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The history of Quakerism in Cambridge

Early Friends in Cambridge
The first Meeting
The second Meeting
The First World War
The Second World War
New Meetings
Photo gallery

Early Friends in Cambridge

Early records of Friends in Cambridge are of a Meeting House being built in Jesus Lane in 1777, on the bank of the King's Ditch, but Quakerism in the town dates from much earlier times. As far back as December 1653 Elizabeth Williams (aged 50) and Mary Fisher (aged 30), after discussing with students matters of religion, were "publicly whipped by order of the Mayor."

In the following year Cambridge was visited by Thomas Ayrey, after his journey in the West. Richard Hubberthorne was imprisoned here for a short time in the autumn, but went on to publish the message in Norwich and other parts of the Eastern Counties. Young James Parnell was tried and ejected from Cambridge as a vagrant, but he worked for six months following in the county and the neighbourhood, and we hear of him again in Cambridge, where he spent the night in jail, in Fenstanton, Littleport, Ely and Soham.

George Fox records in his Journal the rough reception he got on a visit in 1655.

"The scholars hearing of my coming were up and exceeding rude but I kept on my horseback and rid through them in the Lord's power. Oh, said they, he shines, he glisters."

An alderman, who was a Friend, gave him asylum in his house and

"we sent for all the friendly people and had a sweet heavenly meeting in the power of God amongst them and there I stayed all night. But the next morning I ordered my horse to be ready saddled by the sixth hour and so we passed out of the town and the Lord's power was over all. And the destroyers were frustrated for they thought I would have stayed and they had thought to have done us mischief."

The first Meeting

We have a notice of a Meeting held in Jesus Lane in 1655, when Francis Howgill was present.

The Meeting was held in a "yard", probably of W. Brazier's house, who had his goods seized in 1670 in payment of fines, levied for allowing meetings to be held in his house (probably the site of the present Meeting House). The Register of Jesus College records the expulsion of Roger Kelsall, a student, for frequenting these Quaker Meetings.

In 1659 we find the University Librarian publicly disputing with Friends, one being George Whitehead, at their Meeting House, the Mayor sending his officers "to see the peace kept."

From 1654 to 1668 there are sad records of persecution. At one time sixty-seven Friends were reported in prison in Cambridge. We have the following account of the persecution to which Friends were subjected by Alderman James Blackley on 28th 3 mo. 1660:

"Yesterday in our Meeting House when we had been together two hours, the soldiers came and set upon us with swords and their staves, and brake in upon us and gat smiths' hammers and brake the windows and doors in pieces, and with shivered boards and window bars fell upon us and beat and wounded many Friends, that few or none did escape without a wound, and haled everyone out, and would not suffer one to stay within the house; only I stayed there to see what they would do. And when the house was emptied of Friends they brake down all the glass windows, the stairs, the forms, benches, chairs, etc., whatever could be broken in the house. The soldiers and scholars began and the rude people in the town made an end. William Allen, a frequent speaker at the meeting, was much beaten and bruised."

Joseph Townsend, a merchant at Stourbridge Fair, was kept in prison during the fair for refusing to take the oath of allegiance. The first mention in the records of the Quarterly Meeting is dated l670-7l. The entry is "Cambridge - most Friends in prison."

Anne Docwra, a Cambridge Friend, knew George Fox and she has provided the fullest description we have of him in person and habits. In 1700 she left by will the estate in Meeting House Yard in Jesus Lane and certain lands in Fulbourn to be held under trustees for 1000 years for the benefit of Friends.

The second Meeting

The building of a Meeting House in 1777, extending over the old yard, was made possible by subscriptions from Friends in other parts of the country, the cost being 300. In 1795 the Meeting of Friends closed and the Meeting House was used by other bodies. Stephen Grellet records that in 1812 there were no Friends residing in Cambridge.

But though regular meetings of Friends were discontinued, the building served for a time to house at least two institutions of value to the town. In 1827 some undergraduates of Queens' College began there a Sunday School for the children of Barnwell, the school continuing on the premises till in 1833 they were found too small and it removed elsewhere.

Many well-known names of the 19th century are to be found in its list of teachers. Later the first Free Library in Cambridge was opened in the Meeting House in 1855. This venture was so successful that, after only seven years, the building was found too small and the Library was moved to the Guildhall.

No further record of regular meetings of Friends is to be found until the spring of 1884 when the Meeting House was reopened for worship by the efforts of John William Graham and a committee of other undergraduates. At their first Meeting for Worship a company of 40 people gathered in the old building and from this beginning the present Meeting at Jesus Lane may be considered as having emerged,

At first the Meeting had much need of outside help, as J. W. Graham used to recall, but gradually it became established.

The First World War

In 1894 the old cottage at the entrance, probably William Brazier's house, was condemned by the municipal authority but new premises were erected on the same site. At this time J. Hingston Fox, Dr. J. Rendel Harris and Caroline Stephen were among the leaders of the Meeting. In 1905 Albert J. and Gulielma Crosfield moved to Cambridge and a new phase in the life of the Meeting began. At their home in Madingley Road undergraduates were able to meet visiting Friends and one another.

During the years of the First World War the size of the Meeting was reduced by the absence of undergraduates, but with the coming of peace numbers and activities revived. In 1926 Friends felt it was time to carry out a major alteration of the premises. Fred Rowntree of York was consulted as architect, alterations were decided on, and the interior took a completely new form. The old entrance yard was covered in, the Meeting-place moved upstairs, and the caretaker's house taken to No.11 Jesus Lane, which had been made available for us through an earlier provision of Caroline Stephen. The new building was reopened for worship in the spring of 1927.

Among many distinguished Friends who have worshipped at Jesus Lane, Arthur Stanley Eddington, the mathematician and astro-physicist, was a faithful member for many years, and for some time audited the Meeting House accounts. During the twenties and thirties an Adult School was held on the premises under the guidance of A. Keith Dewey and other Friends.

The Meeting was concerned in various ways during the 1930s with the problems of unemployment in South Wales and elsewhere. The thirties was also a time of growth for Young Friends, largely through the influence of John William Graham and his wife Margaret, one of a series of couples who followed the Crosfields in giving regular hospitality to Young Friends and other members of the Meeting - Leonard and Dora Doncaster, Horace and Cecily Fleming and Arthur and Ruth Rymer Roberts. After the Rymer Roberts left Cambridge in 1940 the pre-war tea-parties were replaced by more austere coffee evenings.

The Second World War

In the years before and during the Second World War new arrivals brought strength and liveliness to the Meeting - Hilda Sturge and her mother, Howard and Elizabeth Diamond, Charles and Margaret Deakin with their families, and others enriched the Meeting in many ways.

The influx of refugees and evacuees gave various opportunities for service. Hilda Sturge gave her time and energy, from the mid-thirties through the war period, to the settlement of Jewish refugees in Cambridge. The number of practising Jews far exceeded the capacity of the Synagogue and the Meeting House was placed at their disposal on the Sabbath, in return for which they blacked-out the Meeting room which was thus available for evening activities during the war.

On one occasion, when the Day of Atonement fell upon a Sunday, the Jews worshipped upstairs while Friends met for their worship in the lower room. Towards the end of the war work developed in befriending prisoners of war at Trumpington; this began with visits to the camp, and then regular tea-parties on Sunday afternoons. This led to some enquiries and a "Brains Trust" in German on Quaker subjects.

In 1947 the resident caretaker was succeeded by a resident Warden who brought a transforming sense of warmth and welcome to the premises. From that time successive Wardens have cheerfully assumed the task of answering enquiries and giving help and encouragement.

In 1949 the premises were seriously damaged by fire, but, by the kindness of the Pitt Club and later of the Round Church, alternative meeting places were lent to us until the following summer. Special meetings were held in October 1950 to celebrate the end of the repairs, including a party for all those, from the Fire Brigade to the decorators with their wives and families, who had helped in the restoration.

New Meetings

In the 1960s it became apparent that the Warden's accommodation had to be remodelled to a flat and a flatlet for an Assistant Warden. The alterations were completed in 1968 with the generous assistance of past and present members of the Meeting and other Friends. At the same time the need was felt for a second Meeting in the city.

Several schemes were discussed and for a while two Meetings were held on Sundays at Jesus Lane. But in 1966 a small group of Friends, having found a suitable room to rent, began holding fortnightly Meetings at the Old Oast House in Malting Lane, Newnham.

From February 5th 1967 these Meetings were held every Sunday, and on July 8th of that year the Oast House Meeting was given the status of Preparative Meeting by Monthly Meeting. At first there were seldom more than twenty at this Meeting, but numbers grew steadily. In 1982 the room at the Oast House became no longer available but, thanks to the generosity of the College authorities, Friends found a home for their Sunday Meeting for Worship in Pembroke College.

Both Cambridge Meetings were well attended but the Oast House Meeting had no permanent accommodation for its activities.

A joint committee from the two Meetings was set up in 1983 to explore the possibility of obtaining permanent premises for a second Meeting House in the city.

A suitable building was purchased in 1983, and opened in 1984 as a third preparative meeting, Hartington Grove.

The new PM's building was originally built as a school around 1920, and a large downstairs room had been added around 1960 to seat 60. It had at one point been the regional headquarters of the Conservative Party. Meanwhile, Oast House PM continued to meet in Pembroke College.

Twenty years after its founding, Hartington Grove Meeting had grown to a such an extent as to require a major extension and renovation of its premises, which was completed in 2005.

Today there are over 300 Quakers connected to the three Cambridge Meetings.

Photo gallery

Cottage in 1894 shortly before demolition
Newly built caretaker's cottage and meeting rooms 1895-6
Caroline Stephen
c 1900
Rebuilding after the fire of 1949
Caretaker's cottage and meeting rooms 1966
New building 1968