Our History: People and Place

Our History: People and Place

Members of the Society of Friends (better known as Quakers) have been living and worshipping in Hammersmith since 1658 when Hammersmith and Chiswick were farming villages. The Quakers had begun spreading their form of Christianity in the North of England a few years earlier. George Fox, the Quakers’ founder, taught that all men and women possess an inward light that can lead them to the Truth. People seeking God, he said, can follow this inner prompting and do not need church ministers – a view highly unpopular with religious authorities and the state.

"Twelve Quakers quite still": A mid or late seventeenth century woodcut of a Meeting for Worship.  They are sitting on benches.  The men have on stereotypical late seventeenth-century Quaker hats.  In the background the windows are made of numerous leaded small panes of glass.

“Twelve Quakers quite still”

Nothing daunted, Fox and his followers travelled south to spread the word. One of their converts was Sarah Blackborow (or Blackberry), who came to Hammersmith from the City of London and persuaded a local woman named Hester Matson to hold a Quaker meeting in the Matsons’ cottage.  Hester’s husband heard negative reports of Quakers from his workmates and forbade any more meetings. The Quakers moved to the house of William Bond in Chiswick and shortly afterwards to a place halfway between Chiswick and Hammersmith. During this time and for decades to come, hundreds of Quakers were jailed as dissenters against the Church of England.  Sarah Blackborow and other Quaker women visited and nursed their comrades in jail and established an enduring Quaker commitment to prison care and reform.

In 1677, nineteen years after their first gathering, the Quakers of Hammersmith built their first Meeting House at 28 Lower Mall, on the site that is now part of Furnivall Gardens. A tributary of the Thames known as Hammersmith Creek ran through this area. The Meeting House stood among a network of narrow alleyways close to the High Bridge that used to cross the creek. Hammersmith Creek was filled in 1936 and the water, which is fed by Stamford Brook, diverted into a drain that now carries it underneath the Town Hall.

In the early 18th century Quaker activity in Hammersmith fell away, but the 1760s saw a national revival during which time, part of the Meeting House was rebuilt (1765), its garden was planted with mulberry and walnut trees as was its burial ground – part of which is under the A4 today.

When the next major Quaker revival in the 1870s occurred,  once rural Hammersmith had become a suburb of London. The narrow streets around the Meeting House were home to urban workers and their families living in overcrowded and often squalid conditions. The Quakers became a hub of vital support for this community.  They opened ‘First-day’ (Sunday) schools for children and adults and held Mothers’ Meetings and social evenings.

Garden of Rest,Furnival  Gardens. The outline of the old Meeting House is preserved by the remains of the external walls. These stand about a yard tall. The shot has been taken looking into the area through the open gates.

Garden of Rest

In the late 1800s and early 1900s there were also links between Quakers and flourishing local the artistic riverside community.  Author, artist and social activist William Morris lived a few hundred yards from the Meeting House in Kelmscott House – where he set his romance News from Nowhere. Morris’s father had been a partner in a Quaker firm of discount-brokers and William grew up in Walthamstow playing with local Quaker children. Edward Johnston (1872-1914), father of modern calligraphy was for a time a member of the Hammersmith Quaker Meeting. Johnston designed a sans-serif typeface for London Transport that was used for decades on London Underground posters and signs as well as the classic Underground ‘rondel’.

The 18th-century Meeting House remained in use up to 24 July 1944 when it was destroyed by a flying bomb. Immediately a place to worship was offered by Rev. J.E. Bolam of Rivercourt  Methodist Church where Friends held meeting for worship for eleven years and where a plaque commemorating this can be seen. Quakers had hoped to rebuild a new meeting on the original site,  but agreed with Hammersmith Borough Council – who was planning a new Furnivall Gardens for the Festival of Britain  –  to surrender  their old site  ‘…spiritually representing the needs and common good of the neighbourhood and in doing so bear witness to our Quaker faith.’ It was to be set physically aside from the new garden and serve as a Garden of Rest, where it remains  today.

A hand-drawn diagram of the present Meeting House.  There are three principal differences from what was actually built.  The Meeting Room entrance is by the door to the kitchen, the Young People's Room does not have access to the lobby, so that it would have entered from either the Meeting Room or the kitchen, and the genders have separate cloakrooms.  The women's one is where the storeroom now is.

The 1955-2016 Meeting House

The third and current Meeting House, designed by Quaker architect Hubert Lidbetter who also designed Friends House on Euston Road, was opened on 23 October 1955. The Meeting Room was designed according to the classical 17th and 18 century style with pine wainscoting and a raised ‘Elder’s Bench’. The Meeting House stands across the A4, nearly adjacent to and several hundred from the site of the old Meeting House, burial ground and Garden of Rest.

In 2002, on the 350th anniversary of George Fox’s vision on Pendle Hill, Lancashire, seen as the start of the Quaker Movement,  Hammersmith Meeting held a Gathering for Peace and Reconciliation on 29 June. We planted an apple tree brought from a nursery close to George Fox’s birthplace at Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire. We hope the tree will symbolise the enduring contribution made by Quakers in Hammersmith since 1658.

For information on the history of Quakers in the UK,  the BBC has produced an excellent article.

External link:
BBC’s history of the Quakers