Local Quaker History

History of Stansted Quaker Meeting

Acquiring the Chapel Hill land

Quaker meetings have taken place in Stansted since 1696, as recorded in the minute books of the Thaxted Monthly Meeting. These early meetings would have taken place in people’s private houses.

Land was first acquired by Quakers in 1703 for a burial ground. Conygree Wood (translating to rabbit warren) stretched from Water Lane up to Silver Street; hence the names, Woodfields and Blythewood. On 20th August 1703, ‘Six by four and a half poles’ (about one sixth of an acre) of Conygree Wood were purchased by the Religious Society of Friends.

The lease on the land was for 1,500 years, or to the year 3205! The lease was signed by Stephen Perry of London, the Elder, on the one part, and William Dimsdale (from Bishop’s Stortford), Thomas Appleby, Henry Squires, Simon Joselin, John Day (who founded Green’s furniture stores) and David Joyce of the second part.

Building the first meeting house

The Quaker Meeting House was probably an existing building on the land. It was a timber-framed building encased in lathe and plaster. It had a cellar, with a steep-pitched tiled roof. The earliest Quaker meetings used converted houses or farm buildings for their worship. A second lease agreement dated 28th June 1735 refers to ‘this plot of land, …… with edifices’. These ‘edifices’ may refer to a building that became the original Meeting House. The agreement said they were for uses ‘as …. the people called Quakers of the County of Essex should direct….’

The building was extended in the early 1850s and a new porch was added facing Chapel Hill, constructed in brick and slate. The two buildings were only separated by a large wooden folding partition, which opened the full length of the building. In around 1955 Hubert Lidbetter (the architect for Friends House at Euston and several Quaker meeting houses) described Stansted meeting house as ‘a perfect little building in the best local tradition, ruined by a Victorian extension’.

The burial ground

The burial ground was established in 1703 when the site was acquired. This is now an oblong garden on the south side of the meeting house.

The Quaker burial ground contains a number of headstones relocated around its perimeter. In the 1950s all the headstones were moved to the perimeter of the plot and the human remains were moved to the southwest corner.

The earliest headstone dates from the 1600s, and most of them date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As well as individual headstones there is a collective memorial stone for members of the Day family, whose death dates range from 1712 to 1796. Another notable burial is Richard Crafton Green (1848–1931), a painter who was born in Stansted and was the son of Joshua Green, of Green’s Stores. A short road opposite is named after him (‘Crafton Green’), although the original connection appears to have been lost over time and ‘Green’ has acquired a topographical meaning. The most recent legible headstone dates from 1924. The burial ground is no longer used for burials, but the scattering of ashes takes place here.

A list of headstones and names is held by the local Quaker meeting but is not comprehensive, it misspells several names and does not record all the information on the headstones. Many of the headstones are deteriorating from flaking stone.

Use of the Quaker Meeting House by the Methodist Church

From 1929 up to the 1960s, the meeting house was used by the Methodist Church and the Freemasons. In June 1929 Stansted Primitive Methodists took a lease on the building for five years, extended for another five years. The Quakers gave the right to use the meeting house for the purpose of holding services on Sunday mornings and from time to time weddings and funerals. The Quakers maintained a right of way to the burial ground.

The opening Methodist service took place at the Friends Meeting House on 6 July 1929. Amongst other speakers, ‘Mr Kohn spoke of the tradition of the Friends Meeting House, which had been used as a place of worship for 250 years.’ The Methodists shared our building, calling it the Chapel, paying rent for many years. The Stansted Mountfitchet Freemasons Lodge began to hire the hall in Sept 1944 into the 1960s. After the Methodist Church moved to new premises, Quakers and Methodists maintained a good relationship.

The need for a new building

In the 1960s, the Society of Friends, not happy with the fabric of the Meeting House, called in a consultant to inspect it. He found that the oak timbers that the older part of the building rested upon, had completely rotted away.  Half the building had dropped by that amount, while the newer section nearest the road, which had a foundation, remained as it was built. The immense strains which occurred where the two buildings joined made the buildings unsafe and the consultant advised immediate closure of the building.

The recommendations were acted upon by all the users of the Meeting House, except the Methodists, who for a short while used to meet in the sounder part of the building, while the rest was cordoned off.  The whole building was demolished in the winter of 1966-7.

On December 1st 1966, Fred Boyd, was able to send out the following letter to all Methodist members:

‘Dear friends – Exciting things are happening in connection with our church activities.  As from Sunday 4th December 1966, we are to hold our services in the Scout Headquarters at Water Lane, Stansted.  This comes about due to the rebuilding of the Chapel, which should be completed in the spring of 1967.’

Designing a new Quaker meeting house

Following the surveyor’s advice to close the building, work commenced on commissioning a new meeting house. The clerk of Stansted Quaker Meeting was Richard Clarke. He knew Erno Goldfinger, the famous modernist architect and designer of Trellick Tower, who may have given informal advice. The architect commissioned for the new Meeting House was Paul V. Mauger of Mauger Gavin & Associates, Welwyn.

Paul V. Mauger was a highly regarded architect. Paul Mauger was born on January 7th 1896 in Camden and attended the Friends School in Saffron Walden. After passing his architectural qualifications, he was assistant at a number of firms, travelled to Europe extensively, and worked for three years in British Palestine. Paul was a Quaker. His firm designed larger housing schemes for local councils. The partnership designed the Friends Meeting house in Hitchen (1957, now listed grade II), in Stansted (1958) [note discrepancy on the date] and in Slough (1962). The company designed many Methodist Churches including that at Harlow (1952).

A building was designed on the site of the earlier building, on a concrete slab, rather than disturbing burial places, though the remains had been moved. The building was modernist, prefabricated, made of timber and glass, with flat roof, a raised roof light over the square meeting room, a central lobby with front door and a back door in a recess to the garden.

Building and opening the new meeting house

In 1967, the new Meeting House constructed by the builder A.S. Reynolds of Saffron Walden. The new building seated 85 and cost £6,000. The opening meeting took place in September 1967.

This account of the opening meeting written by Olive Tyson is taken from the Quaker weekly The Friend, September 22nd 1967:

New Meeting House at Stansted

‘Some Friends sat inside the new Meeting House at Stansted for the opening meeting of worship last Saturday afternoon, and some sat outside in the garden.

‘Those inside admired the pleasant proportions of the Meeting Room, beautiful wooden floor and furniture and a gleaming piano.  Those outside appreciated the simplicity of the cedar-clad building with its spacious children’s room and communicating kitchen, separated from the Meeting Room by broad lobby with adjacent cloakrooms.  It did not make much difference whether we were in or out because the full-length windows had been pushed back into recesses and more than a hundred Friends joined in worship.

‘Visitors came from all over the General Meeting area and from other places too, and representatives from several denominations were present, including Methodists who have used the old Meeting House for their services for many years and will use the new one too.

‘The architect Paul Mauger, was there, and the builder, Mr. A.S. Reynolds of Saffron Walden, and some good neighbours. Mr. and Mrs. W. Mason, who by granting a way leave to meet the demand of the planning authorities, had made it possible for Friends to rebuild on the site of the old Meeting House.

‘Friends of long ago were represented too, not only by their tombstones ranged round the edge of the garden, but also by the concrete raft constructed at considerable additional cost to prevent the re-sited Meeting House subsiding into the graves of the old burial ground.  And if this link between past and present seemed too remote, a Friend recalled just before Meeting that more than 75 years ago he had first worshipped here with his family and only one other Friend.

‘So tradition was well served, but on this sunny afternoon it gave place to the needs of the present; to the very young, sitting importantly on their new small chairs and whispering urgent questions; to children obedient to the mood of the meeting but impatient to be doing; to youth gaily clad and beautiful but detached and serious; to young parents conscious of responsibilities; to the middle aged bringing tested experience to the service of a wider family; to the old, alternately grave and gay as they spoke of happiness and pain they had seen and felt.

‘Together we sat in a haze of peace, celebrating the end of a task whose purpose was to enable new tasks to be attempted.  We gave thanks for minds that plan and hands that build and felt the dependence of man one upon the other, and so came to the source of all life and said together the Lord’s Prayer.

‘The children recognised this as a sign for freedom and wriggled determinedly away, leaving us to a deeper silence. Soon Stanley Smith, Clerk to Essex General Meeting, and Richard Clarke, Clerk to the Stansted (formerly Elsenham) Preparative Meeting, shook hands and the latter thanked all who helped – and was a little disconcerted to receive from Nancy Tennant a token of the Meeting’s appreciation of his own contribution.

‘Afterwards there was tea and food and chat in abundance.  When I left I looked back across the car park to where letters a foot high proclaimed ‘Quaker Meeting House’ and I thought what a dozen active families can achieve when they are supported by the resources of their neighbours and the whole Society.’

Delapidation and renewal

By the early 1990s, the meeting house was in need of repair – rot was detected. Anthea Lee was clerk of the Quaker meeting. She saw the rot and oversaw the huge effort to renew the building. Building renewal required funds. At the time Stansted Preparatory Meeting had £78; the final cost of the building was £62,000. There was a big fundraising effort. Letters were sent to educational and religious charitable trusts, with applications for funding contributions. Yellow was used on the brochure to attract attention.

Anthea became friends with the artist Anne McNeil who made a show of paintings in the old Meeting House and allowed the meeting to sell a lot of paintings she described as ‘failures’. Anthea received a lot of donations as well as messages of support.

Works were led by Allan N. Wright (surveyor for London Quakers ‘Six Weeks Meeting’). The works kept the 1967 arrangement, but removed the timber panels, encased the existing building in brown brick, with blue window lintels and window cills, added a pitched slate roof and a porch. The works included new toilets and kitchen and were completed in 1994. The meeting room was redesigned with a laminated timber roof structure and a woodblock floor.

The building remains sound and in active use by Quakers and multiple community groups.

Researched by Anthea Lee, adapted by Yvonne Estop from chapters 12 and 13 of ‘Primitive Methodist Connexion, Stansted Mountfitchet’ by Ralph Philips, who researched and wrote about the Methodist church in Stansted. Information about the architect Paul Mauger, from the website New Towns Herts, and personal recollections by Anthea Lee.

A History of Bishop’s Stortford Quaker Meeting

The history of Quakerism in Bishop’s Stortford dates right back to the origins of the Society of Friends. George Fox’s visit is recorded in his Journal of 1665 thus: “Then we rode to Bishop’s Stortford where some were convinced.”

In fact, there was already a Monthly Meeting established in Sawbridgeworth in 1656, which was attended by about 300 people, including some from as far afield as Cheshunt, Hertford and Ware. It should be remembered that they faced considerable opposition. The Acts of Uniformity were reinforced by the new one in 1662 after the restoration of Charles II. The Quakers were persecuted by both civil and ecclesiastical authorities because they refused to doff their hats to any man, only God, and they refused to attend the Church of England. Thus, they were not only challenging established authority but also refusing to pay church fees, tithes and church rates. All this resulted in riots.

Baron Thomas Dimsdale

By the 1660s there was a Meeting in Bishop’s Stortford and in 1668 the Sawbridgeworth Quakers joined with Bishop’s Stortford. Quakers were jailed because they did not attend church or have their children baptised. Dr Robert Dimsdale notably persisted as an early Quaker in Bishop’s Stortford, despite being gaoled twice in the 1660s for his faith and was excommunicated for “practising physic without a bishop’s licence”. He had settled in Bishop’s Stortford on his return in 1664 from accompanying William Penn as a doctor to New Jersey (as it was then). Thus, the leading Quaker family for several generations in Bishop’s Stortford was there from the very early days, despite most of the Dimsdales living in Hertford.

The records of Bishop’s Stortford meetings are incomplete, but after the Declaration of Indulgence of 1672 and the Act of Toleration of 1689, which gave Non-Conformists the right to worship, the Quaker Meeting place in the town was recognised in 1691. It is believed to have been sited very close to the burial ground, the current garden in Newtown Road. A Meeting House was built in 1709 and William Dimsdale, a surgeon, was a Trustee.

However, the Quaker Meeting in Bishop’s Stortford dwindled. A visitor in 1722 described it as “small, many drowsy, but pretty well awake before the Meeting ended”! Perhaps it should not be surprising that in 1748 the Monthly Meeting was dissolved and moved to Hertford, then in 1791, to Thaxted. Meetings in Bishop’s Stortford were discontinued between 1800 and 1815, but the burial ground continued to be used. The Meeting was reopened in 1828, but discontinued again in 1850. However, an Ecclesiastical Census taken throughout the land on a particular Sunday in 1851 did note a couple of families at a Quaker Meeting in Bishop’s Stortford. The final phase of an active Quaker Meeting in Bishop’s Stortford was between 1963 and 1967, after which Friends moved to Stansted.

The most notable Quaker in Bishop’s Stortford was a grandson of Robert Dimsdale, Thomas (1712-1800). He, too, was a doctor, and it was as a doctor that he became famous. He was an early pioneer in this country of inoculation against smallpox, an idea which had come from Turkey. It was intrinsically dangerous, as it involved inoculating with live matter from a patient who had smallpox. However, Dr Dimsdale prepared his patients with a good diet, fresh air and exercise both before and after inoculation, which he believed gave the best chance of surviving the process. He wrote a paper on this, The Present Method of Inoculating for the Smallpox, published in 1767, which became a best seller. This even came to the notice of the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, who invited him to inoculate both herself and her son. There was such concern that if the inoculation failed, revenge would be taken on Dr Dimsdale, that teams of horses were ready to take him out of Russia as quickly as possible. Fortunately, all went well and the Empress was so grateful that she rewarded him with the hereditary title of Baron, £12,000 and a life annuity of £500, thus making the Dimsdales rich. His third wife, Elizabeth kept a journal of this journey to Russia, which has been published as English Lady at the Court of Catherine the Great.

Dr Robert Dimsdale also became MP for Hertford, standing in 1780. He won the seat as a result of his own popularity and the Quaker vote. Although no orator (he rarely spoke in the House), he followed his Quaker principles and voted against war in 1781, 1782 and 1783.

At his request, he was buried in the Quaker burial ground in Newtown Road, as was his wife. There is a memorial stone on the back wall, commemorating them and five other members of the Dimsdale family, along with five other Quakers, all buried there between 1779 and 1823.

The burial ground was donated by the Religious Society of Friends to the town as a garden on 3rd October 1935. In 1984, works in Newtown Road to lay a new gas main unearthed a skeleton in a lead coffin. It is not known who this was, but it was reburied in the garden. At the suggestion of the Mayor, a Quaker Meeting of Worship was held at this event. Elders of Stansted Meeting attended, including Anthea Lee, who is still a member of Stansted Meeting today, and they were joined by Harlow Friends. After the improvements made to the garden by the Town Council in 2015, Stansted Friends held a Meeting for Worship there in July.

Jane Mitchell
4th April 2016