Minute books often have the perception of being a bit dry, but I’m a big fan of them! Why? Because they contain a wealth of detailed information about all aspects of how an organisation is run which is not necessarily visible from a public standpoint, giving a fascinating behind the scenes glimpse of what issues organisations faced, why decisions were made and how solutions were implemented. This is fortunate as the majority of the records in the Central England Area Religious Society of Friends archives are minute books so I’m going to be working with them in some depth during the Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers cataloguing project.
For this blog post I’ve selected one of the earliest volumes in the collection. It’s a vellum and leather bound minute book with metalwork, containing the minutes of the Warwickshire Quarterly Meeting, and according to the spine it covers the period 1695 – 1743. The Quarterly Meeting is the highest administrative level in the records we hold (though in recent years the structure of the Society of Friends has changed) and in the early days of the Meeting, it corresponded to the Warwickshire county boundary. Above that at national level is the Yearly Meeting. Below it, at regional level is the Monthly Meeting and under that, at local level is the Preparative Meeting.This hierarchy is nicely illustrated in the inside cover, where there is a list of the Monthly and Preparative Meetings within the Warwickshire Quarterly Meeting. At this time, Warwickshire had three Monthly Meetings: Brailes, Warwick and Wishaw; and fourteen Men’s Preparative Meetings: Long Compton, Brailes, Radway, Ettington, Warwick, Coventry, Stratford, Southam, Meriden, Birmingham, Baddsley Ensor, Wishaw, Henley-in-Arden and Fulford Heath. This structure, with a few more meetings, is also illustrated in the top image from 1718.
Turning to the first few pages of the minute book, it quickly becomes obvious that the minutes don’t actually start on the first page and the dates the volume covers are considerably earlier than those given on the front cover. First of all there is a list of individuals who in the early 1660s were sent to prison for variously, ‘keeping meeting’, ‘tithes’, ‘refuseing to sweare’. This is what the Quakers called Sufferings and referred to the religious persecution they suffered and of which they were careful to keep detailed records.The above entry reads:
Edward corbitt & John corbitt & Thomas Walker of brales in t[he] Countie of Warwick where cast into prison for tithes th[e] 10th day of the 6th mongth 1660 & George Weyott was sent to prison upon th[e] sam acompt th[e] 7th day of th[e] 9th in th[e] yeare before mentioned
At this time, the Church of England was the only religion allowed so the Friends were persecuted, not only for holding meetings for worship in their houses but also because they refused to pay church tithes which financed the maintenance of churches. They also refused to swear an oath on the Bible in court, justifying it by claiming that since telling the truth was integral to their way of life, swearing to tell the truth in court was unnecessary. Over the page there is a list of people who ‘suffered 26 weekes imprisonment for meeting together in th[e] worshipe of god’
Further details about Quaker sufferings records can be found on Quaker Strongrooms, the Library of the Society of Friends blog.
It isn’t until quite a few pages further on into the volume that a note in the margin tells us that the first regular meeting was held on 18th day of the 1st month 1695/6 and this indicates that it took a while before the Warwickshire Quakers formalised their business meetings on paper.
At this first meeting, it was decided that all Monthly Meetings should bring an account to the Quarterly Meeting of any sufferings endured by Friends, such as those caused by not paying tithes or not paying the charges for having a meeting house. Warwick Monthly Meeting was instructed to decide whether or not its meeting should be held alternately at Warwick and Coventry or whether it should always be held at Warwick and it was agreed that inquiries were to be made into finding a suitable building and land to be bought for a meeting house in Henley. In addition, representatives were allocated from the Quarterly Meeting to attend the next Yearly Meeting and it was agreed that the next Quarterly Meeting was to be held at Long Compton.
Later minutes in this volume take on the format of the minutes I’ve seen in later minute books, starting with a list of representatives from each of the Monthly Meetings, followed by the minutes of the meeting. As well as containing the type of details included in the above example, the minutes in this minute book also include accounts listing the amount of money collected from each Monthly Meeting, amounts given out for ‘the necessity of poor Friends’ with individuals in need of financial help being named, the setting up and supervision of 7 year apprenticeships for boys, and the recording of when books (which would have been approved Quaker texts) arrived from London to distribute to local meetings. They also record when new Meeting Houses were set up, so we learn that from 1703 there was a Meeting House in Birmingham.
Right at the back of the volume, the last few pages are filled with details of births, marriages and burials. Since these were recorded by the parish, which did not recognize the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers needed to develop their own system of recording these. Here, initially this was at the back of the minute book, but later on, registers were used. The example below shows the marriage of William Dewsbury and Alice Meades, but also lists the Friends present at the ceremony.
All of these details come from a quick look through this minute book. They give a good insight into how the Quakers had gradually developed into a structured organisation of local, monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings by the late 17th century, with a clear hierarchy, the basic structure of which has hardly changed. They also show how the Friends had a keen sense of the importance of the written word, both for recording their decisions and their persecution, which continued into later centuries. A more detailed read, combined with other records in this collection would provide many more details about the early years of the Friends in Warwickshire.
Eleanor Project Archivist (Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers)