Note: Bath Quakers left the York Street Meeting House in March 2019. Meetings for Worship are now held at the Bath Central United Reform Church.
There is no record of Quaker founder George Fox having visited Bath, but in 1663 and again in 1673, he came to Slaughterford, not very far from the City. We know, however, that there were Friends in this area before those dates, for Thomas Morford, who lived just south of Bath, wrote of his arrest and imprisonment here, in 1655. And William Sargeant of Bathford was one of many who was gaoled for refusing to pay tithes. His wife and two servants were sent to prison also; and their crop of corn was saved only by friends harvesting it for them.
Although Quaker Meetings were usually held in Friends’ homes at this time, it seems almost certain that Bathford had its own Meeting House well before 1700, and that by the early 18th century, meetings were being held alternately at Bathford and at an additional Meeting House in Bath.
A travelling Quaker minister, Thomas Story, speaks of the large gatherings in the Bath Meeting House; this was in Marchant’s Court (the former name of Northumberland Place) the passage of shops running from High Street through to Union Street. The Meeting house would have blocked the way into Union Passage (then known as Cock’s or Cox Lane).
Later in the 18th century, only this Bath Meeting House was used and this was undoubtedly the property of a well-known Quaker banker of the time named Richard Marchant; hence Marchant’s Court.
Among Richard Marchant’s acquaintances was John Wesley. Having some land on the Ham, towards Widcombe, just outside the old city walls, Richard Marchant allowed John Wesley to preach there. The old Marchant’s Passage, the name now retained in the new Southgate shopping precinct, probably refers to the way to Richard Marchant’s land, now part of Southgate and previously named Ham Gate and latterly Ham Gardens.
Unfortunately, Wesley’s following was so large and rowdy, that, according to him, Richard Marchant did not feel he could repeat the invitation, for fear of damage to his and neighbouring property. However, they remained friends.
Around the 1770s, a Friend from Norfolk came to Bath. His name was Edmund Rack and his diary reveals him to have been a very likeable man with a great sense of fun and many keen interests. Although not a farmer, he founded the Bath and West of England Agricultural Society (now well-known for its Bath and West Show) and was its first secretary.
So many visitors were now trying to crowd in to the Bath Meeting House on ‘First Days’ (ie Sundays) that a larger room was needed. About the turn of the century (1799) Friends purchased and refurbished a small chapel off Lower Borough Walls (now part of the Blackett Press).
Did Elizabeth Fry visit this Meeting House? Most probably, for she visited her cousins, the Gurneys, who were listed as local members of the Society of Friends, and an aunt lived for a time in Royal Crescent.
According to ‘Quaker Meeting Houses of Britain’ by David M. Butler (copy available in Bath Friends’ Meeting House library), the first burial ground used by Bath Friends was at Bathford, four miles east of the city, until in 1829 they were given land at Widcombe Hill a mile out of town.
Quaker Burial Ground April 2017 (photo David Goode)
In the early 19th century, a Bristol Friend named John Thomas retired from his grocery business and moved to live at Prior Park. After his death in 1827, his family sold a piece of land near Widcombe Crescent to 12 members of North Somerset Monthly Meeting in trust as a burial ground. The sum paid was five shillings (source: Copy of Indenture, 11.02.1829). This burial ground took the place of the one at Bathford, which was kept until 1934, and then sold for £25. The land now lies under the Batheaston by-pass.
Although there have been no burials at the Widcombe Burial Ground for some years, it is still used for the scattering of ashes and as a beautiful, tranquil garden. Nowadays, Friends often prefer cremation or a woodland or meadow burial.
The Lower Borough Walls Meeting House was retained until 1866, when there was a chance of purchasing a better building, another chapel, in York Street. This had originally been built for the Freemasons, the foundation stone having been laid in 1817 and the place dedicated in 1819. The architect was William Wilkins. Originally, there were no windows in the side walls; the room was lit only by the light from the cupolas in the ceiling.
Concerned with the purchase of this, our present Meeting House, was Isaac Sewell, who lived at Moorlands, in Englishcombe Lane, for part of his time in Bath. He had a daughter, Anna, who was later, when the family had left the city, to become a household name as the author of ‘Black Beauty’.