A Brief History of Colchester Quakers


The history of the Quaker movement in Colchester dates back into the middle of the seventeenth century.  This was a time of tremendous religious ferment and change in the aftermath of the Civil War.

James Parnell, a young follower of George Fox (the founder of Quakers), preached in Colchester in July 1655. Some of his hearers in this strongly Puritan town were convinced by his words although there was much opposition. Later he spoke in Coggeshall but was arrested for allegedly having caused a disturbance and spoken blasphemy. At his trial he was found not guilty but ordered to pay a fine, which he refused to do. He was returned to jail in Colchester Castle where he was ill treated and eventually died in April 1656.

Around this time Friends suffered considerable persecution for their beliefs, being prosecuted, beaten and jailed.  Friends' goods were seized for non-payment of fines.  A law called the Conventicals Act was passed to prevent premises being used to hold unlicensed acts of worship.  Premises could be forfeited for disobedience.  A member of the meeting set up a home and business in the meeting house to get around the law, as we could lawfully hold meetings in the "home" of a member.  This practice established the presence of resident Meeting House Wardens in Quaker Meeting Houses, which is still common today.

Encouraged by letters from Parnell in prison, Quakers gained many followers; Meetings for Worship were held in Thomas Shortland's house until, in 1663, they purchased premises on the north side of St Martin's Lane (now Quakers Alley) to convert into the Great Meeting House.

Religious persecution eased after the passing of the "Toleration Act" in 1689.  Friends settled into a long, quiet period, worshipping in their own way and engaging in community work, education and the relief of poverty.  In keeping with the Puritan spirit of the age, Friends were strict in their rules and observance of dress codes.  It was not until 1871 that members could marry outside of the Quaker community without dismissal from membership.

The Great Meeting House was repaired, altered and partly rebuilt over the next two centuries until it burned down in 1871. Meanwhile St Helen's Chapel was also purchased in 1683 and used for smaller meetings. Adjacent land was used for burials until the Chapel was sold in 1800. Another Burial Ground was opened in Roman Road, which is still in use today.

New premises were built in Rebow Chambers in Sir Issac's Walk in the town centre.  Around this time there was a great revival of interest in Quakerism, locally and nationally.  Local membership grew from a handful of family members to more than 100.  Quakers engaged in a wide variety of public activities, including organising much-needed adult schools.

The Rebow Chambers premises proved too expensive to maintain and in 1938 a new Quaker meeting house was built in Shewel Road and was opened with much celebration.  This building was in use until the early 1970s, but it proved inadequate and needed expensive repairs.  With the planning of the Culver Square shopping complex, it was decided to allow the demolition of the Shewel Road building.  We acquired our present building in Church Street, St Mary's House (originally built for John Constable's lawyer in 1803) from the Post Office in a derelict state and carried out extensive renovation and alteration.  Friends set up meeting in Church Street in 1974 and have been here ever since.

If you would like to find out more about Colchester Quakers, please call in to see us during opening hours, or join us for Meeting for Worship.  Details are on our home page.  You can also check out the National Quaker Website.


Take a walk around Quaker sites in central Colchester

Our Colchester Quaker History Trail leaflet takes you to on a walking tour around the town centre visiting places associated with Quakers since their earliest times.

Copies can be purchased from the Tourist Information Centre, located at 1 Queen Street (opposite the Castle Museum and War Memorial).


Quaker bonnet

This bonnet was passed down through three generations of the same family. Mollie Hayward was 93 years old when she died in 1994. The bonnet had originally belonged to her grandmother, Elizabeth Harris, who had worn it around 1830

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