“In turbulent times”: sources on local Quakers and their meetings over the centuries

For Quaker Week 2017, our head of Library & Archives, Libby Adams, travelled to Penrith Meeting to give a talk on local Quakers living through “turbulent times” (this year’s Quaker Week theme). This blog post concentrates on Quaker stories from Cumbria, but highlights some of the sources the Library holds for studying the history of any local area.

While local Quaker records (mostly deposited in county record offices) are the primary record of local corporate Quaker activity, the Library here at Friends House holds archives of national Quaker bodies (with which local meetings corresponded), as well as personal papers of individuals (which shed light on local Quaker activity). Together these can provide a richer contextual picture. We’ve picked out some sources relating to Cumbria at three key historical moments – the 17th century, the end of the 18th century, and the First World War.

The first source is a collection of manuscript returns from meetings all over England and Wales describing how Quaker faith was first introduced, took root, and developed in each area, which were sent in to Yearly Meeting (later transcribed by Norman Penney, our first Librarian, and published by Friends Historical Society in 1907 as First publishers of truth).

First publishers of truth, Carlisle (MS Port. 7/12)

‘Some short and breife account of the first rise and progress of truth in this City Carlisle and who was the first publishers of the day of salutation and who received them and how meetings was first obtained in this City’ (Library reference: MS Port. 7/12)

Following the leadings of the spirit, early Friends broke the law by holding illegal meetings for worship, traveling around preaching and prophesying, and refusing to pay tithes (church taxes to support the established national church). They were fined, imprisoned and suffered for their beliefs. In 1675 Friends set up a “constant meeting about sufferings”, appointing a “Recording Clerk” to gather and record reports of sufferings sent up to London by a network of correspondents in every county, as evidence of the unfair persecution of Quakers.  You can read more about records of Quaker sufferings in an earlier blogpost.

Great Book of Sufferings entry for Carlisle 1682

Great Book of Sufferings entry for Carlisle 1682 (Library reference: YM/MFS/GBS/3/1)


The 18th century was a turbulent time both nationally and internationally, with the rise of Enlightenment ideas about liberty and rights, the industrial revolution, American Independence, and the French Revolution. There was a growing campaign against the slave trade, in which Friends were prominent. This is a theme which emerges from the personal papers of three Cumbrian Quakers now held by the Library, alongside other general, religious and personal matters.

Elihu Robinson (1734–1809), of Eaglesfield, Cumbria, kept detailed diaries and memoranda recording his journeys to London for Yearly Meeting, as well as a visit by Thomas Clarkson, the antislavery campaigner, and records of his weather observations (of particular interest to contemporary researchers).

Elihu Robinson's diary 1765

Account of travelling to London for Yearly Meeting 1765. Elihu Robinson’s diary (Library reference: MS Box R3/1)

Jane Pearson (c1735–1816) was from Newtown near Carlisle, married John Pearson, and had 7 children, moving to Whitehaven. She was a “recorded minister”, which meant that her gift of spoken ministry was acknowledged. The Library holds a collection of correspondence, 1784-1821, between her, Thomas Wilkinson and others, including ministers Rebecca Jones, Deborah Darby, and Esther Tuke.

Letter from Jane Pearson to Hannah Tipping

‘Ah my Dears life is a slender thread’. Letter from Jane Pearson to her granddaughter Hannah Tipping. Library reference: MS Box 12/9/1

Thomas Wilkinson (1751–1836) was another Cumberland Quaker, with a wide circle of friends including William Wordsworth, and Thomas Clarkson – and of course local Friends Jane Pearson and Elihu Robinson. His papers held by the Library include accounts of visits to Scotland, Wales and the Yorkshire Dales, as well as Yearly Meeting in London, poetry and correspondence.


Thomas Wilkinson letter to Elihu Robinson 28 Nov 1790

Thomas Wilkinson reports a critical review of his poem, An Appeal to England (1789), in a letter to Elihu Robinson 28 Nov 1790 (Library reference: Temp Mss 128/27/86)

Moving forward a century, to another time of great upheaval, we can see another example of how national records held by the Library can help us explore important themes at local level.

Quakers were instrumental in introducing legal provision for conscientious objection during World War I, as the Quaker Week poster timeline shows. But Quakers, in common with the rest of the country, made a range of personal decisions in response to the challenge of war: some signed up, others were absolutist “conchies” who endured lengthy prison sentences rather than cooperate in any way with the war effort, and yet others organised relief for war victims in England, Europe and Russia.

The Society of Friends’ Wartime Statistics Committee was set up in 1917 to obtain an accurate picture of what members, attenders, and “associates” of military age were doing. Monthly meetings were asked to send in “Returns of service during wartime” – record sheets for named individuals – which are now part of the official records for Britain Yearly Meeting (you can read more about these fascinating records in an earlier blogpost).

Complementing these are the personnel records of the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU), an independent organisation set up by Friends in 1914, now digitised and available at http://fau.quaker.org.uk/.

The two sets of records were created for quite different purposes (data to report to a central committee or a relief worker’s service record) but when used together can provide a fuller picture of individuals in a local area than is often available from other official records kept at the time.

The Library holds varying sources for different local areas, and what you may find here depends to a great extent on the nature of the Quaker presence in your area. Local Friends also wrote and published books, pamphlets and articles (ranging from theological and devotional writings to social research, campaigning material and poetry). The Library has a comprehensive collection of publications by Friends, and useful secondary sources on Quakers and Quakerism, as well as some invaluable indexes to a wide range of sources, such as The Friend, reports to Yearly Meeting, testimonies, etc. There is also a rich collection of paintings, drawings, and photographs.

If you have been on one of the meeting visits to Friends House you’ve probably visited the Library and seen a display of items of local interest from the collections. If not, and your meeting would like to arrange a visit, contact details are here.

The Library is free and open to all. Find out opening hours, how to register, and practical information for planning a visit here, and search our online catalogue here.

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2 Responses to “In turbulent times”: sources on local Quakers and their meetings over the centuries

  1. Reblogged this on hungarywolf.

  2. Pingback: A year in view: Quaker Strongrooms blog 2017 | Quaker Strongrooms

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