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Some History of Quakers in Cheltenham

The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) have met regularly for worship in Cheltenham since about 1660. Indeed, Quaker records offer evidence of followers here as early as 1658. Possibly the message of George Fox had come to them via Quaker meetings held in Bristol in 1654 when, according to George Fox’s Journal, Joseph Camm and John Audland became “First Publishers of the Truth” in Gloucestershire. Shortly afterwards Fox himself visited Cirencester and Bristol.

The first Gloucestershire Quarterly Meeting Book of 1670 indicates that its five Monthly Meetings comprised 23 Preparative Meetings of which Cheltenham was one, then being in the Stoke Orchard Monthly Meeting. In 1678 Fox addressed “a large gathering” in Cheltenham.

Before the Toleration Act of 1689 it was illegal for non-conformists to hold religious meetings of more than four people and Quakers were obliged to gather in the street or secretly in barns or in each other’s houses. In 1684 many cases are recorded of Cheltenham Friends being taken to court for attending Quaker services. Some were fined or imprisoned and others suffered distraint of their goods. One Cheltenham Quaker, Elizabeth Sandford, for allowing her property to be used for Meeting for Worship, went to prison and was punished “in the flesh, oft times severely”.

After 1689 Elizabeth Sandford was free to make over some of her land to trustees for the use of Quakers. Dated October 27th 1701, the surrender was made “to the use of William Mason, Jn Pumfry and Jn Drewett of a piece of garden ground in Cheltenham”. These trustees are admitted as tenants but with the usual oath respited “because they are Quakers”. The document recites that “the premises are so surrendered to the only intent and purpose that a Quaker Meeting House may therein be founded and with all convenient speed be erected for the assembly of Quakers for celebration of divine worship for all times hereafter to continue”. This Meeting House stood in Manchester Place in the vicinity of the old Shaftesbury Hall site (now Chelsea Square) and was licensed at Michaelmas Quarter Sessions in 1703.
Drawing of 1702 Meeting House << Click on any small picture on this page to see a larger version.
In 1760, Sara Fox, a visiting Quaker from Bristol described the Meeting House, cottage and garden here, similar in layout to Nailsworth’s 17th Century Meeting House.

In the 18th century Quakers were closely involved with the early development of Cheltenham as a fashionable spa. In 1696 Margaret Surman of nearby Tredington married William Mason, hosier of Cheltenham. Both were Quakers. On their property at Bayshill, Mason had discovered a chalybeate spring. Their daughter Elizabeth had married Captain Henry Skillicorne, a retired naval captain and adventurer who, inheriting his father-in-law’s estate, exploited the healing properties of the spring water and established Cheltenham’s first Spa and Pump Room. The Captain is commemorated at some length on a tablet in St Mary’s Parish Church while his wife is remembered somewhat more humbly: “Mrs Elizabeth Skillicorne a Quaker, was buried in the Quakers Grave Yard, upon the 14th of April 1779. A Virtuous Woman, A good Wife & tender Mother.”.
Skillicorne tablet << Click on any small picture on this page to see a larger version.
The site of the burial ground in Grove Street is identified by an iron gate set into a wall and dated 1700.
Grove Street Grove Street wall Grove Street gate << Click on any small picture on this page to see a larger version.
Grove Street is near the former St James Railway Station site, now occupied by the Waitrose supermarket. An old brass plate identifying (at least some of) the interments there, including “E Skillecorn” is displayed in the Cheltenham Meeting House.
Brass plaque << Click on any small picture on this page to see a larger version.

Meanwhile the original early Meeting House had from time to time needed rescuing from serious disrepair until in 1834, further repair being deemed impractical, it was decided to sell the building and erect more commodious premises nearby. These were completed in 1836 and their facade on Clarence Street (formerly Manchester Walk) still survives.
Drawing of 1836 Meeting House << Click on any small picture on this page to see a larger version.

But in its turn this large stone building eventually proved beyond the Meeting’s capacity to maintain. North House was purchased in 1902. The house itself was re-sold but its grounds were retained and on them was built the Portland Street Meeting House which was to serve the Society well for the next 80 years.
Portland Street MH Drawing of 1903 Meeting House << Click on any small picture on this page to see a larger version.

In 1983 work on the new Cheltenham northern relief road commenced, necessitating the demolition of the Edwardian building and causing Cheltenham Quakers to seek yet another new home. For just over a year the Meeting was accommodated temporarily in part of Shaftesbury Hall, the very location of its former 18th-century Meeting House. As the County Council had compulsorily purchased the Portland Street building, it was responsible for the cost of replacement when a new site in Warwick Place became available. The present modern building opened in February 1985. Since then Cheltenham Quaker Meeting has flourished and is very appreciative of its excellent facilities - as also are the many local organisations who hire its rooms during the week.

Referring to the building of 1836 an observer commented: “The erection of a Meeting House demonstrates that the present Society is alive to the maintenance of those principles of non-conformity and simple unadorned Christianity which their ancestors so ardently and disinterestedly laboured to diffuse”. This remains true today.

Meetings for Worship are held at the Meeting House every Sunday at 10:30am. Visitors are always very welcome to join in our quiet worship.

Pictures of the present Meeting House

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