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Bristol Quakers | by brizzle born and bred
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Bristol Quakers

We look back at how the history of the Quaker movement has close ties with Bristol.

 

WHAT could the founder of an American state, a family of chocolate-makers, the builders of two bizarre grottoes and the owner of a lunatic asylum possibly have in common?

 

The answer is more in heaven than on earth - they were all Quakers. Bristol was an early stronghold of the Quakers and many of the leading families were members.

 

The contributions of the Quakers to Bristol's prosperity - despite appalling persecution - has never been properly documented. The Fry family, who founded the chocolate empire and were noted prison reformers, were Bristol Quakers. And William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, lived and married here. William Champion, builder of Europe's biggest brass foundry and the amazing Warmley grotto, was a Quaker; so was Thomas Goldney, merchant and creator of the equally remarkable Goldney House grotto in Clifton.

 

Clark's, the famous shoe-manufacturing family; Morlands, the sheepskin people Cottrells (wallpaper); Sturge (estate agency and surveying); Woolley (caravans); Dr Fox, the Brislington pioneer of the treatment of the insane -- they were all members of the Society of Friends, the Quakers' proper title. Fox started the Society around 1652 and the movement reached Bristol in 1654. he was a stubborn and often incoherent preacher who refused to remove his hat to anyone on the grounds that God had told him not to, denounced all amusements and hated soldiers, priests and lawyers.

 

Accounts of early meetings seem very far from the peaceful modern Quaker gatherings, with the mass hysteria and faintings typical of religious meetings of the time. Early Quakers were not averse to disturbing the services of other denominations and attacking their ministers - the Society has no priests - as charlatans and deceivers.

 

Broadmead Church recorded bitterly: "They would frequently trouble us, shaking, trembling, or quaking like persons in a fit of the ague, while they spake with a screaming voice." And that's how the Society got its familiar nickname, although Fox called his society the Friends of Truth - Friends for short.

 

Quakers in Bristol were in turn heavily persecuted for their unconventional beliefs - their meeting houses were broken up and members were beaten, imprisoned and accused of blasphemy. Many died in the appalling Newgate gaol and there were heavy fines for non-attendance at Church of England services. George Fox himself spent much time in the city and married Margaret Fell at a Broadmead meeting.

 

After a preaching visit to America and the West Indies, he sailed back to Bristol, and saved two of the ship's crew from being press-ganged into the navy before landing at the "town" of Shirehampton.

 

The first Quaker meeting-house was probably in Broadmead, but one of the oldest surviving is a thatched house at Portishead, which dates from 1669, when friends in the north Somerset villages were being dreadfully harassed by the authorities. Early Quakerism seems to have been as repressive and intolerant as most other religious movements, with dress restrictions, expulsion for marrying outside the Society and a ban on drink and tobacco.

 

But the Quakers looked after their own, providing practical help for the poor, the sick and the old, as well as leading campaigns for urgent social reforms among the unbelievably poor pinmakers of Syston and the hatters of Oldland.

 

The history of the Quakers has been embroidered in a remarkable tapestry - 75 panels covering 300 years - which was started in Taunton in 1981 and was on show in Bristol in 1991 to mark the 300th anniversary of the death of movement founder George Fox.

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Taken on December 8, 2007