Below are some very brief sketches of the life stories of some well known figures from earlier Quaker history.
GEORGE FOX 1624 – 1691
George Fox was the founder of the Quaker movement. The son of a Leicestershire weaver, as a young man he was spiritually hungry but his soul-searching only left him disappointed and disillusioned with the existing religious institutions and their clergy. However at the age of 23 his life changed when he felt the direct and personal presence of God in a “road to Damascus” type of experience. Following this revelation Fox proclaimed that “Christ had come to teach his people himself”. There was no need to await a “second coming” for God’s kingdom to appear on Earth: it was already here for those who chose to look for it and to “walk in the Light”. It followed logically that there was no need for creeds, clergy or any of the formal trappings or rituals of either the established or the non-conformist Churches since all people could experience God’s presence and guidance – the “Inward Light” – for themselves. The emphasis was on seeking one’s own direct personal spiritual experience rather than taking on trust what the clergy said, effectively dismissing the clergy and all the rituals of the Churches as being redundant.
This doctrine proved highly popular among people who felt that the existing Churches had little to say to them, but it was enormously subversive to the established social and political order and Fox frequently got into trouble with the authorities as a result. His travels took him north to the Lake District where he was fortunate enough to befriend the influential family of Judge Fell, whose home at Swarthmoor in the lake district became an important centre of Quaker operations, ably managed by the judge’s wife Margaret, who continued to act as a sort of unofficial secretary to the movement after the judge died in 1658.
Fox, a forceful and effective speaker, continued his travelling mission with enormous energy. He was concerned to establish a self-supporting network of local Quaker meetings to ensure that the movement would be resilient enough to survive the intense persecution by which the government sought to suppress it. It was in 1650 in Derby at one of his many criminal trials for blasphemy that the name “Quakers” was first attached to the movement, which had previously been called simply “Friends of the Truth”. The trial judge, who was openly hostile, coined the word “Quaker” in mockery, but it was such a convenient and instantly recognisable name that it stuck, and the Quakers themselves willingly adopted it! While Fox was serving his sentence following this trial he was offered a commission in Cromwell’s army, but he refused to bear arms even though it would have meant regaining his liberty, later recalling “I told them that I lived in the virtue of that life and power which took away the occasion of all wars”. This was the first recorded reference to the “peace testimony”.
Fox was repeatedly imprisoned in gaols all over the country from Carlisle to Cornwall, and the treatment he endured in prison was often brutal and violent. In Launceston Castle he was cast into a dungeon which quite literally had not been cleaned out for years and for two weeks was left standing in raw sewage that came over the tops of his shoes and with no bedding provided to lie on, while in Lancaster he spent two years in a cell with an open window facing the sea that drenched his bed, and he had to bale water from the floor using a plate. By the time he was released he was so weak he could hardly walk, and he never fully recovered his old strength and energy again.
After working in close collaboration for years, Margaret Fell and George Fox were married in 1669 though Margaret was now 55 and ten years older than himself. In later life Fox continued to travel and also went abroad to spread his message, visiting Ireland, Holland, and even Barbados and Jamaica. Worn out by his arduous life and broken in health by the brutal treatment he received in prison, he died at the age of 66 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Bunhill Fields in London.
FAVOURITE GEORGE FOX QUOTATIONS :
“God dwells in the hearts of His obedient people”.
“Be still and cool in thy mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God whereby thou wilt receive His strength and power from whence life comes.”
“This is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God: be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.”
“What had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, ‘Christ saith this’, and ‘the apostles say this’, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light, and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?”
MARGARET FELL 1614 – 1702
Born Margaret Askew in Lancashire, at the age of 18 she married an upwardly mobile lawyer Thomas Fell, almost twice her age, who would shortly become both an MP and a judge. She stepped into history in 1652 when her home at Swarthmoor Hall was visited by George Fox, who was just beginning his peripatetic preaching ministry. She instantly fell under his spell, and was soon using Swarthmoor Hall as a base of operations for the Quaker missions in the north country and acting as a kind of unofficial secretary to the movement. Judge Thomas also seems to have been impressed by Fox and tolerated this, though due to his position he could not be seen to support the movement openly. The Judge died in 1658 leaving Margaret to look after their eight children while continuing to work for the Quaker movement – a task made more difficult by the persecution of Quakerism which intensified after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. This involved her in making the difficult 250 mile journey to London to petition the king in person for the release of Quaker prisoners – including George Fox among others.
Margaret did her own share of travelling in the Quaker ministry and eventually was herself arrested and imprisoned for four years. In 1669 at the age of 55 she married George Fox, ten years her junior, but they were not destined to spend much time together as he soon went to continue his work in London while she returned to Swarthmoor Hall – shortly afterwards to be imprisoned again for another year. The pressures on Margaret were eased following the accession of King James II in 1685 and the relaxation of the penal laws against Quakers. However George Fox was already by now a broken man and early in 1661 he died. Margaret continued to act as a guide to the Quaker movement and remained an eminent and much respected figure, but the centre of operations had by now shifted to London and Margaret was able to enjoy a relatively peaceful old age. She died at Swarthmoor Hall at the age of 87.
FAVOURITE MARGARET FELL QUOTATION :
“It is a dangerous thing to lead young Friends much into the observation of outward things which may be easily done. For they can soon get into an outward garb, to be all alike outwardly, but this will not make them into true Christians: it’s the spirit that gives life.”
JAMES NAYLOR 1616 – 1660
James Naylor had been a soldier in Cromwell’s “new model army” during the civil war, but after the king’s defeat took to farming in Yorkshire. It was here that he heard George Fox preach and was instantly converted (or, as Quakers say, “convinced”) and left everything behind to become one of the “valiant 60”, the first wave of Quaker missionaries, travelling around the country. Although his active ministry lasted for only eight years, Naylor’s eloquence and powerful rhetoric led to his becoming one of the pre-eminent figures in the Quaker movement. He was one of the most radical of the Quaker preachers, continually lambasting the rich and powerful. In 1655 he moved to London to guide the movement there, but he unfortunately fell under the influence of a group of Ranter women whose extravagant adulation caused him to lose his sense of proportion and become the centre of a personality cult. His downfall came in October 1656 when he led a procession of his admirers into Bristol, riding on a donkey in a deliberate imitation of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. The authorities reacted swiftly. He was arrested, tried for blasphemy and sentenced to a terrible punishment, being branded on the forehead and having his tongue bored through before being cast into prison for almost three years. This episode unfortunately did a lot of harm to the reputation of Quakerism, as Naylor himself realised and regretted, after having come back to his senses. He died at the age of 42 from injuries sustained after being mugged on the road near to Huntingdon by unknown assailants.
FAVOURITE JAMES NAYLOR QUOTATIONS :
“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thoughts to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God.”
“God is against you, you covetous cruel oppressors who grind the faces of the poor and needy, taking your advantage of the necessities of the poor, falsifying the measures and using deceitful weights, speaking that by your commodities which is not true and so deceiving the simple, and hereby getting great estates in the world, laying house to house and land to land till there be no place for the poor; and when they are become poor through your deceits then you despise them and exalt yourselves above them, and forget that you are all made of one mould and one blood and must all appear before one judge, who is no respecter of persons, nor does he despise the poor; and what shall your riches avail you at that day when you must account how you have gotten them and whom you have oppressed?”
ISAAC PENINGTON 1616 – 1679
Isaac Penington was the son of a Puritan MP who had also served as mayor of London during the civil war. From his youth he stood out as standing above the highly-charged factionalism of the age, seeking to weigh up the merits of all sides fairly. At the age of 38 he married Mary Springett, the widow of a Puritan soldier. In 1656 as the Quaker movement was starting to make inroads into the south of England, Isaac and Mary met some itinerant Quaker preachers, whose message of optimism and joy made a sharp contrast to the gloomy Presbyterian religion in which they had both been brought up. Two years later after hearing George Fox himself preach, they joined the Quaker movement. However the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 led to an intense persecution of Quakers and Isaac Penington suffered along with the rest – indeed in that decade alone he was arrested and imprisoned no less than six times, with the sentences becoming longer each time. Following his release from the last such sentence in 1672 however there was occasion for celebration when Mary’s daughter from her previous marriage, Gulielma, married the eminent Quaker pioneer William Penn. Isaac’s final years were comparatively uneventful. He died at the age of 63 and is buried at Jordans Quaker Meeting near to Amersham, where William Penn would also be interred almost 40 years later.
FAVOURITE ISAAC PENINGTON QUOTATIONS :
“For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same spirit and life in him.”
“Even in the Apostles’ days Christians were too apt to strive after a wrong unity and uniformity in outward practices and observations, and to judge one another unrighteously in those things; and mark, it is not the different practice from one another that breaks the peace and unity, but the judging of one another because of different practices.”
“Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness, and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another but praying for one another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.”
“And the end of words is to bring men to the knowledge of things beyond what words can utter. So learn of the Lord to make a right use of the Scriptures, which is by esteeming them in their right place, and prizing that above them which is above them.”
ELIZABETH HOOTON 1600 – 1672
Elizabeth Hooton was one of the most truly remarkable and intrepid women in the early Quaker movement. Born in Nottinghamshire, she was brought up as a Baptist, but in 1647 while living in Mansfield she met George Fox right at the start of his mission and became his first convert. She left her family and travelled throughout England spreading the word.
She was one of the ‘Valiant Sixty’, the first wave of Quaker preachers who issued forth from Swarthmoor Hall travelling around the country risking persecution for their ministry both at the hands of sceptical citizens and also by the authorities. Indeed, Elizabeth was sent to prison many times. In 1651, already a middle-aged woman, she was sent to Derby Gaol following an altercation with a priest, and then in 1652 she was imprisoned again in York Castle.
Undeterred, she travelled to Boston, Massachusetts in 1662, at that time still a British colony, intending to visit Quakers who had been imprisoned there. This was a dangerous mission. Massachusetts was a belligerently Presbyterian stronghold, and fiercely intolerant of other faiths. It was only a short while prior to Elizabeth’s visit that three Quakers had been hanged there simply for entering the territory – one of them a woman. Elizabeth however was more fortunate: she was flogged, and then expelled from the city. They made her walk for two weeks into the wild through dense woodland and then abandoned there, intending that she should starve. Her iron spirit prevailed though. By following wolf tracks through the snow she managed to find her way back to the colony of Rhode Island and thence back to England, where she went to see King Charles in person to ask him to stop the persecution of Quakers in the colonies.
Remarkably, Charles gave her a letter granting her permission to buy land in Massachusetts and to establish a safe haven for Quakers there. However when she returned to Massachusetts the local authorities ignored that letter, and notwithstanding she was a woman in her sixties, they whipped her through three towns in the dead of winter and again abandoned her deep in the forest. Yet again, she somehow survived and in 1664, returned to England. Unbowed however, shortly later her return she was imprisoned in Lincoln for five months for disturbing a church service. In 1670, she joined George Fox on a voyage to the West Indies and, died of natural causes two years later in Jamaica at the age of 72.
JOHN LILBURNE 1614 – 1657
John Lilburne – known to his contemporaries as “Freeborn John” – only became a Quaker towards the end of his life, and is mostly famous for his earlier political activities, particularly as the leader of the radical faction known as the “Levellers”. Lilburne was born in Sunderland into a puritan family, and suffered imprisonment for publishing pamphlets fiercely criticising the established Church. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 he enlisted in the Parliamentary army and fought at the opening battle of the war at Edgehill. He was rapidly promoted from Captain to Lieutenant Colonel, and despite being shot through the arm at the siege of Walton Hall in 1644 served with distinction at the battle of Marston Moor a month later.
In 1645 however he resigned from the army in protest against the “Solemn League and Covenant” which had been negotiated between the English Parliament and the Scottish Presbyterians as the price for Scottish support of the Parliamentary side in the Civil War. The Covenant committed the English Parliament to promote Presbyterianism in England, whereas Lilburne – and many others like him – had been under the impression that one of the causes they were fighting for was the freedom of people to choose their own religion, not to have one established Church replaced by another!
Lilburne now devoted himself to campaigning for political reform. Anticipating the later work of John Locke, Lilburne claimed that people are born with natural rights – “freeborn rights” as he called them – which do not depend on being either granted or recognised by governments or legal systems. He also argued for extending the right to vote, and for religious freedom. He was soon in prison after denouncing MPs who sat in the comfort and safety of Parliament while they sent poorer men to die in battle on their behalf. Not surprisingly, Lilburne’s ideas met with a lot of support within the rank and file of the New Model Army. Lilburne’s followers were dubbed “Levellers” by their opponents – a term intended to be pejorative, the same as the name “Quakers” was to be coined some five years later in mockery of George Fox.
The end of the Civil War and the establishment of the Commonwealth did nothing to blunt Lilburne’s fierce tongue, and he was put on trial for High Treason in 1649 but was acquitted by the jury – much to the irritation of Parliament! In 1652, still regarded as a dangerous agitator, he was banished from the country. Returning illegally the following year, he was arrested and put on trial. Once again the jury acquitted him but the Parliament ignored this and ordered Lilburne to be detained anyway. He spent the next three years in prison. For part of that time indeed he was sent to be interned in a castle in Jersey with on the grounds that the English writ of Habeas Corpus would not apply there! Later he was returned to England to continue his captivity in Dover castle, and it was while he was there that he came into contact with Luke Howard, a Quaker, who so impressed him that after studying their writings Lilburne himself joined the Quakers. After this he was allowed out of prison on parole for certain periods, and it was while he was visiting his pregnant wife in Eltham that “Freeborn John” died on 29th August 1657 from a fever he had contracted in prison, aged only 43.
Lilburne was described by his contemporaries as quarrelsome and disputatious, but he was adored by the common people – as his two jury acquittals testify – and he holds a unique place in the history of the Civil War. While everyone else seemed to be polarised between arguing about the rights of the King or the rights of Parliament, John Lilburne was one man who spoke up for neither of those but for the rights of the people.
WILLIAM PENN 1644 – 1718
William Penn was the son of a naval admiral who had served under Oliver Cromwell but later fell out with him. As a result the admiral was well placed to join the royalist cause upon the collapse of the Commonwealth. He was brought up as a fashionable member of the gentry with a love of fine clothes but an independent thinker of advanced liberal views nevertheless. At the age of 22 on a visit to Ireland he heard a Quaker missionary preaching and was instantly captivated. He started attending Quaker meetings, and was arrested and briefly imprisoned when soldiers arrived to break up the Meeting. Upon his release his father turned him out of the house in disgrace, but Penn remained committed to the Quakers and soon became a prolific writer of pamphlets in support of the cause – this being the normal way for people to engage in public controversy in the days before newspapers or mass communications.
As a result of denying the doctrine of the Trinity in one of these pamphlets, Penn ended up serving an 8 month prison sentence for blasphemy, and the following year he was in trouble again for addressing a public meeting and was put on trial for “causing a tumultuous assembly”. The jury acquitted him, much to the fury of the judge who was determined to see Penn punished and ordered the jury to be imprisoned as well until they returned the verdict he wanted! They refused to be intimidated however and the foreman of the jury, Edward Bushel, launched an appeal. The result, known to history as “Bushel’s case”, is famous as one of the cornerstones of English civil liberties, establishing the right of a jury to return whatever verdict they think fit.
Upon his father’s death Penn’s inheritance made him a relatively wealthy man. In 1672 he married Gulielma Springett, the widowed daughter of Mary Penington. He established connections at court and formed a close friendship with the king’s brother, the Duke of York. He was in fact owed a lot of money by the Crown – the late admiral Penn had lent money to the king which had never been repaid. Penn went to the king with a radical idea for cancelling the debt. Conditions for Quakers in England were deteriorating badly, but there was already a small Quaker colony in the British territories of North America known as Jersey. Penn proposed that the king should grant him a tract of land adjacent to this where he could establish a colony where Quakers could live free from the constant threat of persecution. The king agreed, granting Penn an area of land about the size of England, and the rest is history. King Charles named the new colony Pennsylvania in memory of Penn’s father. Penn himself wrote a constitution for the colony – his “holy experiment” as he called it, based on the Quaker principles of equality and freedom of conscience. He established a democratic form of government, based at the capital city which he founded and named Philadelphia. He imposed restrictions on deforestation, and stipulations for fair treatment of the natives. Penn in fact concluded a formal treaty with the local Delaware people, on which the French writer Voltaire famously commented that it was the only treaty made between the natives and the white settlers which was never sworn to, and the only one which was never broken.
Quakers fleeing persecution in Britain flocked to the new colony, and in 1684 Penn returned to England. The following year his friend the Duke of York succeeded to the throne as king James II. Penn was now an important and influential figure. Moreover James – as a Catholic – was already sympathetic to the plight of persecuted religious minorities. The upshot was the “Declaration of Indulgence” of 1687 which put an end to the persecution. The country however was not ready for this, and three years into his reign James was deposed in favour of his Protestant daughter and her husband. Penn’s association with the former king was now a liability. He was regarded with suspicion and was repeatedly arrested to the point where he felt it necessary to go into hiding for a while. He used the time to write a famous essay advocating a European parliament for the purpose of arbitrating and resolving disputes between them.
Penn’s wife Gulielma died in 1694 and two years later he remarried Hannah Callowhill, the daughter of a Bristol merchant, who at 25 was half his age. Penn’s financial position was now badly deteriorating. He had sunk much of his personal wealth into setting up his Holy Experiment, and in addition his dishonest estates manager had embezzled thousands of pounds from him. He even found himself in debtors’ prison for a time. In 1712 he suffered a stroke and lost much of his faculties. He died in 1718 at the age of 73. He was buried at Jordans Quaker Meeting House near Amersham, next to Gulielma. Hannah continued to administer the affairs of Pennsylvania until her own death in 1726.
FAVOURITE WILLIAM PENN QUOTATIONS :
“True Godliness don’t turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavours to mend it.”
“He that is a knave was never made honest by an oath”.
“ The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers”
“A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil that good may come of it . . . It is as great presumption to send our passions upon God’s errands as it is to palliate them with God’s name.”
“That the sweat and tedious labour of the farmer, early and late, cold and hot, wet and dry, should be converted into the pleasure of a small number of men – that continued severity should be laid on nineteen parts of the land to feed the inordinate lusts and delicate appetites of the twentieth, is so far from the will of the great Governor of the world . . . it is wretched and blasphemous.”
“We are too ready to retaliate rather than forgive, or gain by love and information. And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us then try what love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us.”
“The truest end of life is to know that life never ends. He that makes this his care will find it his crown at last. And he that lives to live forever never fears dying, nor can the means be terrible to him that heartily believes the end. For though death be a dark passage it leads to immortality, and that’s recompense enough for suffering of it . . . Death then being the way and condition of life, we cannot love to live if we cannot bear to die. They that love beyond the world cannot be separated by it. Death cannot kill what never dies . . . Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still.”
JOHN WOOLMAN 1720 – 1772
John Woolman was born into a Quaker family in the American colony of Jersey, in the days when this was still a British possession. At the age of 9 he had thoughtlessly and pointlessly killed a bird which had young chicks to feed, and the thought of this haunted him and made him a passionate defender of animal rights at a time when this concept was almost unheard of. His father was a farmer and weaver with a sideline in drafting legal documents, and at the age of 20 John went to work for a local baker, not only minding the shop but also dealing with the accounts and paperwork. He received another wake-up call a year later when his employer asked him to draw up a bill of sale for a female slave. Slavery was endemic in the American colonies at the time and Woolman, like most people, had never really questioned this or given the matter much thought. However the idea that a human being could be treated as just so much merchandise now struck him for the first time as something shocking. In future he would refuse to draft any such documents, and tried to persuade his clients to make provisions in their wills to free their slaves rather than leaving them to be inherited by other masters. John had another jolt when Britain and France went to war in 1740 and the call came for citizens of his community to take up arms to protect their property from a possible invasion from the French colony of Canada to the north. Woolman concluded that if the possession of wealth required the use of violence to retain it then it was better to do without it.
Woolman left his employment and set himself up independently as a tailor. In 1748 his father died, and he inherited the farm, giving him financial security. The following year he married Sarah Ellis, a Quaker girl he had known since childhood. In 1754 he published a famous essay against slavery, which made such an impression that the Overseers at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting had copies of it printed and distributed to all the Quaker Yearly Meetings in America. Woolman himself meanwhile was determined to root out every manifestation of slavery in his own life, and defused to sell any goods in his shop (such as rum or sugar)produced or manufactured with the use of slave labour. He was in a sense the first “ethical consumer”. He even refused to wear dyed clothing, and presented a curious but distinctive figure, dressed from head to foot in white. He also wrote a pamphlet warning abut the dangers of impoverishing the soil by excessive cultivation – something that many farmers have still not woken up to even today. Woolman was indeed years – or rather generations – ahead of his time. However despite his passionate convictions Woolman never considered going into politics. He believed that morality had to take root in people’s hearts, and could not be imposed by legislation.
In 1772 Woolman sailed to England, being keen to visit the cradle of Quakerism and also to encourage English Quakers to become more active in opposing the slave trade. Having arrived in London, he wanted to travel north to York – but decided to make the entire journey on foot since he was appalled at the way the stagecoach operators treated their horses in their obsession with achieving the fastest journey times – here Woolman again detected the malevolent hand of business interests and greed for wealth. On the way however he fell ill, and upon his arrival in York it became clear that he had contracted smallpox. He died there just a few weeks short of his 52nd birthday.
FAVOURITE JOHN WOOLMAN QUOTATIONS :
“to say we love God as unseen and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature moving by his life, or by life derived from him, was a contradiction in itself.”
“Absolute command belongs only to him who is perfect; where frail men in their own wills assume such command it hath a direct tendency to vitiate their minds and to make them more unfit for government.”
“I was then carried in spirit to the mines where poor oppressed people were digging rich treasures for those called Christians and heard them blaspheme the name of Christ; at which I was grieved, for His name to me was precious. I was informed that these heathen were told that those who oppressed them were followers of Christ; and they said amongst themselves: “If Christ directed them to use us in this sort, then Christ is a cruel tyrant”.
“I have known landlords who paid interest for large sums of money, and being intent on paying their debts by raising grain, have by too much tilling so robbed the earth of its natural fatness that the produce thereof hath grown light . . . to impoverish the earth now to support outward greatness appears to be an injury to the succeeding age.”
“To conform a little to a wrong way strengthens the hands of such who carry wrong customs to their utmost extent; and the more a person appears to be virtuous and heavenly-minded, the more powerfully does his conformity operate in favour of evil-doers.”
ELIZABETH FRY 1780 – 1845
Elizabeth was born in Norwich, into the wealthy Quaker family of Gurney’s Bank fame. Her mother died when Elizabeth was 12 years old leaving her 16 year old sister to bring up her 12 brothers and sisters. In 1800 Elizabeth married Joseph Fry, a Quaker tea merchant. They were to have 11 children over the next 20 years! Moving to the outskirts of London, Elizabeth acquired a reputation for donating money to poor women of the area, which led to a string of callers at her door importuning her . However following the death of Joseph’s parents they moved into the mansion they inherited at Plashet in Essex.
In 1813 that Elizabeth heard a visiting Quaker talk about the conditions of female convicts in London’s Newgate prison, and she determined to see it for herself. What she found there shocked her. At this time there were no government inspectors of prisons and no central authority organising or regulating them. Conditions in Newgate were dirty and unsanitary; the women had little clothing and only dirty straw for bedding. Their children were in the prison with them – some indeed had been born there and had never known any other life. Elizabeth set about organising a group of Quaker women to make clothing and coverings for them and to provide clean straw for their bedding. Later she succeeded in setting up a school within the prison and visited almost daily, bringing gifts of sewing materials, bibles or food. She set up a committee of Quaker women who would visit the female prisoners regularly and instruct them, particularly teaching them to sew, and arranging to sell their products so that the prisoners could earn money. The Quaker committee added a shilling to every five shillings that the prisoners earned for themselves, and they set up a shop within the prison where the women could use their earnings to buy tea, sugar and haberdashery.
The transformation in the prisoners was remarkable. Previously the women prisoners had been rowdy, dirty, foul-mouthed and violent. Some two weeks after the new system was put in place a visitor to the women’s prison reported finding them all cleanly and decently dressed, sitting quietly and sewing while a Quaker read to them from the bible! The Mayor of London came to witness this for himself, and suddenly Elizabeth Fry became a national celebrity, with her methods and achievements being discussed in the press and letters pouring in from all over the country asking her advice about setting up local prison reform committees elsewhere. One of the most unpleasant aspects of Elizabeth’s work in the prison was to have to face those women who were under sentence of death, getting to know them as individuals and friends, only to see them go to the gallows. This left Elizabeth with a deep-rooted sense that the death penalty was wrong, and she would campaign against capital punishment for the rest of her life. In 1818 Elizabeth undertook a tour of various prisons, travelling from London to Aberdeen inspecting them and making detailed enquiries about the prisoners’ accommodation, food and welfare. Upon leaving they would write to the local Magistrates with a list of recommended improvements! In 1823 Elizabeth’s campaign for prison reform bore fruit when the new Home Secretary, Robert Peel, introduced legislation which required local Magistrates to inspect their prisons and make reports to the Home Office, while the practice of gaolers extorting fees from prisoners for their food and accommodation was banned.
Meanwhile in 1828 a bubble of over-heated financial speculation burst, causing a run on the banks. Over 60 banks around the country failed, including Frys. Elizabeth’s husband Joseph became bankrupt, which meant not only financial destitution, and the loss of their home at Plashet, but in addition for a Quaker it was a serious personal disgrace. Quakers had always prided themselves on their financial integrity and prudence. For a Quaker to become bankrupt was considered a sign of reprehensibly lax conduct – especially when they had been in the business of looking after other people’s money. Joseph Fry was formally “disowned” by the Meeting – meaning that he was expelled from the Religious Society of Friends, though he was reinstated eight years later. Meanwhile, the family having no home of their own now, had to go to live with Elizabeth’s brother Samuel.
Elizabeth’s reforming zeal however was as strong as ever. Her next target was the nursing profession. Nursing at that time was a very hit-and-miss affair, generally employing women who were socially disgraced, often drunkards, with no training to speak of, while conditions in most hospitals were appalling. However Elizabeth had been inspired by what had she had seen on a visit to Germany where a clergyman called Fliedner had studied her own principles of prison reform and applied them to nursing, and Elizabeth decided to do the same in Britain. She set up a centre for nurses to receive training, with their own accommodation and a salary. The “Fry sisters” as they were called, were to attend to the poor and sick of London. Their services were provided free to those who could not afford to pay, though the better off patients were expected to pay a fee. The young Florence Nightingale visited Elizabeth Fry to see how the system worked, and after Elizabeth’s death when the Crimean War was raging, Florence Nightingale took several of the “Fry Sisters” to work with her at her hospital in Scutari.
Elizabeth died in 1845 while on holiday in Ramsgate, at the age of 65. A thousand people attended her funeral. Her husband Joseph survived for another 16 years. More than a century and a half after her death, in 2002 her work and her memory were honoured by having her portrait appear on English £5 banknotes – a tribute which would certainly have been appreciated by the banker’s daughter.
JOHN BRIGHT 1811 – 1889
John Bright was born in Lancashire into a Quaker industrialist family. He went into his father’s cotton mill business and had no thoughts of a public career until he met Richard Cobden, who encouraged him to join his campaign against the Corn Laws which were keeping the price of bread artificially high during a time of recession and hardship for the poor. Bright ended up travelling all over Britain addressing Free Trade meetings, and the experience honed his oratorical skills. The two continued their partnership in Parliament after Cobden was elected MP for Stockport in 1841 and Bright won the seat at Derby in a by-election two years later (only the second Quaker ever to enter Parliament). Victory for their campaign came in 1845 when the urgency of the Irish famine finally convinced the Prime Minister Robert Peel of the need to repeal the Corn Laws.
Bright continued to take an active part in Parliamentary debates (interestingly it was Bright who first coined the phrase “England is the mother of Parliaments”) but his greatest and most impassioned efforts were exerted in opposition to the Crimean War. This bore little fruit however; the mood of Parliament and in the country were in favour of war, and Bright briefly lost his seat before being returned again as MP for Birmingham. He subsequently campaigned successfully to oppose suggestions that Britain should join in the American civil war on the side of the Confederacy, and was an energetic supporter of the extension of the vote to the industrial working class, which came to fruition in 1867 – ironically under Disraeli’s Conservative government, when Bright himself was in opposition! (It was during this campaign that Bright coined the phrase “flogging a dead horse”, talking about his attempts to rouse other MPs from their apathy on this issue).
In 1868 Bright was invited to join Gladstone’s government as President of the Board of Trade – the first Quaker ever to hold a Cabinet post. However he had to resign the position two years later due to ill health..However he again served in Gladstone’s next two Cabinets, but finally resigned in 1882 on a matter of principle when Gladstone ordered the royal navy to bombard Alexandria in order to intimidate the Egyptian government in repaying debts owed to British investors. He again opposed Gladstone over the Irish home rule bill, helping to defeat the bill and bring down the government. He was still MP for Birmingham when he fell into his final illness and died in 1889 at the age of 77.and was buried at the Quaker Meeting House in Rochdale.
FAVOURITE JOHN BRIGHT QUOTATIONS :
“Going into the House last night, the caution lately given me by a poor but honest Scotchman struck me. He said to me, “Mr. Bright, I’ll give you a piece of advice. You are going into bad company; and now that you are in, remember that you stick to what you said when you were out.”
“I cannot but notice that an uneasy feeling exists as to the news which may arrive from the very next mail from the East. I do not suppose that your troops are to be beaten in conflict with the foe, or that they will be driven into the sea; but I am certain that many homes in England in which there now exists a fond hope that the distant one may return – many such homes may be rendered desolate when the next mail shall arrive. The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land, you may almost hear the beating of his wings.”
“Alliances are dangerous things . . . I would not advise alliances with any nation, but I would cultivate friendship with all nations.”
ARTHUR EDDINGTON 1882 – 1944
Arthur Eddington was born into a Quaker family in Kendal, in the lake district – close to the cradle of Quakerism itself as it happens. He studied physics at Manchester University and then at Cambridge. At the age of 24 he became the chief assistant to the astronomer royal at the Greenwich Observatory and then seven years later he became professor of astronomy at Cambridge University and director of the prestigious Cambridge Observatory. In 1919 he travelled to the African island of Principe to observe a total eclipse of the sun specifically to investigate whether the light coming from background stars behind the sun would be “bent” out of position by the sun’s gravity, as Albert Einstein had predicted. His findings – that this was indeed the case – constituted the first experimental proof of Einstein’s theory of general relativity and as such they were a milestone in the development of physics. It was Eddington too who first theorised that the source of a star’s energy – which at that time was a complete mystery to scientists – came from the fusion of hydrogen into helium, which would mean that stars would have to operate at temperatures of millions of degrees, rather than merely thousands as had previously been thought. Both these insights were subsequently discovered to be entirely correct. Eddington died at the relatively young age of 61 from cancer.
ALICE HERZ 1882 – 1965
Alice Herz was born into a German Jewish family. In 1933 the year that Hitler became chancellor Alice understandably felt that it was time to leave the country. Her husband by this time had already died, so Alice with her adult daughter Helga moved to France together. In 1940 however the Nazis invaded France, and Alice and Helga were interned for a short time, but in 1942 they succeeded in emigrating to the USA and settled in Detroit. Alice subsequently joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). She made a living teaching German, while Helga worked as a librarian. They applied for American citizenship, but Alice being a committed pacifist refused to make the declaration that was required to state that she would be willing to defend the nation by armed force.
Alice took a keen interest in international affairs and, being able to speak several languages (including the international language Esperanto) she had correspondents in several other countries. She was deeply distressed by America’s entry into the Vietnam war, and opposed it in every way she could think of: joining protests, going on marches, and writing letters and articles, but all without effect. Desperate and frustrated at her inability to make her voice heard, she decided to follow the Buddhist tradition of ultimate protest, and at the age of 82 she set herself alight in a public street in Detroit. Some passers-by saw what was happening and extinguished the flames, but Alice died in hospital 10 days later. Not long afterwards the Japanese writer and philosopher Shingo Shibata established the Alice Herz peace fund, while in 2003 a plaza in Berlin was named in her honour.
KATHLEEN LONSDALE 1903 – 1971
Kathleen was born into a Baptist family in county Kildare in the Republic of Ireland, the daughter of a village postmaster who had ten children altogether. When Kathleen was 5 years old they emigrated to England, settling in Essex. At school she excelled in science and mathematics, and took an M Sc degree in physics (and was later awarded a D Sc) from University College at London University. In 1927 she married Thomas Lonsdale whom she had met at university, and they had three children. She made a career specialising in crystallography at the Royal Institution, pioneering the use of x-rays to study crystals, as a result of which she discovered the structure of benzene molecules. One of her specialities was working on the synthesis of diamonds, and the mineral Lonsdaleite – a particularly hard form of diamond found in meteorites – was named in her honour. Kathleen and her husband joined the Quakers in 1935, being attracted particularly by the Peace Testimony, and during World War Two she served a month in Holloway prison after refusing to pay a fine imposed for failing to register for defence duties. In 1945 she and Marjorie Stephenson became the first women ever to be elected as Fellows of the Royal Society, and four years later Kathleen became Professor of Chemistry at University College, London – a post she held until her retirement in 1968. Kathleen delivered the Swarthmore Lecture at Britain Yearly Meeting in 1953 under the title “Removing the causes of War”. She died from cancer at the age of 68.
FAVOURITE KATHLEEN LONSDALE QUOTATIONS :
“To me, being a Christian is a particular way of life, not the unquestioning acceptance of a particular system of theology, not belief in the literal truth of the Virgin Birth, or the Resurrection and Ascension, but being the kind of person that Jesus wanted his followers to be and doing the things he told them to do.”
“Nor it seems to me can you live a Christian life unless, like Jesus, you believe in the power of goodness, of justice, of mercy, and of love,; unless you believe in these so strongly that you are prepared to put them to the acid test of experiment: unless they constitute the real meaning of life for you.”
“Very often our ability to co-operate peacefully with our family, our neighbours, and our fellow-workers does depend upon our knowing how, with courtesy, to refuse to be drawn into particular types of discussion or to take sides on questions which arouse needless passions.”
“When you have to make a vital decision about behaviour, you cannot sit on the fence. To decide to do nothing is still a decision, and it means that you remain on the station platform or the airstrip when the train or plane has left.”
“Friends are not naïve enough to believe that such an appeal ‘to that of God’ in a dictator or in a nation which, for psychological or other reasons, is in an aggressive mood will necessarily be successful in converting the tyrant or preventing aggression. Christ was crucified; Gandhi was assassinated. Yet they did not fail. Nor did they leave behind them the hatred, devastation and bitterness that war, successful or unsuccessful, does leave. What can be claimed, moreover, is that this method of opposing evil is one of which no person, no group, no nation need be ashamed, as we may and should be ashamed of the inhumanities of war that are perpetrated in our name.”