The Quaker challenge to churches

The return of Quaker Week (October 4-12) gives me another welcome opportunity to explore the history of the Society of Friends in Banbury.

The founder and father figure of the movement was George Fox, son of a Leicestershire weaver. He provided the initial impetus that attracted substantial support within a short period of time from 1650.

The name 'Quaker' was apparently applied to George Fox after he bade the magistrates at Derby 'to quake at the name of the Lord'.

In a booklet written to help celebrate the 250th anniversary of the opening of the present Meeting House in Banbury's Horse Fair, Nick Allen and Muriel Langley explored the many facets of Quakerism locally.

They highlighted the lack of priests, clergy or religious leaders and stressed that there was nothing sacred about their Meeting Houses, merely that they have always been somewhere for business to be transacted and for the worship of God.

The Society of Friends first gathered strength at a time of great political uncertainty following the Civil War known as the interregnum (1649-1660). Its prime movers were both local people like Edward Vivers, a wool merchant with a family house in the High Street, and those from further afield.

John Camm and John Audland hailed from north-west England and may well have been responsible for converting Vivers to the Quaker outlook on life and worship through the medium of a meeting held at 'ye Castle adjoining to Banbury'. This was in 1654 and a year later it was the turn of their wives to rally support.

John Audland's wife Anne initiated a process and tradition for challenging the ways and worship of the established church. A friend who was with Anne interrupted the natural flow of a St Mary's service by speaking out between the sermon and the prayers. She was hushed by those around her and when Anne protested the congregation reacted as they did on subsequent similar occasions by hustling her out of the building. Subsequently she was brought before the current and immediate past mayors John Austin and William Allen who committed her to prison.

The established church was not the only location for such protestations. In June 1655 Jane Waugh's voice was heard in the Market Place. The outcome was the same – a spell in gaol.

Some Quakers who made their feelings public suffered a different fate, namely some loss of material possessions. One of the most interesting of these was James Wagstaffe, a mercer (wool merchant) as well as keeper of the Flower-de-Luce inn located in Broad Street. He was found guilty of refusing to take an oath of allegiance to the newly restored monarchy and then refusing to pay a 2 fine.

Wagstaffe was a very public figure and had been innkeeper from 1651-1675 at the public house behind which, in 1657, the very first Quaker Meeting House was established. Gatherings there attracted many village people despite borough attempts to prevent their involvement by confiscating horses.

In 1664 land was bought on behalf of the Friends in the Horse Fair where the present day Meeting House is located. The old building was removed and rebuilt on the new site and became the first Horse Fair venue. Initially thatched, it became part of a larger site with the gradual acquisition of plots of land for a graveyard and a room for women Friends. Actual rebuilding did not take place until the period 1748-1750 when the present building was erected.

Throughout the second half of the 17th century Quakers suffered fierce persecution for their refusal to take oaths, pay their tithes for the repair of the church and refusal to pay fines. A succession of Quakers challenged Anglican ministers especially at St Mary's.

The outcome was the same, a trial followed by jail and the seizure of goods in lieu of fines. If Anne Audland's spell in gaol is anything to go on, then Quakers could look forward to the like of stinking mud, numerous frogs and toads and, of course, cold conditions. Despite such experiences, some Quakers used their time locked away in a productive way. They made the so-called 'Quaker laces'.

The situation improved during the 18th century when there was less conflict with the authorities and in the following 100 years the Quakers enjoyed a revival. Banbury Corporation was even prepared to accommodate objections as illustrated by a re-naming of St John's Street. It was to become South Bar.

Some very important figures emerged from the Quaker ranks. Typical of these was James Cadbury who gave his life to numerous causes – peace, temperance, the British Schools Movement, the Bible Society and the Freehold Land Society. People like him were the logical leaders of local political, commercial and charitable organisations.

Today the final words should belong to Barrie Trinder who wrote about Banbury Quakerism in Cake and Cockhorse. In his article he concludes that 'like many religious bodies, its respectable middle age was very different from its passionate youth'. Banbury was no exception.