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350 years Of Quakers in Neath & Swansea

How Did Quakerism Begin?
Quakerism grew directly out of the Revolution of 1640 to1649. The Revolution had freed up numerous 'ordinary' men and women from the constraints and control of the old feudal state.
The Revolutionary years and the excitement of radical change (the armed challenge to and the eventual overthrowing of the English monarchy) allowed an unprecedented freedom of thought and expression among the masses of people in cities, towns and in the countryside.

Alongside the political and military revolution there was also an information and religious revolution; books were being published and more people were learning to read. In 1588 the first translation of the Welsh Bible was published; a revised version was published in 1630 - the so-called "Crown Bible", because it cost a crown (five shillings or 25p in current money). This of course was a large sum of money in the 17th-century, but people were very keen to acquire knowledge and with knowledge came questions and new ways of thinking. During the time of George Fox, the Geneva Bible (1599) and the King James Bible (1611) would also have been available in English.

Some people started to believe that each person could communicate directly with God, without the need for a Priest, who was State appointed. Those who accepted this way of thinking were empowered to challenge local or national authority, for they claimed to be acting under the direction of God ("doing God's work") and therefore answerable to a higher power than the King, local Lord, magistrate or General.

During the Revolution and after it, many people in Britain formed themselves into numerous radical groups; among them were the Puritans, Ranters, Fifth Monarchists, Diggers, Seekers, Baptists, Unitarians and Quakers (originally called "Friends"; later the "Society of Friends"; more recently the "Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)").


The Quaker Movement
George Fox founded the Quaker movement in the mid-17th century. But how did Quakers get their name?

The term "Quaker" refers to a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers call themselves "Friends"). There are two reputed origins of the term "Quaker":

1. "Quakers" refers to Friends trembling or "quaking" when feeling moved to speak by the Holy Spirit. George Fox described Quakers as a people who fear and "tremble at the word of God".

2. "Quakers" refers to a term which may have been coined by Justice Bennet. George Fox was arrested in Derby in October 1650, where we was charged with blasphemy. The magistrates, Justice Gervase Bennet and Colonel Nathaniel Barton, questioned George Fox intermittently over an eight hour period, during which George Fox told the magistrates to "Tremble at the word of the Lord".  

The early Quakers certainly included a number of excitable non-conformists; but the true Quakers, especially those of later years, were of the 'quietist' mould and conducted services in quiet meditation, with no set prayers, sermons or music. 

George Fox was reluctant to start a new Church, his idea was to try and transform the existing structures to more accurately follow Jesus Christ teachings.
George Fox and his followers argued that based on the teachings of Peter in (Acts 2 & 3), for an egalitarian, spirit-filled Christianity that would not be oppressive of people on account of race, sex, or class. 

Like many Christians then and now, Fox believed that the "church" had lost its way when it became institutionalised in either Catholicism or Anglicanism. Fox challenged the existing hierarchical nature of authority in the church. Some today would say the same, as businesses all over the world begin to understand the severe limitations of a command and control hierarchy in their operations.

Fox emphasized the personal nature of the relationship of an individual with God and Christ. He believed that everyone could play a role in the Church ministry. Some Friends (as Quakers call themselves) acknowledge that the Bible is the word of God, but not the final word. They believe that God inspires people through his Holy Spirit to create words that can move others in their spiritual journey with God.

Even back in the 17th century the Quakers treated men and women as equals; it took the rest of Christendom until the early 20th century to start to recognize this. As, in the eyes of Friends, all of us are equal before God, so there is no point in any Friend trying to achieve honours amongst equals; this encourages Friends to live a simple life.

Friends believe that if they wait silently upon God there will be times when God will speak to them in the heart. They therefore hold the "Silent Meeting of Friends" to be a sacrament just as much as activities such as Communion.

A cornerstone of Quaker belief is that "belief" is a subjective experiencing of God for oneself. This acceptance that everyone is responsible for their own relationship with God leads Friends onto the concept that they must always, whatever they are doing, be living in relationship with God. God is for life, not just Sundays.

There are many major spin-offs from accepting the Quaker belief system. Because of the belief that God is within us all (the "Light" within) then it makes no sense for people to fight or kill one another. This is a major principle of Quaker belief.

Quakers are not afraid to embrace ideas from other sources than the Bible. Many ideas from, for example, Eastern religions, psychology and scientific research have been explored and integrated where appropriate. Having said this, most Friends still hold that Jesus Christ is central to their faith.

Following the execution of King Charles the First, there was a sudden increase of printing presses and freethinkers of all kinds where spreading information. By 1652, 'Quakerism', was formed. For five years or so before this time George Fox had been preaching throughout the country. During this period he had been imprisoned in Derby jail on a charge of blasphemy. He had also been imprisoned at Nottingham for interrupting a church service. From 1652 the numbers of people who claimed to be Quakers mushroomed. George Fox tapped into the popular resentment against the authority of state church. George Fox, like many, preached that there was only one authority, Jesus Christ, and that everyone could discover Christ within his or her own heart.

He said, "Christ has come to teach his people himself'. Today this may not seem too radical but in the 1650s, after eight years of Revolutionary War, which saw people exert their will over the authority of the State and its Church, this slogan was a liberating call. This challenge to State authority under the Commonwealth was to lead to numerous Quakers being imprisoned. Their self-belief marked them out for persecution. Every part of the State's machine was used against them; magistrates, judges, prison wardens and the clergy. They were often charged with the crimes of blasphemy and disturbing the peace. Despite this harassment, by 1660 there were over 40,000 Quakers in Britain and by 1700 perhaps as many as 60,000. 


Early Quakerism in Neath and Swansea
The first Quaker preacher in South Wales was John ap John. In 1653 John arrived in West Glamorgan. In Swansea he challenged the authority of a Church of England priest in the "steeple house" - a word used by Quakers to mean a church. The Priest and his colleagues demanded that the devil be whipped out of him and dragged John off to the magistrates. John ap John was the first local Quaker to suffer imprisonment but many more were to follow.

Many Church of England Priests spoke out against Quakerism, but some welcomed them. When George Fox visited Swansea in 1657, he found sufficient Friends to form a Quaker Meeting and, despite intermittent and persecution, the Quakers continued to flourish in many parts of West Glamorgan.

In 1658, two Quaker women Elizabeth Holmes and Alice Birkett visited Swansea, but soon found themselves in prison. The Quakers were centuries before their time as far as women preachers were concerned - some religious denominations have still not caught up!

Quakers were political as well as religious. George Fox met with Oliver Cromwell frequently between 1656 and 1668. Members of the Society of Friends were fearless in their opposition to control over their Meetings for Worship by the State. But with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, they now entered a period of counter-revolution.
The small free presses independent of State control ended. Direct action and involvement in political affairs was ruthlessly persecution. In 1661, the Corporation Act prevented Quakers from holding public office and following an apprenticed trade.

The Quaker Act (1662) required subjects to swear an oath of allegiance to the king (which Quakers would not do) and the Act of Uniformity 1662 prescribed the forms of public worship to those specified in the Book of Common Prayer and required the ordination of ministers. It was not possible to hold any office in government or the church without adhering to this Act.

Quakers refused to swear oaths (saying that their word alone was good enough) which led to them being open to punitive fines. Laws forbade them from recovering debts, administering estates or taking up the freedom of cities. As 'non-freemen' they were not allowed to carry out trade. In 1664 the State passed a law, which said that no more than four people could meet in any one house for worship. Anyone breaking this law faced imprisonment. Quakers, and other non-conformist, were caught under this Act. However there were occasions where juries refused to persecute their neighbours and when Quakers were sentenced to transportation to North America, West Indies etc. sailors refused to carry them.

In 1670 another law was passed which excluded Quakers from their Meeting Houses. In 1673 the Test Act was passed which obliged all people of England and Wales to take Oath and Communion according to the Church of England. Then followed a mass round up of non-conformist; thousands of people were affected. Quaker Meeting Houses where closed down and Friends pursued and harassed by officers at every level. Unable to meet in their own Meeting Houses and Chapels these congregations went out into the countryside. People attending these unlawful gatherings were too great for the local prisons and there are records of prisoners dying of suffocation. Quakers who were imprisoned were known to have married inside the jail and used their prison as a place of worship. Often their children, left alone, organised their own Meetings for Worship, for which they were flogged and put in the stocks. Trained bands of State hooligans went around South Wales damaging Quaker buildings, closing down their shops and nailing up their doors and windows. Quakers meeting in the open suffered a torrent of abuse and missiles.

The sufferings of Friends were minutely recorded by many Quaker writers, notably Joseph Besse and Francis Gawler; and horrendous reading they make, with every kind of punishment detailed. Between 1650 and before the 1689 Toleration Act was introduced, some 14,000 Quakers suffered in various ways.
The story is illumined by the tremendous courage and dignity shown by the Friends generally during this dark time and their doctrine of non-resistance based on Christian principles was cruelly exploited by their persecutors. With the accession of William and Mary, in February 1689, came the Toleration Act, which damped down the fires of persecution.

America's Gain is Britainís Loss
Many believe that persecution aids the cause that it attacks; this is illustrated by the fact that it encouraged Quakers in their teaching of Christian principles. But it also led them to seek freedom for worship in the Quaker colony established by William Penn, who was of Welsh extraction. His ancestors came from Anglesey and went to England with Owen Tudor. The Welsh were the largest force to arrive in Pennsylvania in 1682 and they purchased from William Penn a "Barony" of 40,000 acres, now a beautiful suburb of Philadelphia. Here, and in many other American States, the Quakers took a prominent part in local administration, an opportunity that was denied them in their own country. This emigration, however, dealt a blow to the Quaker movement, from which it never really recovered, for many young energetic and dedicated Friends were lost to the cause here in Britain.

After this persecution, Quakerism turned largely in upon itself and the 'quietist' character became more pronounced. By the middle of the Eighteenth Century a more outward looking attitude had shown itself in the changed atmosphere, for by then persecution had practically ceased. Quaker beliefs could be expressed in commercial involvements.

In Swansea the Bevan family provided the backbone to the movement. Sylvanus {a son of William Bevan) had become involved in many business activities. Between 1748 and 1787 there was much activity in the Quaker cause, but then came a marked decline towards the end of the century. This was the time when, in Neath, the Society of Friends became a flourishing community. They were asked by the Yearly Meeting to lend a helping hand to the Friends at Swansea. Between these two towns there was always to be a close connection, alternate Monthly Meetings being held in the two places.

Neath Quaker Meeting House
On the North boundary of Neath Castle is a building of late Georgian style - Neath Quaker Meeting House. It is one of Neath's most interesting buildings, because it is one of the very few remaining Meeting Houses erected by the Quakers in this country still standing and in regular use.

One Neath Quaker, Thomas Roberts, kept an ironmonger's shop on the site that is now the Working Men's Social Club. In 1770, he left a legacy of £40 to the Quaker cause in Neath and Swansea.

Another leading Friend to emerge in Neath was Evan Rees, who had joined Thomas Roberts in the ironmongery business. He was held in the highest esteem in all Quaker circles in the county. Minutes of all Meetings of the Society were carefully recorded, and 1759 Quakers where strong enough to hold a Yearly Meeting for Wales in Neath in which all Quakers in Wales were represented. The Society in Neath continued to grow and Richard Harford, ironmaster and clerk of the Yearly Meetings for Wales, expressed his pleasure at this in a letter to Evan Rees referring to the new influx of members from Cornwall in 1792. Cornwall had been a stronghold of Quakerism since the first missionary efforts of George Fox. Some time before 1790, copper ore merchants and tin smelters became part of the industrial scene there and in 1791, George Croker Fox founded an iron foundry near Falmouth next to the tin melting shop owned by him. In 1792, the company decided to build a second foundry at Neath where there were supplies of coal and iron ore and local skilled labour.

An existing iron works on the banks of the River Neath, owned by Richard Parsons, was taken over. Two furnaces were established in 1793, powered by a Boulton Watts double steam engine. The first iron master at Neath Abbey was William Wood. Coal came from mines in the vicinity and iron ore from Glynneath.

In 1800, Peter Price took over from William Wood and he had extensive experience, in Pennsylvania and Maryland, of furnace construction.
In 1781, he married Anna, daughter of Samuel Tregelles of Falmouth, and joined the Fox Company in Neath Abbey where an experienced man was needed. Large-scale production of engines began in 1806 and William Kirkhouse, the Cadoxton engineer sunk a deep coal pit for the Quaker company.

During his stay in America, Peter Price had met William Dillwyn, the Pennsylvanian Quaker, whose ancestors had emigrated from Brecon during the Restoration persecution. He later settled down in Swansea where the Dillwyn family became prominent in industrial and political activities.

The Society of Friends in Neath received new blood from the Cornish Quaker industrialists and in 1799 at a Half-Yearling Meeting, it was decided to appoint trustees to prepare deeds for the conveyance of land to the Society to build a new Meeting House with a burial ground. The land was part of the Castle grounds and was donated by Molly Leigh, the widow of Sir Robert Mackworth and now the wife of Capel Hanbury Leigh, the Pontypool industrialist of Quaker family background.
Molly Leigh herself came from Quaker stock, being the daughter of Nathaniel Miers, the proprietor of a tinplate works.

The new Meeting House was completed in 1800.

Wall Plaque Of Neath Meeting House


Quaker Commerce
Local Quakers opened a bank, which operated in the town in the Nineteenth Century. In 1898, it was taken over by the "Capital and County Bank" which in turn was absorbed by Lloyds Bank in 1918, a bank that was founded by a Quaker family, now Lloyds TSB.

Intermarriage was traditional amongst Quakers and the Eatons and Bevans were no exception. A descendant of Robert Eaton was a partner in the Briton Ferry engineering firm of Taylor, Struve and Eaton. Robert died in 1916.

Joseph Price was one of the most outstanding personalities in the Neath area in the Eighteenth century, both in industry and in matters of social reform, embodying more than any other the traditional attitudes of Quakers. He lived from 1784 to 1854, the eldest of the ten children of Peter and Anna Price. At the age of 14, he was taken from the Quaker boarding school by his father who evidently regarded him as mature enough to enter the industrial undertaking at Neath Abbey, where engine production had become firmly established during the period 1800-1810.

In 1810, Joseph Price was placed in charge of some small coalmines in the area, but he soon became involved in the iron works.
When in 1817, the works came up for sale, Joseph Tregelles and his brother Henry Habberly Price, Alfred Fox and Thomas Fox, took over two blast furnaces, a boring mill and a site for a rolling mill.

By 1840, there had been rapid developments in shipbuilding.

A copper works was converted in 1824 for the production of boilers for the Company's steam ships; and a dry dock was constructed as an extension to the shipping facilities. A year later, a forge and rolling mill were added.

The Neath Abbey Iron Company iron works opened at Glynneath in 1840, consisting of three blast furnaces. The mastermind behind the company's undertakings was Joseph Price. He was a perfectionist in the characteristic Quaker mould. The high quality of precision engineering at the Abbey works won acclaim throughout Britain. Beam engines built there were the best in the country, as early as 1820, the largest and most powerful steam engines ever built were constructed at the Abbey works for the Cornish mines. By 1850, the company's products found their way to Europe, India and Mexico. The Abbey works made the first iron ship to round Cape Horn and some of the largest ships made in Britain were being constructed in the Neath area. Railway locomotives became another feature of the extraordinary success story of the Abbey Works. Built in 1831 was the first locomotive in the world with pivoted bogies.

Despite the impressive achievements of the Abbey works, it was the deliberate policy of the Quaker proprietors not to develop it into a large concern. Quality of goods to them was more important than size, and large undertakings entailed greater risk, which was anathema to Quaker prudence.
Even more significant was the fact that unlike other ironmasters in South Wales, they did not make a small fortune by casting or boring cannon for warfare. As Christian pacifists, they were dedicated to promoting peace. The quality and durability of their machines is no better illustrated than by a tribute in The Western Mail of May 30th 1923, which recorded that machines made in the Abbey works in 1845 were still operating efficiently at a Forest of Dean Colliery in their original state.

Another Quaker family who directed their energies in commercial activities in Neath were the Redwoods; in particular, Isaac Redwood who, besides being prominent in the religious activities of the Society of Friends
, became involved in colliery and leather-making. Isaac was the son of Thomas Redwood who ran a Quaker boarding school. Around 1850 he built a tannery in Bridge Street, a white six-storey building which was a Neath landmark before it was demolished in the early 1950s. The tanning of leather was a lengthy and highly complex chemical process demanding great skill. Redwood, in true Quaker tradition, set very high standards in leather making. His products were known for their excellent quality and were sold in all parts of the country.

Following the Quaker custom of intermarriage, Isaac Redwood, married Lydia, daughter of Peter Price, and he became associated with the Price's colliery. It was when Redwood died in 1873 that the Abbey Coal Company was sold to Scott and Butters of London. The surviving partners were six members of the Fox family, three Prices, four members of the Waring family, J. H. Rowland and Bevington Gibbins.

The Gibbins family played a great part in the industrial and social life of Neath. Like the Fox and Tregelles families they had their roots in the Quaker stronghold of Cornwall.
A notable ancestor was Nicholas Gibbins who died in 1694 for refusing to pay tithes and church rates; he was imprisoned for ten years from 1662 to 1672 in a cell which is known to this day as the Quaker's Cell.

Church rates were abolished by legislation in 1866 and tithes had ceased to be a major problem at around the same time.
Joseph Gibbins bought a Chemical works and entered partnership with Dr Plumbe; they made the first sulphuric acid for tinplate production.

What is evident is that the challenge of the Industrial Revolution was met with flair and expertise by Quaker industrialists in Neath.


Education and Schools
In like manner they responded to the social and moral problems of the age. The Quaker attitude to education illustrates this well.
Peter Price was described in his obituary as a faithful member of the Society of Friends
and distinguished by many acts of charity for the relief of the poor.
He built a works school at Neath Abbey and, after his death in 1821, the work of the developing the school was taken up by his son.

Quakers helped to start the Neath County Intermediate School when it was established in 1896 and a member of other schools in the area.

Quakers had many Friends boarding schools for their own children, but they now began to encourage state education for all children, and played a notable part in the passing of the 1870 Education act.

After the 1832 Reform Act they were no longer restricted in participation in public service and by 1835, the first Quaker MP was elected to the Commons.


Universal Peace
The Society of Friends
was particularly dedicated to the cause of peace. A peace Society was formed in 1816. Tregelles Price was elected President. The Secretary was a young man, Evan Rees, son of Evan Rees the ironmonger and prominent Neath Quaker. The Society was designated 'The Society for the Promotion of Permanent and Universal Peace'.
The co-operation of everyone was sought so that the whole human race might be involved. In 1817, a branch of the Peace Society was formed in Neath.

Nothing could be more ironic than that these idealistic men should have founded a movement which pre-dated the League of Nations by over a century, yet they were not thought fit to enter university until 1871, when Oxford and Cambridge relaxed the acceptance of the Thirty-Nine Articles as a condition of entry.

Many attempts were made to propagate peace and prevent war. In 1853, Tregelles Price chaired a meeting at Neath to protest against the Crimean war, but was accused by part of the audience of insulting the Queen by such a protest. A German band playing in the street outside was invited in and the meeting ended with the audience dancing the polka; by which time Price had, understandably, left the meeting in disgust. The outbreak of the Crimean War depressed him greatly.

Ever since 1661, when the Society of Friends
presented a petition to King Charles the Second 'from the Harmless and Innocent People of God called Quakers' who denounced all forms of violence, the Society had addressed petitions to State authorities to ban war as a method of settling disputes.

It had, for instance, sent a deputation to the Tsar before the outbreak of the Crimean war, and the Boer war had engendered strong protests from Quakers in Britain and America. The Society was associated with various world organisations connected with peace. In the William Penn House in London, and the Quaker House in New York, delegates from U.N.O. meet informally to discuss with Friends problems involving such matters as disarmament.

The Society of Friends
' enjoys observer status in all U.N.O. meetings and has many influential contacts behind the scenes. Possibly one of its proudest moments was when the department for Peace Studies was opened at Bradford University in 1973. A Quaker had initiated it the idea and half the necessary funds had been donated by the Society; the first Professor appointed to the chair was a Quaker.

Quakers encouraged the activities of many others. It is worth recalling the fact that Mrs. Dorothy Coombe-Tenant of Cadoxton Lodge was the first woman to be appointed by the British government as a delegate to the League of Nations and was the first woman to address the Assembly.

Several members of the Gibbins family took prominent parts in many spheres of public life. Frederick Joseph Gibbins travelled widely as a Quaker Minister and encouraged the activities of many other religious organisations.
Quakers were always ready to co-operate with other Religious groups.

Towards the end of the 18th century there was actually an increase in membership. A library was set up and several classes for young people were established. The fortunes of the Cardiff Quakers showed signs of revival, as did Swansea; Roger Beck was responsible for a similar revival in more recent times.


Temperance
Temperance was an important factor in local politics during 1850, when Neath became the centre of the activities of the Total Abstinence Society. This was mainly due to Quakers such as James Kenway, who made history by becoming Mayor and Chief Magistrate in 1859.

Convinced that drink rather than money was the root of all evil, Kenway convicted many of drunkenness; two frequent offenders were local Neath prostitutes who were associated with a flourishing brothel in Duck Street. In the late 1860's, temperance ceased to be an issue as popular opinion was constantly moving against it. The 'New Party' in the Town Council was successful in elections, mainly because it was anti-temperance stance.


Quakers Today
Quakers have always faced up to the social and moral problems of the time; they believe the exploitation of any king is immoral.
In every act there must be caring and compassion; we must all try to make the world a better place. It is not claimed that an answer can be given to every problem, but Quakers believe that Christianity is a developing process and through prayer and the search for true answers, we can help to do Gods work.

In the census of the Neath area in1851, the percentage of Quakers of all those attending a place of worship was only 3.7%.
The Independents led the way with 38.1 %, followed by the Anglicans with 15.7%. The other dissenters were the Methodists (13.7%), Baptists (13%) and Wesleyans (11 %). Out of a population of 5,770, no less than 4,560 attended some place of worship; that's 78% compared with todays national figure of below 3%.

Despite its small membership, the Society of Friends
played a dominant part in the economic and social life of the Neath, out of all proportion to its numbers. The Society continued in a healthy state up to the 1930s but in more recent times has declined. 

We are happy to add that the Quaker Meeting House in Neath is still open to the public. Meetings are held several times each month for our small but thriving community of Friends (Quakers). Please come and join us at our next unprogrammed Meeting for Worship.