The Society of Friends in Leighton Buzzard
The Friends' Meeting House in 1969 [Z50/72/2]
In the early eighteenth century the Bishop of Lincoln made a number of visitations to the county. For each of these the local clergyman had to complete a questionnarie enquiring about a number of things, including those not of the Church of England. Returns for 1706, 1709, 1717 and 1720 mention Quakers in Leighton Buzzard. The return of 1706 noted just one Quaker, that of 1709 "some Quakers". In 1717 no Quakers were specifically mentioned and in 1720 just a single woman was noted as being a Quaker. Not surprisingy, with such small numbers, no meetings are recorded
Former County Archivist Joyce Godber, herself a member of the Society of Friends (more commonly called Quakers) wrote Friends in Bedfordshire and West Hertfordshire in 1975. This article is based on her book and on the sources at Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service, listed below.
The first record of a Quaker meeting in Leighton Buzzard is in 1761 when the house of Joseph Brook was registered with Quarter Sessions [QSP43/3]. Registration bought the benefit of exemption from parish poor rates, exemption from control by the Charity Commission and the right to be licensed to carry out marriages. Brook was a Yorkshire woolstapler. In 1773 it was decided to hold the next meeting to be held at the Hogsty End [Woburn Sands, Buckinghamshire] meeting at Brooks' house in Leighton instead "from a belief that many are truly convinced of our principles at Leighton Buzzard who are not in circumstances to attend this meeting". From then on both a Sunday (called First Day by Quakers) and weekday meeting were held in Leighton. Brooks' wife, Mary, wrote a Quaker book called Silent Waiting which went through a number of editions.
The present meeting was registered on 15th April 1789 as a "newly erected building called the Meeting House near the Alms Houses at the North End" by Joseph Brook, Benjamin Reeve, Peter Bassett and John Grant [QSR1789/3]. The building was provided by John Grant, Leighton Monthly Meeting clerk. In 1800 he decided to give the meeting to the Leighton Buzzard Friends, together with adjoining tenements. As it happened this conveyance was not made until 1844 by his widow Hannah. The strength of Quakerism at this time can be gauged by the Anglican Steward of the Manor of Leighton alias Grovebury, writing on the subject of the market tolls dispute: "I am surrounded by Quakers, dissenters, and radicals of the worst kind…I am almost alone…as church and king man". One of the main offenders as a non-payer in 1839 was John Grant, then aged 84 [KK918/3].
Interior of the Friends' Meeting House in 1969 [Z50/72/3]
Joyce Godber notes that membership of a meeting was not necessarily an easy thing to achieve and quotes the case of Samuel Middleton of Leighton Buzzard who: "had attended for "a considerable time" before applying, four years to achieve membership. He applied in the Spring of 1821; he had hesitated because he "did not wish to press forward unduly". The Monthly Meeting did nor "see its way clear for any immediate proceeding". At last in December 1805 he was accepted, but even then with some head-shakings: he and his wife were apparently not very articulate - they did not "express much" in approval of Friends' principles and doctrines; "yet your committee consider that conformity to practice and that consistency so generally observed in their conduct are strong indications"".
In 1813 the Quakers established a Lancasterian or British School in the town as part of compassion for the community in action. Similarly in 1835 Leighton Monthly Meeting subscribed £5 and in 1839 £12 to assist American Quakers in helping runaway slaves from the southern plantations. A number of prominent Friends in Leighton Buzzard were bankers such as the Bassett and Harris families.
On Sunday 30th March 1851 a census of all churches, chapels and preaching-houses of every denomination was undertaken in England and Wales. The local results were published by Bedfordshire Historical Records Society in 1975 as Volume 54, edited by D.W.Bushby. The return for the Quakers was made by Benjamin B.Wiffen of Aspley Guise, who recorded that the meeting could hold 182 – 31 attended in the morning and 22 in the evening.
The Society of Friends continues to meet in the 18th century meeting house in North Street.
Quaker Meeting in North Street June 2008
- QSP43/3: registration of Leighton Buzzard meeting at the house of Joseph Brooks: 1761;
- QSR1789/3: Registration of the meeting house: 1789;
- Fr28/1/5: copy of Leighton Buzzard list of burials: 1809-2000;
- KK913/3: letter from John Grant, Quaker, about non-payment of market tolls: 1835;
- KK918/3: Quaker John Grant described as: one of the most Jesuitical fellows that can be": 1835;
- FR28/1/1: Leighton Buzzard meeting burial ground plan: c.1844;
- FR15/1/1/1-4: Leighton Buzzard Preparative Meeting men's minutes: 1850-1954;
- FR15/2/2/1: Leighton Buzzard Preparative Meeting women's minutes: 1850-1869;
- FR28/1/2: Leighton Buzzard meeting burial ground plan: 1867;
- FR15/11/3/1: Leighton Buzzard Preparative Meeting borrowers landing book: 1870-1956;
- FR15/11/4/1: Leighton Buzzard Preparative Meeting borrowers books: 1870-1957;
- FR28/1/3: Leighton Buzzard meeting burial ground plan: c.1875-1953;
- NC/T/100: copy court roll on admission of new trustees to the meeting house: 1880;
- Z525/198-199: photographs: pre 1890;
- FR15/2/1/1: Leighton Buzzard Preparative Meeting ministry and oversight minutes: 1899-1913;
- FR15/4/1/1: Leighton Buzzard Preparative Meeting general accounts: 1909-1919
- FR28/1/4: Leighton Buzzard meeting burial ground plan: 1953;
- SS/HD1/2/12: use of the meeting gardens for the "old, infirm and blind": 1967;
- Z50/72/2-3: exterior photographs: 1969
- Z54/59a: interior photograph: 1969