It is thought that a small Quaker community established in Birmingham in the 1650s. Initially meetings for worship were held in private houses but in 1661 a house and garden were bought in New Hall Lane for use as a meeting house and burial ground. New Hall Lane became known as Bull Lane (and later Monmouth Street) and was located at the end of what is now Colmore Row. The meeting house was located roughly where the entrance to the Great Western Arcade is today. Unfortunately, no plan of the meeting house has survived in the Central Area Meeting Archives deposited here, but there is a plan of the graveyard, drawn by the banker Charles Lloyd (1748 – 1828), with a key containing a list of names of those buried there.
The meeting house on Monmouth St. needed frequent repairs, so in 1702, it was decided to build a new meeting house, paid for by members of the meeting. This was on Bull St., on the site of where the current meeting house entrance gates now stand. Land behind the meeting house was used as a burial ground.
The Monmouth St. meeting house was turned back into a residential house but the burial ground continued to be used until the mid 18th century. An Act of Parliament resulted in the sale of the Monmouth St. burial ground to the Great Western Railway Company for the construction of a railway cutting for the line from London Paddington to Snowhill station. The remains of over 300 Friends were re-interred in a vault in the burial ground at Bull St. in 1851.
Bull St. meeting house was described by the Birmingham historian William Hutton (1723 – 1815) in his 1781 An History of Birmingham as:
A large convenient place, and notwithstanding the plainness of the profession rather elegant. The congregation is very flourishing, rich, and peaceable.
However, by the 1770s, the congregation felt that the meeting house was no longer fit for purpose. Whereas it had been located towards the edge of the town at the start of the 18th century, seventy years later, it found itself on what had become the main shopping street and one of the busiest streets in the town. To limit the noise which could be heard inside the meeting house, the windows facing the street were bricked up in 1773 and the windows on the burial ground side were replaced with arched sash-windows.
The meeting house had also become too small for its expanding congregation. As Birmingham had become more industrialised, creating more jobs, its population had increased and the town had expanded. This included an influx of Friends from other places across the country. A gallery was built at the southern end of the meeting house to provide additional space and the interior was panelled with oak. There was further expansion of the meeting house and of the women’s meeting room in 1778. In 1792 additional alterations were made to the seats under the gallery to allow another row of seating to be squeezed in. Proposals in 1806 to build a new meeting house were not taken up and instead the building was extended again with further extensions taking place every ten years until 1857.
An extract from a poem entitled ‘The Old Meeting House’ written in 1856 by an unnamed member of the Friends Essay Society describes the meeting house prior to its demolition:
They say that thy walls are confined and close,
That thy seats are narrow and crowded,
That gallery, body and Friends, and all
In a dismal light are shrouded.
That the air which rises from the vaults beneath
Is heavy with languor and slumber;
That thy youth is past, that thy race is run,
And thy days they will henceforth number.
(LF18.6 Essays of The Friends Essay Society, Volume III)
Birmingham’s first purpose built meeting house was finally replaced with a new much larger building with a seating capacity of 500 on the same site in 1857. This in turn was replaced by the current building in 1933.
Eleanor, Project Archivist (Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers)
White, William (1886) Friends in Warwickshire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, White and Pike
SF/3/4/11/2 Photographic copy of W.A. Cadbury’s ‘Bull Street Friends I Have Known’ 18th cent.- 1956
MS 466G/7/1 W. A. Cadbury, Friends Meeting Bull Street, Birmingham – A Record by a Member of the Meeting, 1950