Next weekend is an important one in the Quaker calendar. From the 27th-30th May it is Yearly Meeting, the annual business meeting of the Quaker church in Britain, attended by Friends from across the country. At this meeting, constitutional decisions are made and policies on areas of work agreed, but it is also a forum at which Friends can teach, learn, be inspired, celebrate together and focus on what it means to be Quaker (Religious Society of Friends, Quaker Faith in Practice, 5th ed. 6.05).
Yearly Meeting grew out of various regional and national meetings which were held in the 1650s and 1660s, and an annual national meeting has been held each year since 1668. Initially, only male Friends could participate and it was not until 1784 that a separate Yearly Meeting for Women was established. This was laid down in 1907 when women and men were permitted to attend Yearly Meeting together. The majority of Yearly Meetings were held in London but the 20th century saw a move to hold meetings in different areas of the country, with the first of these being held in Leeds in 1905, followed by Birmingham in 1908, where it was held at Central Hall on Corporation Street and at Bull Street Friends’ Meeting House. You can read more about the history of Yearly Meeting here.
A scrapbook in the Central England Area Meeting Archives, which was compiled by the local organisers of the 1908 meeting contains a programme, posters, flyers, sample forms, invitations and tickets to the numerous meetings, talks and visits taking place over the duration of Yearly Meeting, together with newspaper articles from across the country about Yearly Meeting. It provides us with a snapshot of the wide ranging areas of work the Quakers were involved in at this time.A glance at the programme shows that each day started with a meeting for worship and was followed by the presentation of reports from committees or minutes on specific subjects. Some of the reports presented include those of the Anti-slavery Committee, the Peace Committee, the Committee on Opium Traffic, the Committee on South African Relief, the Australasian Committee, the First Day School Association and the Friends Foreign Mission Association.
There were also annual meetings of a number of Friends’ associations which campaigned on specific causes, such as the Friends’ Temperance Union, the Peace Union, the Friends’ Anti-vivisection Association, and the Friends’ Abolitionist Association, with addresses given by a number of prominent individuals. Some of these included the British-Swedish animal rights campaigner and feminist, Lizzy Lind af Hageby, J. Rendel Harris, the first director of Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Selly Oak, Arthur Rowntree, Headmaster of Bootham School, the Quaker school in York, Dr Mary Sturge, one of the first female doctors and campaigner for women’s medical training and women’s suffrage, John H. Barlow, first manager of the Bournville Village Trust and the philanthropist Elizabeth Cadbury.
Other events were also held. The first Swarthmore Lecture, a series of lectures which has been held at Yearly Meeting ever since, was given by the influential American Quaker theologian and historian Rufus M. Jones, entitled ‘Quakerism: a Religion of Life’. George Cadbury, the chocolate manufacturer, chaired a public Missionary Meeting of the Friends Foreign Mission Association at which Quakers involved in missionary work in India and China spoke and the Friends Socialist Society arranged a meeting to consider ‘The Socialist Alternative to Poverty’. There was a public meeting for members of the Adult Schools (many of which had been established by Friends) at the Town Hall on the subject of ‘Quakerism and character’ (see image at the top of this post), with talks by the Liverpool Quaker and peace campaigner, Ellen Robinson (1840-1912), and the head of the National Adult School Council, Arnold Rowntree.
Arrangements were made for Friends to visit meeting houses and adult schools across the Midlands within a 60 mile radius of Birmingham, and there were visits to Birmingham University, the ‘Model Sunday School at Bournville’ and the ‘Training Institute for Sunday School Workers’ at West Hill, Selly Oak, as well as to places of general interest in the region.
Eleanor (Project Archivist, Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers)