Banburyshire’s Radical History: ‘Looking over Nethercote to a hazy Banbury sunset’, 15th February 2019
Banburyshire’s Radical History:

John Woolman and Banbury’s Quaker Meeting House

Two-hundred and fifty years ago, a ‘radical’ from the Colonies came to Banbury to preach about the ills of slavery. Years later, his world view is still very ‘modern’.

Banburyshire’s Radical History: ‘John Woolman and Banbury’s Quaker Meeting House’, 8th August 2022.
Watch the video of this post on YouTube

On a midsummer day in 1772, a drably-dressed fifty-one year old man climbed the low rise on the hills that fringe the western edge of Northamptonshire, to look down on the town of Banbury in the valley below. He had already travelled far that month, but had barely made a fifth of the distance he would walk from June until September of that year.

Banburyshire’s Radical History: ‘A portrait believed to be of John Woolman’
A portrait, believed to be of John Woolman.

“The produce of the earth is a gift from our gracious creator to the inhabitants, and to impoverish the earth now to support outward greatness appears to be an injury to the succeeding age.” (1772)

John Woolman was a Quaker from Mount Holly, near Philadelphia, in the Province of New Jersey. He was not yet an ‘American’; that country did not exist yet. He departed from ‘The Colonies’ by ship, from the port of Chester on the Delaware River, at the beginning of May to attend the Quaker Yearly Meeting in London. Having failed to make sufficient impact there, he decided to tour local Quaker meetings across England to spread the message he had travelled all this way to promote: That slavery must be ended.

Banburyshire’s Radical History: ‘Map of The Journey of John Woolman’, 1772
Map of The Journey of John Woolman, 1772 (click for larger image, or press Hotkey-‘O’)

This was not abnormal. Quakers often travelled far and wide: To carry news; to visit ‘Friends’; and to preach. John Woolman had arrived in London on the 8th of June – or as early Quakers said to avoid the use of ‘pagan’ names, the ‘eighth day sixth month’. He left London a few days later, perhaps via Bunhill Fields where he may have visited the grave of the founder of Quakerism, George Fox.

For much of his life Woolman wrote a journal – from where we learn many of the details of his life in the Colonies, and his journey through England in 1772. Though far more detail about Woolman’s travels in England were gathered by Henry Cadbury in his 1966 study, ‘John Woolman in England’ (published by Friends Historical Society in 1971), based on the written accounts of many other Quakers who had met Woolman along the way.

Banburyshire’s Radical History: ‘Banbury Quaker Meeting House’, 27th July 2022

By the 15th June, Woolman had attended the meeting in Hertford. Then via Baldock, he reached Northampton around the 25th or 26th June. The road to the north-west of England continues from there via Rugby, Coventry, and Birmingham; so why did he take a left turn and go south? There are two possible reasons:

Banburyshire’s Ancient Tracks: ‘Map of The Cotswold Ridgeway’
Map of The Cotswold Ridgeway
(click for larger image)

Firstly, it’s an easy route to follow; in Eighteenth Century England, this road was the equivalent of a modern trunk road. Banbury Lane, the road between Banbury and Northampton, is ancient – quite probably prehistoric. It’s sometimes called, ‘The Cotswold Ridgeway’.

Like its more famous counterpart on the south side of Oxfordshire, this route begins in the coastal fringes of Lincolnshire and The Wash, follows the valley of the River Nene to Northampton, then takes a line, through Banbury, along the northern edge of the Cotswolds to the Iron Age site at Crickley Hill.

Banbury Lane Bridge (image 1), 3rd September 2012
Banbury Lane Bridge: A Medieval stone bridge, buried beneath a Victorian brick bridge, and a modern concrete and steel bridge on top.

The second likely reason for Woolman’s diversion was that Banbury was a notable centre for Quakerism. The town had a large Quaker presence since the beginnings of the Society of Friends in the sixteen-fifties. Crossing the Medieval stone bridge on Banbury Lane – of which just two of the seven arches survive today – he arrived in Banbury knowing that he would be welcomed.

Banburyshire’s Radical History: ‘Edward Vivers House, High Street, Banbury’, 27th July 2022
Edward Vivers House – opposite the yard in Broad Street where the first Quaker meetings in Banbury were held in 1655.

It was barely a century since the centre of the town had been rebuilt after its destruction during the civil war. In the High Street he would have seen the house of Edward Vivers, one of the founders of the local Quaker meeting in 1655, much as it is seen today. What he would not have seen, though, were Banbury’s crosses – which had been destroyed by Puritans a century-and-a-half before.

Banburyshire’s Radical History: ‘Banbury Quaker Meeting & Horsefair’, 27th July 2022
Banbury Quaker Meeting House, in the corner of Horsefair, by the entrance to The Leys

Coming to Banbury Quaker Meeting House, he would have seen it much as it looks from the outside today: The wall along The Leys enclosing it; and behind, the stone front of the then almost new 1751 meeting room, facing Horsefair. And as you stand in the old meeting room, these are the same walls which witnessed his ministry to the meeting in Banbury that day.

We have no detailed account of what John Woolman said in Banbury. What was noted in the minutes was that, ‘it was a precious meeting’. Though from what he had said before, we can hazard a guess.

Banburyshire’s Radical History: ‘Banbury Quaker Meeting’s 1751 meeting room’, 27th July 2022
Banbury Quaker Meeting’s 1751 meeting room.
Banburyshire’s Radical History: ‘The entrance to the meeting room where John Woolman visited’, 27th July 2022
The entrance to the meeting room where John Woolman visited.
Banburyshire’s Radical History: ‘A painting of the meeting room in the early 20th Century, by Marjory Lester’, 27th July 2022
A painting of the meeting room in the early 20th Century, by Marjory Lester (on the wall of the hallway near the door).
Banburyshire’s Radical History: ‘The view from the Elder’s benches’, 27th July 2022
The view from the Elder’s benches.

Even by Quaker standards, John Woolman can be considered truly ‘radical’:

In the Colonies he had travelled around meetings and markets to oppose the evils of slavery, just as the plantation system was beginning to dominate the economy there.

As he wrote in his pamphlet of 1753:

“Man is born to labour, and experience abundantly shows that it is for our good: but where the powerful lay the burden on the inferior, without affording a Christian education, and suitable opportunity of improving the mind, and a treatment which we, in their case, should approve... this seems to contradict the design of Providence, and, I doubt not, is sometimes the effect of a perverted mind; for while the life of one is made grievous by the rigour of another, it entails misery on both.”

{‘Considerations on the keeping of Negroes’, 1753}

John Woolman’s influence upon Quakers in the colonies, and his walk around England in 1772, no doubt played a role in stirring the debate over slavery – just as it was beginning to be taken seriously. Only a few days before John Woolman arrived in Banbury, echoing Woolman’s message, the British courts had declared:

“The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law... It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.”

{Lord Mansfield’s verdict in the case Somerset v Stewart, 1772 – the term ‘positive law’ means that there must be a specific law which makes the enslavement of certain people, and not others, legal; and since no such law existed slavery could not be permitted on the British mainland}

It would still be another 62 years before slavery was formerly ended in the British Empire. And only then after slave owners were paid £20 million in compensation, the equivalent of £17 billion today – a British government debt which was not paid-off until 2017. Meaning that most British adults today have each paid compensation to slave-owners via their taxes.

In an era of expanding trade and the pursuit of wealth, echoing many aspects of the ecological debate today, John Woolman advocated a simple life. His clothes, which many remarked were plain or drab, were an outward sign of his rejection of what we would call today, ‘consumerism’.

As he wrote in 1763:

“Wealth desired for its own sake obstructs the increase of virtue, and large possessions in the hands of selfish men have a bad tendency; for by their means too small a number of people are employed in useful things, and some of them are necessitated to labour too hard... which, having no real usefulness, serve only to please the vain mind.”

{‘A Plea for the Poor’, 1763}

Banburyshire’s Radical History: ‘Banbury Quaker Meeting’s main meeting room’, 27th July 2022
Banbury Quaker Meeting’s main meeting room today. At the time of Woolman’s visit this was the Women’s Meeting Room, built in the 1680s.

In a time when such practices were not even questioned, Woolman was a vegetarian, because he objected to the treatment of farmed livestock. Many of his other ideas on what constituted a ‘truthful’ life would still be considered radical today, prefiguring what is now called, ‘voluntary simplicity’:

“My mind, through the power of truth, was in a good degree weaned from the desire of outward greatness, and I was learning to be content with real conveniences, that were not costly, so that a way of life free from much entanglement appeared best for me, though the income might be small.”

{‘Journal of John Woolman’, Ch. 2, 1743-48}

At a time when European states were beginning to battle over the spoils of empires, John Woolman felt the need to act beyond the traditional bounds of the Quaker ‘Peace Testimony’; advocating both conscientious objection, and refusal to pay taxes which might fund conflict – both positions which, again, would not become a major focus of action by the peace movement for well-over a century.

As he wrote in 1755:

“I believed that there were some upright-hearted men who paid such taxes, yet could not see that their example was a sufficient reason for me to do so, while I believe that the spirit of truth required of me, as an individual, to suffer patiently the distress of goods, rather than pay actively. To refuse the active payment of a tax which our Society generally paid was exceedingly disagreeable; but to do a thing contrary to my conscience appeared yet more dreadful.”

{Epistle to the Yearly Meeting in Philadelphia, 1755}

Even though he travelled far, towards the end of his life he began to refuse the use of a horse, or take a carriage. He objected to the harsh treatment of animals in the pursuit of an ever-faster world:

“Stage-coaches frequently go upwards of one hundred miles in twenty-four hours; and I have heard Friends say in several places that it is common for horses to be killed with hard driving... So great is the hurry in the spirit of this world, that in aiming to do business quickly and to gain wealth the Creation at this day doth loudly groan.”

{‘Jounal of John Woolman’, 16th of 8th month, 1772}

Banburyshire’s Radical History: ‘Shipston on Stour Quaker Meeting House (now town library)’, 22nd October 2015
Shipston on Stour Quaker Meeting House (now the town’s library, but still owned by the local Quakers).

John Woolman left Banbury on the 29th or 30th of June, following what was then ‘Ogilby’s Road’ which bares little relation to the modern B-road today. On 1st July he attending the meeting house in Shipston on Stour, the building that today houses the town’s library.

From there, Woolman turned north once again, through Warwick and Coventry, arriving in Birmingham on the 17th July. Following along the Trent valley he arrived in Nottingham on the 26th, and then took a circuitous route via smaller Quaker meetings until he arrived in Sheffield on the 2nd August.

From Sheffield he would travel through the heart of what was still not the fully developed ‘industrial’ Yorkshire – which William Wordsworth would rail against when he came this way only thirty or so years later. Following the Ribble and Lune valleys, he made his way to Quaker meetings at Settle on the 16th of August, then via Lancaster, to Preston Patrick on the 23rd August.

Banburyshire’s Radical History: ‘Countersett Quaker Meeting House’, 2011
Countersett Quaker Meeting House – one of the most beautiful meeting houses I visited following Woolman’s route across the Pennines to York in 2011.

At this point he starts to become ill, and his pace slows. Via Greyrigg, he crossed the Pennines into Wensleydale, to the lovely meeting house at Countersett, and then on to Leyburn by the 13th September. Then crossing the Vale of York to Thirsk, he arrived in York for the meeting there on the 22nd September.

A day or so later Woolman was taken ill. He had contracted smallpox, quite probably from a meeting some days before. He died on the 7th October 1772, and was laid to rest in the Bishophill Quaker burial ground two days later.

Banburyshire’s Radical History: ‘John Woolman’s headstone in Bishophill Quaker burial ground, York’, 2011
John Woolman’s headstone in Bishophill Quaker burial ground, York.

Some have called John Woolman the ‘quintessential Quaker’. His words are still challenging for many today; and certainly, that he chose to actively live those ideals in his daily life was unsettling to many then too. But that is probably John Woolman’s most important challenge to us today: “To distinguish the language of the pure Spirit which inwardly moves upon the heart.”

Two-hundred and fifty years after John Woolman travelled to give his ministry here, everyone is still welcome to attend Quaker meetings in Banbury – at ten-thirty on Sunday mornings.

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