alexandra House as ‘the finest warehouse in Leicester and one of the finest in the country.’ It is in the heart of what is now the cultural quarter, close to the Curve Theatre, the Phoenix Cinema and Art Centre.

The Quaker Meeting House and Drayton House on Queen’s Road, Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Quakers remained at Prebend Street for almost 80 years until the mid-1950s, when the site for a new Quaker meeting house on Queen’s Road in the Clarendon Park area was donated by Charles Goddard – of silver plate powder fame – who was a member of the meeting. The new meeting house was designed by AH Gardner & Partners and was built in 1955, and the meeting house on Prebend Street closed in 1956.

The new meeting house originally comprised a two storey range fronting the street, with a single-storey meeting room set at right angles at the rear. The front range was extended across the end of the meeting room in 1968 to designs by the Douglas Smith Stimpson partnership; Douglas Smith was member of the Quaker meeting in Leicester.

When a Progressive Synagogue was formed in Leicester in 1950, it first met in members’ homes. Then in the 1960s it met in the Quaker Meeting House on Queen’s Road, as I recalled in a posting yesterday (24 May 2024). Later, it moved into its own building nearby on Avenue Road in 1995.

The southern part of the meeting house site on Queen’s Road was used to build Drayton House in the 1970s, including 12 flats for a newly-formed Leicester Quaker Housing Association. It is named after Fenny Drayton, where George Fox was born 400 years ago in July 1624.

The Sant Nirankari Mandal moved into in the former Quaker meeting house on Prebend Street in 1977 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

As for the Victorian meeting house on Prebend Street, it first became a school run by the Royal Society for the Blind, and then became a Sikh gurdwara in 1977 when the Sant Nirankari Mandal moved into in the former Quaker premises and the mission was opened by Baba Gurbachan Singh Ji. However, this movement, based in Delhi, is often seen as peripheral to mainstream Sikhism because of its belief in a living human guru and it describes itself as a ‘universal brotherhood’.

The Sikh community in Leicester is diverse and gurdwaras have developed according to the needs and plans of individuals and community groups. The first Sikh temple in Leicester, Guru Nanak Gurdwara, opened in 1970, reflecting the growth of the city’s Sikh population in the 1960s and 1970s. By 2011, the Sikh population of Leicester had risen to 14,457, representing 4.4% of the city’s population.

The Sikh presence continues to contribute significantly to the social, political and religious life of Leicester and is especially evident at the annual Vaisakhi celebrations, attracting thousands of people from across Leicester and the Midlands, to a parade through the city centre. The event, known as Nagar Kirtan, took place this year on Sunday 28 April.

Today, there are nine gurdwaras in the city of Leicester, and a further two in other parts of Leicestershire, in Oadby and Loughborough. Gurdwaras are usually named after one of the Sikh gurus.

Sant Nirankari Mission was founded as a Sikh reform movement in 1929 by Baba Buta Singh (1873-1943). Mata Sudiksha, the daughter of Satguru Baba Hardev Singh, has been the sixth spiritual head of the mission since 2018. Nirankaris consider themselves to be Sikhs, and a part of Sikh history, although most Sikhs continue to regard them as marginal to mainstream Sikhism. The main gathering of the week at the Sant Nirankari Bhawan in Leicester is at 4 pm to 5:45 pm on Sundays.

• Meeting for Worship gathers in the Quaker Meeting House on Queen’s Road, Leicester, from 10:30 to 11:30 on Sundays and from 12:30 to 1 pm on Wednesdays.

The garden and the entrance to the Quaker Meeting House at Queen’s Road, Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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