Tag Archives: Religion

From small beginnings: the early days of Severn Street Adult School

Joseph Sturge, author unknown, 1859 (Birmingham Portraits Collection)

On 14th May it is the anniversary of the death of one of Birmingham’s prominent citizens, Joseph Sturge, who died in 1859. A successful Quaker businessman, a generous philanthropist and an active campaigner, he is perhaps best known for his work in the anti-slavery movement and the establishment of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (now known as Anti-slavery International). However, he was a man of many interests and it is his role in beginning the adult education movement in Birmingham which is the subject of this blog post.

On 12th August 1845, concerned by the behaviour of the men and teenage boys he saw in the city’s streets on Sundays, Sturge invited some of Birmingham’s younger Quakers to his house in Wheeley’s Road, Edgbaston to discuss whether they could establish an adult school for them.  It was to be another 25 years before compulsory primary education would be introduced and many adults at this time had started work as young children so levels of literacy among the working classes remained low.  Sturge had been impressed by a visit in 1842 to what is now seen as being the earliest of the adult schools, established in Nottingham in 1798, and he wanted to set up a similar school in Birmingham. The Nottingham school was run by a Methodist, William Singleton and subsequently taken over by a Quaker, Samuel Fox. Non-denominational classes took place on Sundays, teaching men and women reading and writing classes based on the Bible.

The group of Birmingham Quakers agreed that such a school should be established  for,

‘…those who are not & have not been in the way of receiving any instruction in other schools.’

(Severn Street First Day School minute, 12th August 1845, SF (2016/043) 1524 part 1 of 2).

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The Old Meeting House

MS 1061-2-5-1

Copy of a sketch of Bull St. Quaker Meeting House (3rd building from the left) in 1702, n.d. [Ref MS 1061/2/5/1]

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.

SF (2014-213) 1262 e

Plan of the Friends’ graveyard in Bull Lane drawn by Charles Lloyd, n.d. [Ref SF (2014-213) 1262]

SF (2014-213) 1262 d

Key to the plan of the Friends’ graveyard in Bull Lane, compiled by Charles Lloyd, n.d. [Ref SF (2014-213) 1262]

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.  Continue reading

‘Developing our own gifts and those of others’: the educational role of the Warwickshire North Women’s Conferences, 1895-1960


Among the large collection of records of Central England Quakers are the minutes of the Warwickshire North Women’s Monthly Meeting beginning in 1729. They provide a fascinating insight into the mental and emotional worlds of Quaker women in Birmingham over several generations, and illustrate the concerns that were foremost in their minds.

The nature of the Women’s meetings and the records that relate to them changed in the late nineteenth century. In May 1889, a proposal from the men’s monthly meeting was put to the women, suggesting that they should hold joint monthly meetings in advance of their separate meetings. Women Friends agreed to trial this for twelve months. In October 1890, as most business was now done in the joint meeting they decided to hold women’s meetings four times a year, rather than monthly, and the role of the meeting changed. From 1897 three women’s Monthly Meeting ‘Conferences’ were held each year – in the spring to prepare for Yearly Meeting, in the summer to review and read papers from Yearly Meeting, and in November ‘to consider some General subject of interest to women’. In this piece I will be concentrating on this last conference in the period from the 1890s to the 1950s.

Notice of a Conference on 'The Child's Point of View', 1908 (ref SF/2/1/1/2/1/9)

Notice of a conference on ‘The Child’s Point of View’, 1908 (ref SF/2/1/1/2/1/9)

The subjects deemed to be of interest by the women ranged widely, from theological questions, women’s ministry and Quaker history, to the social and political issues of the day. Women Friends presented papers followed by a discussion, and external speakers were occasionally invited to present on particular subjects. The Conferences were well attended, and could attract anything from 50 to 150 women depending on the popularity of the theme. Many of the subjects, particularly in the early years, are those that we might consider to be traditional women’s subjects and we see the Conference functioning as a space of formal and informal education in very practical knowledge that was relevant to middle class wives and mothers.

There is a considerable interest, for example, in motherhood and the upbringing of children and in particular how children and young people should be nurtured in Quaker ways and beliefs. On 12 February 1895 when 70 women were present, the session focused on ‘Woman’s influence over Children and Young People in the Home’. Catharine Wilson spoke of the influence of Christian nurses and governesses working with the mother for the good of the children, a reflection of the class and socio-economic circumstances of many of the more prominent women in the meeting. Caroline Gibbins read ‘a valuable paper’ on the ‘Discipline of Younger Children’ which emphasised ‘moral suasion’ rather than ‘physical force’ and the wise mother’s role in avoiding conflict.

The People's Free Kindergarten, Greet, 1904 (ref MS 4095)

The People’s Free Kindergarten, Greet, 1904 (ref MS 4095)

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Uncovering Quaker Heritage: A retrospective


Visitors to ‘Uncovering Quaker Heritage’, in the Wolfson Centre, 23rd January 2017

Having spent the last 2½ years cataloguing the records of the Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, and with still more records being deposited, I was keen to uncover some of the treasures from the archive for the public to see. After all, the reason archivists catalogue archive collections is so that archives can be made available to the public. And while blog posts are one way of highlighting some of the records in a collection, nothing quite brings the past alive as being able to see and touch documents created several hundred years ago.


A selection of material relating to adult education and a plan of Moseley Road Friends’ Institute (SF)

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Uncovering Quaker Heritage: a pop-up exhibition


Monday 23rd January 2017 4.00-6.30pm

Wolfson Centre, Level 4, Library of Birmingham

Since the middle of the 17th century Birmingham and Warwickshire have been major centres of Quaker activity. Despite being a minority group, Quakers have been highly influential in the social, economic, philanthropic and political development of the region.

To find out more about the records we hold, come and view a selection of original Quaker material dating from the 17th century to the 20th century from the archive of the Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

Made available via the Birmingham & Warwickshire Quakers project, a cataloguing project funded by a National Archives Cataloguing Grant and a bequest from a member of Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

Entry is free. All are welcome!

Birmingham Quakers and the Spanish Civil War


Promise of donation to the Spanish Children’s Relief Committee appeal for funds, n.d.[ c. 1936-9] [SF/2/1/1/3/12/2/1]

This month is the 80th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) when the right-wing Nationalists led by General Franco attempted to overthrow the left-wing democratically elected Republican government. The war caused much suffering and a million deaths, and resulted in the Nationalists taking power. General Franco’s dictatorship lasted until his death in 1975.

In Birmingham in November 1936, Horace G. Alexander, a member of staff at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and a member of Cotteridge Preparative Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends drew Friends’ attention to the plight of children on both sides of the war in Spain, and the need for relief work. Work to establish what relief was needed had already been undertaken by the US born British Quaker, Alfred Jacob in Spain and an agreement had been made between the Friends Service Council (1919-1927), and the Save the Children Fund to launch an appeal for funding.

In response, on 10th November 1936, Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends established the Spanish Children’s Relief Committee to organise an appeal locally, but it was also to work with the London-based Friends Service Council. Initial members included Horace G. Alexander, Evelyn Sturge, John S. Hoyland, and Ethel M. Barrow, with other members such as George Cadbury, Florence M. Barrow, Margaret Backhouse, Helena Graham, Catharine Albright and Francesca Wilson and others being invited to join at a later date.


Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting copy minute 156, 10 November 1936, establishing the Spanish Children’s Relief Committee  [SF/2/1/1/3/12/1/1]

Over the next three years, the Committee took part in a variety of activities. They focused on raising awareness of the campaign amongst Friends as well as the wider public and they also appealed for people to go to Spain to help carry out relief work in the areas that most needed it. Appeals for funds were regularly made at local and monthly Quaker meetings, with updates on the situation in Spain. Ethel M. Barrow reported to the Monthly Meeting in March 1937 that £1600 had been collected for the Spanish Children’s Relief Fund and that more was needed. The Committee minutes record that,

‘The Committee feel that the dire need of the Spanish people is not sufficiently realised by Friends and it is hoped that a much greater effort be made to collect money and clothing for the relief of this great mass of suffering’

(SF/2/1/1/1/1/33 Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting, minute 223)

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Yearly Meeting of Friends, Birmingham, 1908

Yearly Meeting scrapbook, 1908 (ref. SF/2/1/1/16/2/1/2)

Poster for a public meeting,1908 (ref. SF/2/1/1/16/2/1/2)

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.

Yearly Meeting scrapbook, 1908 (ref. SF/2/1/1/16/2/1/2)

Extract from Yearly Meeting Programme, 1908 (ref. SF/2/1/1/16/2/1/2)

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. Continue reading