Local Quaker History
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.
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.
4th April 2016
History of Stansted Quaker Meeting
From Primitive Methodist Connexion, Stansted Mountfitchet by Ralph Philips
Quaker meetings have been recorded in Stansted since the first minute books of the Thaxted Monthly Meeting in 1696. These early meetings would have taken place in people’s private houses.
Six by four and a half poles of Conygree Wood were purchased on 20th August 1703 to build a Friends Meeting House. Converge, or Rabbit Wood stretched from Water Lane up to Silver Street; hence the names, Woodfields and Blythewood. The lease on the land was for 1,500 years, or to the year 3205AD. It was signed by Stephen Perry of London, the Elder, on the one part, and William Dimsdale, Thomas Appleby, Henry Squires, Simon Joselin, John Day and David Joyce of the second part. The Meeting House must have been built shortly after the indenture, although there is no record of its opening.
A second indenture dated June 28th 1735, refers to, “this plot of land, by estimation 27 poles of ground with edifices.” The edifice referred to was that portion of the Meeting House, demolished in the winter of 1966-7, nearest to the burial ground. Built of lathe and plaster, with a high pitched tiled roof, it in many ways resembled the former barns that had been used for worship. The more substantial section nearer Chapel Hill constructed in brick and slate, was probably erected in 1854, that also being the date when new Trustees were appointed, and when it was directed that, “the buildings were held to such uses as the Quarterly Meeting of the people called Quakers of the County of Essex should direct and appoint.” The two buildings were only separated by a large wooden folding partition which opened the full length of the church.
To give succour and support to the emerging chapel, the Bishop’s Stortford Local Preachers, Younger Church and Youth Group gave of their time and energy. Colin and Brian Mansfield led these efforts, ably assisted by Mary Mansell, John Banks, John Phillips and other too many to mention individually. They reopened the Sunday School, preached and attended the church and breathed new life into old structures, their efforts well rewarded.
The Society of Friends, not happy with the fabric of the Meeting House, called in a consultant to inspect it. He found that the oaken planks 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 forced the consultant to advise the immediate closure of the church. The recommendations were acted upon by all the users of the Meeting House, with the exception of the Methodists, who for a short while used to meet in the sounder part of the building, while the rest was cordoned off, which gave a rather surrealistic atmosphere to the proceedings. It was on December 1st 1966, that Fred Boyd, was able to send out the following letter to all members and 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. —-”
The following account is abstracted from the Quaker weekly called “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 how a dozen active families can achieve when they are supported by the resources of their neighbours and the whole Society.