Detail from the 1299 Charter

1299 Charter

Yorkshire Quaker Project

The Yorkshire Quaker Heritage Project (1999-2002) was based at the Brynmor Jones Library, University of Hull in collaboration with Leeds University Library and the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research at the University of York. It was funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, under the Research Support Libraries Programme (RSLP).

The project undertook a survey of Quaker collections held by archives within Yorkshire (using the pre-1974 boundaries) as well as collections held elsewhere that relate to the region. The result was a research guide (959kb, PDF) to archives and published sources. (Please note the guide has not been updated since 2003).

The origins of Quakerism in Yorkshire

The north of England holds a special place in the history of Quakerism. It was there that the message of its charismatic founder George Fox (1624-1691) first took root and from there that the early converts, known as 'First Publishers of Truth', spread out across the country. It was also the site of the first settled Meetings and the source of early forms of Quaker organisation and discipline.

'Truly Friends in the North is rare and precious, very few I find like them', wrote Richard Roper to Margaret Fell in October 1656 [Swarthmore collection, iii 131, Friends House Library]. By the end of 1653, the main areas of Quaker convincement were Westmorland, Cumberland, north Lancashire, Durham and Yorkshire.

During the years 1651-52, George Fox travelled the length and breadth of the North and East Ridings of Yorkshire, before spending a brief spell in north Lincolnshire and moving west through Wakefield and Bradford. One of the earliest organised groups of 'Children of the Light' formed at Balby in the West Riding after Fox's visit.

Of those who were not only convinced, but began to accompany Fox in his itinerant preaching, about a quarter came from Yorkshire. Several of these became important Quaker leaders - Thomas Aldam and Richard Farnsworth of Balby, William Dewsbury of Allerthorpe, and James Nayler of West Ardsley.

After establishing strong communities in the North, many of these travelling ministers carried their mission south, and into Wales, Ireland and Scotland. The origins of the national Yearly Meeting can also be found in Yorkshire. A series of General Meetings first held in Skipton in c1657 attracted Friends from all the main centres of Quaker convincement in the North. In April 1660, this was also attended by Friends from the South.

Quaker Meeting records

In September 1666, Fox was released from prison in Scarborough Castle to find the movement stagnating. Systematic persecution of dissent following the Restoration had cut a swathe through the ranks of the 'First Publishers of Truth'. Fox began a nationwide, and largely personal, review of the condition of Quaker Meetings, which reached Yorkshire in March 1669.

The boundaries of five pre-existing Monthly Meetings were broken down and re-formed into 14 smaller units, ranging from Owstwick in the Holderness peninsular, to Richmond in the Yorkshire Dales, and Balby on the southern edge of the region. A pyramid structure of Meetings at local, regional and national levels was devised as part of this process of transition from a spontaneous movement to a formal society. These included:

  • Meetings for Worship, with Preparative (or business) Meetings
  • Monthly Meetings (for local districts)
  • Quarterly Meetings (for larger areas) 
  • A national Yearly Meeting (now known as Britain Yearly Meeting)

In parallel, the development of written records began in this period. The first surviving minute book for York Monthly Meeting for example refers to the appointment of Friends to record births, marriages and burials in 1670/1, and the purchase of a book to record sufferings in 1676 [minute book vol. 1, 1688-82, D 1, Clifford Street archive, Leeds University Library].

Important classes of records have often survived from the mid-17th century onwards. They include: meeting minute books; membership records (including lists of members, copies of certificates of removal, and copies of wills and inventories); financial records; educational records, and records of property ownership.

The Registers of Births, Marriages and Burials are naturally valuable for their genealogical content, but also show the locality from which Friends had come, where they settled and sometimes the trade or occupation.

Apart from the Registers, probably the most significant records relate to Sufferings: these are factual records of imprisonment, fines, distraint of goods, excommunication and other penalties imposed for members’ religious beliefs. As sources for the early history of Quakerism they are invaluable. Libraries of Quaker and associated writings were also built up for spiritual and educational purposes.

Follow this link to access the Quaker Family History Society's website and choose 'Genealogical research' to find information on different types of records and the location of surviving records for each county.

Further reading

For an overview of the development of Quaker Meetings and their records, the following are recommended:

Edward Milligan and Malcolm Thomas, My ancestors were Quakers (Society of Genealogists, 1999) 

Michael Mullett, Sources for the history of English Nonconformity 1660-1830 (British Records Association, 1991), ch.VI

For developments specifically in Yorkshire, see W Pearson Thistlethwaite, Yorkshire Quarterly Meeting 1665-1966 (published by author, 1979).