The first Quakers arrived in Bristol in 1654. One of the first Bristolians to join the Quakers was Denis Hollister, an MP in the previous year’s ‘Barebones Parliament’ and future father-in-Law of William Penn. Quakerism became so popular in Bristol that there were no halls or meeting places large enough to hold the numbers of people attending their gatherings and meetings had to be held in the fields around the City.
Quakers owned land to the east of the city and this area is now part of the Cabot Circus/Quakers Friars Shopping Centre. Quaker links are commemorated through the retention of old street names. The building known as Quakers Friars was once a Dominican Friary (Blackfriars). The old friary building was used by the Quakers until, in the 1740s, a new Quaker meeting house was built. Hence the name, Quakers Friars, reflects the two religious uses of the site.
Clergy in Church of England churches spoke out against Quakerism. Bristol’s Quakers, seeing themselves as Apostles disrupted the services in Church of England churches (including St. Philips and the Cathedral). When Quaker, James Naylor, entered Bristol and was placed under arrest, branded, tied to a cart and flogged through the City’s streets, he was never to recover from this treatment. Bristol men and women Quakers were flogged in the city’s Bridewell Prison. The Sect was extremely political, and confrontational. Members were fearless in their opposition to control over their meetings and worship by the state. But with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 this Radicalism began to decline. They now entered a period of counter-revolution, the period of small presses independent of State control ended. Gradually, over the following decades, Quakers became non-political. Increasingly Quaker meetings came under the ‘guidance’ of their more conservative, wealthier members (e.g. William Penn). Instead of holding a philosophy of direct action and involvement in political affairs, (a philosophy based on a belief that Eden was due to be created on Earth), an outlook of ‘Inner Light’ and reflection came to the fore. This was a direct result of the deliberate and ruthless persecution they suffered from the new Monarchical State. In 1661, the Corporation Act prevented Quakers from holding public office and following apprenticed trades. Quakers refused to swear oaths (saying that their word alone was good enough), this led to them being open to punitive fines for non-swearing. Laws forbid them from recovering debts, administering estates or taking up the freedom of cities. As ‘non-freemen’ they were not allowed to carry out trade of commerce in the Port of Bristol. Their harassment in the City was such that the Merchant Venturers paid local people to inform on Bristol Quakers. In 1662 Hollister and 65 other Quakers were rounded up and arrested, joining 125 other Quakers in Bristol’s Prisons.
In 1664 the State passed the Conventical Act. This Act said that no more than four people could meet in any one house for worship. Anyone breaking this law faced imprisonment and a fine. Bristol Quakers, and other non-conformist sects, were caught under this Act. However there were occasions were juries of Bristolians refused to persecute their neighbours and when three Bristol Quakers were sentenced to transportation to North America or the West Indies sailors refused to carry them.
In 1670 a second Conventical Act was passed which excluded Bristol Quakers from their Meeting Rooms including their new Room at Friars.
In 1673 the Test Act was passed which obliged all people of England to take Oath and Communion according to the Church of England.
During the period 1676-81 Quakers were relatively free of persecution. There then followed a mass round-up of all members of non-conformist sects. 1,500 people in Bristol were effected – their meeting rooms closed down and were pursued and harassed my officers of the City at every turn. Unable to meet in their own Meeting Rooms and Chapels these congregations went out into the quarries and glens around Bristol. They met in Stapleton, Knowle, Brislington, Durdam Downs, Leigh Woods, etc. At Crews Hole (aka Screze Hole), then east of Bristol, on the River Avon, they built an amphitheatre to hold hundreds of non-conformist dissidents. At Baptist Mills, Conham and Brislington thousands of people would gather and hear dissident preachers. At St Anne’s Woods the local State used dogs, whips and guns against such congregations. Preachers were ambushed and put into Gloucestershire Goal.
In 1676 one non-conformist preacher drowned as he crossed a river trying to escape. Preachers would go about in disguise. Miners from Kingswood attended many of these meetings. Numbers of those people attending these unlawful gatherings were too great for the City’s goals and there are records of prisoners dying of suffocation. The City Sheriff ‘caught and shut up’ over eighty men and women who were outside of Lawford’s Gate returning from an open-air meeting. Quakers who were imprisoned were known to have married inside the jail and it may well have been that they used their jail as a place of worship. Certainly their children, left alone in the City, organised their own meetings for which they were flogged with whalebone sticks and put in the stocks. In 1681 the Friars Meeting House was damaged to the cost of £150. Trained bands went around the City possessing Quaker buildings, closing down their shops and nailing up their doors and windows. Quakers meeting in the open in the streets of Bristol suffered a torrent of abuse and missiles thrown by their fellow citizens. The Friars Meeting House was allowed to re-open but was soon attacked with some Quakers put under arrest while the others (some 101 people) were trapped in their Meeting House, which was nailed up, for some six hours. In 1685 100 Quakers were released from Bristol’s jails as part of an amnesty of 1,500 released nationally under a pardon by James II. Quakers still suffered abuse and discrimination, in 1685 Hollister, Pyott (of Lower Easton and a friend of Fox) and Gouldney were attacked in Corn Street.
After these waves of persecution came to an end the conservative strand of Bristol Quakers had taken control and any thoughts of the sect being Radical in the sense of challenging the State and authority on a National and Local level were not entertained. By 1728 leading Bristol Quakers were no longer plain modest people, rather they came to their Meeting Houses in carriages and had discarded their distinctive plain dress.
Note: The main body of text in this post comes from my, 2001, contribution to the Living Easton website.