Bath is one of 345 Friends Meeting Houses featured in a wide-ranging specialist survey carried out for British Quakers and Historic England. The new report covers Meeting Houses in England, Wales, Scotland and the Channel Islands, also Friends House in London and Swarthmoor Hall in Cumbria. It considers heritage values, disabled access, sustainability and other aspects in the light of Quaker values.
Judith Eversley explains, by way of background, that Historic England had carried out a similar survey of Catholic Churches and wanted to do the same for another denomination as part of its ongoing “Taking Stock” programme. That coincided with British Quakers (BYM) realising that it did not have complete details of all Meeting Houses. David Butler’s book (see illustration below) had been produced nearly 20 years earlier and was a snapshot not an inventory let alone an audit of the estate. Historic England was receptive and found some non-lottery money to pay for a survey to cover England; other funds were located to cover the Meeting Houses of Scotland and BYM funded the extension of the study to cover Wales and the Channel Islands. So this was jointly commissioned work, with emphasis on usage and sustainability, and with the two bodies financing different parts.
Friends Meeting Houses such as Come-to-Good in Cornwall are often noted for modesty and functional design; Bath FMH is very different.
In describing five exemplary Meeting Houses the Historic England report says Quaker buildings are often “distinctive for their simple, functional design; built by local craftsmen, they sit modestly in the landscape”. This is not a description anyone would apply to the Ionic columned revival Grecian Friends Meeting House in Bath (full description here). Its Great Room sports “a foliate frieze with egg and dart moulding”, “high circular lanterns with fine plaster details” and “six-panelled doors set in reeded doorcases”. Bath Friends Meeting House has always been something out of the ordinary, and that remains its destiny.
The building was erected in 1818 as a Freemasons’ Hall and purchased by Friends in 1866. The building was designed by William Wilkins, an architect of national importance. There have been a number of minor changes to the fabric and few early fittings survive, but the main room is still a handsome space which retains something of its original character and the whole is of high heritage significance.
A sketch of the Bath Friends Meeting House dated 1995 by David Butler (signed DMB; from the Historic England report).
Bath Meeting House is rated in the report as of high historic, aesthetic and communal value. It may not be typical, but it is unique, with exceptional qualities and in an very powerful city-centre location in the spiritual and healing district of a much-visited historic World Heritage City.
The Historic England report is timely coming as it does just as Bath Quakers refresh their long term vision for Bath Friends Meeting House. We have had research meetings with a wide range of heritage, property and commercial experts and look forward to hearing in the new year from Barry Gilbertson, new chair of the World Heritage City Steering Group.
Bath Quakers want to project a confident Quaker presence at the heart of the city, consistent with our testimonies, financially and environmentally sustainable, and mindful of the needs of the community and the building as well as our Meeting. It won’t be a typical Friends Meeting House, but for everything they have in common every Quaker Meeting is unique.
Historic England (part of what until 2015 was English Heritage) is a DCMS-backed public body, headquartered in Swindon, that deals with preservation, record-keeping and listing.