Readers’ stories: Quaker women of the north east

The fifth in our series of readers’ stories is by Liz O’Donnell, who first used the Library 20 years ago. Her original research focused on local Quaker women in the north east in the 19th century, but she found valuable additional resources here at Friends House. We’re glad to see her back in the Library working on her latest project – researching the life of Newcastle Quaker Teresa Merz (1879-1958)

Liz O'Donnell

In 1994, at the age of 42, I had the astonishing good fortune to be awarded a three year PhD studentship at the University of Sunderland. I was to be the first student of the newly-established Centre for Quaker Studies (now located at Woodbrooke Centre for Quaker Studies), set up through the enthusiasm of the late David Adshead, then a Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at Sunderland. I was also granted three years’ leave of absence from my teaching post in a college of Further Education and supported by a modest bursary jointly funded by the university and Sunderland Meeting. My area of interest was the link between women Quakers and ‘first-wave feminism’ in the 1860s, and it was this that brought me to the Library of the Society of Friends for the first time in April 1995, clutching a letter of recommendation from David and a long list of sources that I wanted to consult.

To be honest, it was not primarily an interest in the Society of Friends which led me to apply for the studentship. For my MA dissertation a few years earlier, I had examined Newcastle Ragged and Industrial Schools, started in the 1840s in response to the large number of child vagrants on the city streets. The same surnames – Richardson, Watson, Priestman, for example – cropped up repeatedly in the schools’ management committees, and eventually the penny dropped – the leading figures were all Quakers. Further poking around revealed the same people involved in every social and political reform movement of the period. I thought I knew a lot about the economic and social history of north-east, but I could not recall reading anything that specifically highlighted the importance of Quakers in the development of the region’s civic culture. I was particularly fascinated by the activities of women Friends and their place in the fight for women’s rights. I wanted to shine a light on this corner of hidden history, but family and work got in the way until, in the early summer of 1994, I spotted the advertisement for the Quaker studentship in the Guardian. By October, I had set out on my research adventure.

Jane Sturge, Sarah Ann Richardson, Catherine Richardson, Elizabeth Spence Watson and Emma Pumphrey at Gables 1918

Jane Sturge, Sarah Ann Richardson, Catherine
Richardson, Elizabeth Spence Watson and Emma Pumphrey of Newcastle Monthly
Meeting (1918). Friends and relations, they all feature prominently in my thesis. From the private collection of Kate Palmer

This was ‘only’ 20 years ago, but technologically it was a very different world for researching and handling large amounts of data. Yes, personal computers were around, but I had written my MA dissertation on an Amstrad word processor and had very limited experience of using the new technology as anything other than a glorified typewriter. The internet was slowly coming into its own, but digitised archival records were limited and there was no facility for tracing individuals and making genealogical connections without leaving the comfort of your own home. Part of my thesis involved an analysis of 619 activists in Newcastle Monthly Meeting of Women Friends between 1785 and 1903. The meeting records, on microfilm at Tyne and Wear Archives, yielded a lot of information but I needed material only available at the Library of the Society of Friends at Friends House – the Dictionary of Quaker Biography, a full run of Annual Monitor and The Friend, for example. Eventually I managed to dig out biographical details for 527 women, enabling me to understand something of their domestic lives, economic status, and so on (this is not the place to examine my methodology; suffice it to say that it involved index cards, colour coding and a lot of floor space!).

The Library also yielded essential sources in the form of private papers, tracts and other publications. I recently found the list I brought with me for a visit to the Library in late January 1997 – it included F. Smith, On the Duty of a Wife (1810); Henry Corder, A Short Life of Elizabeth Spence Watson (1919); A Map of the Meetings Belonging to the Quarterly Meetings of Lancaster, Westmorland, Cumberland, Northumberland, Durham and York (1773); and a long list of women about whom I lacked sufficient details. Many of the names had been ticked, indicating that I was successful in my quest to find them.

Teresa Merz carte de visite

Teresa Merz as a girl. Her mother was the sister of Elizabeth Spence Watson.
From the private collection of Ben Beck

When I finished my studentship and returned to work, visits to Friends House Library unfortunately tailed off, but my research interest in Quakers did not. I have had several articles published in Quaker Studies and contributed to The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies, for example, as well as giving talks to many local history societies and taking an active part in my local bicentennial commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 (those women activists again!). These undertakings have often involved a flying visit to the Library from my home in Northumberland. And over the last couple of years, now working part-time, I have at last been able to go back to the stories of the women of Newcastle Monthly Meeting. I am currently looking into the life of Teresa Merz (1879-1958) – suffragist, volunteer with the Friends’ War Victims Relief Committee in Serbia, member of the War and Social Order Committee and indefatigable amateur social worker in Newcastle-upon-Tyne until two days before her death – intending to rescue her from undeserved obscurity and enjoying a renewed relationship with the ever-helpful and friendly staff and marvellous resources of the wonderful Friends House Library.

Dr Elizabeth A. O’Donnell

Thesis title: Woman’s Rights and Woman’s Duties: Quaker Women in the 19th Century, with special reference to Newcastle Monthly Meeting of Women Friends (PhD, University of Sunderland, 2000)


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