Quakerism in Melksham

on Wednesday, 19 June 2013. Posted in Architecture

We were recently called to investigate the old Spiritualist Church in Melksham which had closed. The building was originally a Quaker Meeting House until that closed in 1959 and it was sold to the Spiritualists. Investigating the twists and turns of its history was part of our remit, and we were grateful to Harold Fassnidge who had trod this path before us.

Born of the Puritanism of the English Civil War, Quakerism was a reaction against what was perceived as a decline in the religious and moral standards of the clergy of the established church. The term ‘Quaker’ originated as a slightly mocking reference to a rebuke made by their leader, George Fox, to Gervaise Bennet, J.P. that he ought to ‘tremble at the name of the Lord’.

The Melksham branch of the ‘Society of Friends’ began to meet originally at Shaw Hill, in the home of Robert and Hester Marshman at some time before 1669, in which year eighty members were recorded as having met there. At two miles from Melksham, their house was evidently considered to be sufficiently safe from any authorities who might disapprove of, and choose to interfere with, their activities.

From these beginnings, the Melksham Meeting quickly became the largest and most influential of the early Wiltshire Quaker assemblies, and went on to be the longest-surviving Friends Meeting in the county.

In a Deed of Assignment dated 22nd December 1698, the Melksham Friends acquired the piece of land in what is now King Street where their Meeting House came to be sited, for £10. The occupations of the ‘Friends’ named in the 1698 conveyance give some idea of the middle-class nature of early Quakerism. They were: ‘Simon Shewring, surgeon, William Smith of Whitly, maltster, Thomas Beaven the younger of Melksham, clothier, Thomas Poulsome of Purlpitt, yeoman, John Clark of Bradford, chymist, Joseph Hull of Frankly, Bradford, clothier, Thomas Gingell of Corsham, yeoman, John Hodges of Warminster, maltster, John Rutty of Melksham, maltster, Henry Langer of the same place, clothier, and John Jeffery of Melksham schoolmaster.’

This building remained in use until late 1776 or early 1777, when a new meeting-house was erected to replace it, on the same site. In 1811, the Melksham Quakers bought the cottage which is now 16, King Street, on the south side of the Meeting-house, for £380, from Isaac Ashley, a Semington yeoman farmer, as an investment.

The 19th century saw a serious decline in Quakerism and by 1828 out of all the Wiltshire meeting-houses only Melksham and Calne remained open, although the Devizes meeting-house reopened briefly in 1858, closing again in 1879.

In 1892, the Friends welcomed Norman Penney and his wife to Melksham, and on his initiative an Adult School was opened at the Meeting-House, with a view both to educating working men and possibly attracting new members to join the Friends. But it seems that, despite the efforts of Penney to revive Quakerism in Wiltshire towards the end of the 19th century, through his educational work, the resurgence was limited in scope, and short-lived.

Numbers of attendees continued to decline and in 1950 the Quaker Meeting-House was finally closed. After 1950, the meeting-room was rented to the Plymouth Brethren; part of the rest of the building had, prior to this, been used as the county library and was subsequently let to the Wiltshire County Council as a bookstore for the Libraries and Museums Service and latterly to the Spiritualist Church. Its future now rests in the hands of the planners.

Margaret Parrott
Wiltshire Buildings Record


Accredited Archive Service