As Project Archivist for the Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers project, one set of records I’ve come across, originally deposited in 1959, is fast becoming one of my favourites because they are so delightfully written and illustrated, and give us a more personal view of the lives of some of Birmingham’s 19th century Quakers. These are the 16 volumes of essays of the Friends Essay Society.
The Friends Essay Society was a group of members of the Religious Society of Friends who met at each other’s houses one evening a month to read out essays which they had previously written anonymously, either on a subject given to them, or more often, on a subject of their own choice. The evening started with tea, and after each member had read aloud someone else’s essay, they had supper.
The idea for the meeting came from Agatha Pearson, who suggested it to Arthur Albright in 1845 and the first meeting was held in the same year. Members came from the Lloyd, Barrow, Sturge, Glaisyer, Impey, Cudworth, Albright, Cadbury, and Southall families, among others. Agatha Pearson was the first secretary.
The rules of the Society, drawn up by Arthur Albright, stipulated that 6 meetings were to be held during the winter each year, and members had to contribute one essay each session. Essays could be of an artistic or literary nature. Prior to 1852, any guests could be invited to the Society’s meeting on the condition that they contributed an essay which became the property of the Society. From 1852, the Society was re-organised and membership was by ballot. In the early days of the Society’s meetings, men sat on one side of the room, and women on the other but this practice was later dropped. From 1872, a fine was charged to those who did not contribute an essay.
The Society met until 1905 and the mainly unsigned essays contributed by members from 1845 – 1905 provide an insight into the interests, opinions, creativity and humour of its members. The topics of the essays are diverse and include religion, history, architecture, language, literature, education, children, politics, housing, slavery, genealogy, fashion, gardening, accounts of holidays in the UK and abroad, boating, mountaineering, poetry, reminiscences about the Society of Friends, happiness, discontent, conversation, art, marriage, the pursuit of wealth and so on. A number of entries are humorous in tone and many include beautiful sketches and photographs.
The most beautiful of the ‘essays’ has to be the ‘Log of the Seagull’ which is a charmingly written and illustrated account of a two week camping and boating trip undertaken by a group of young Friends in July 1858. Their itinerary was as follows:
July 12th-14th 1858 – Stratford upon Avon via the Avon, the Severn and the Berkley Canal
July 15th-21st 1858 – The river Wye
July 21-22 1858 – By road: Hay, Builth, Llandrindod to Newtown (Powys) on Severn
July 23-27th 1858 – Down the river Severn from Newtown (Powys) via Welshpool to Shrewsbury, Ironbridge and Bewdley
The ‘skipper’ was Wilson Sturge (1834-1899) and for varying amounts of time his crew was made up of John W. Shorthouse, Richard Cadbury (1835 – 1899), Joel Cadbury, Joseph W. Lloyd, Joseph A. Ellis, Wilson Lloyd (1835-1908), Edmund Shorthouse, Thomas Gibbins, and George J. Blakey. Wilson Sturge was the author of ‘The Log of the Seagull’ and it was illustrated by Richard Cadbury, Wilson Sturge, J. W. Shorthouse, H. J. Newman and J. Price.
Eleanor, Project Archivist (Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers)