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Quakers in the 18th – 19th century

Although in the mid 18th century Quakers had numbered around 40,000, that number had halved a century later, although the 1860s marked the beginnings of a revival. The reasons for the decline are not difficult to understand at a time when it was necessary to travel long distances for silent meetings, when there was difficulty in external recruitment from within a largely closed community, and the faith itself placed heavy demands spiritually upon its members.

The strict discipline and fear of business failure, the demand for creditworthiness was at the expense of membership, and those who married ‘out’ to people who were not birthright Quakers were excluded permanently. Joseph Rowntree Senior was among the first to urge for a relaxation of the marriage rule with the result that after 1861 they could marry ‘out’.

A ‘peculiar’ people and a ‘trusted’ people

Quakers were seen by many as ‘a peculiar’ people, a people set apart, and as Seebohm Rowntree said in 1909 ‘many did not have any personal friends outside the society’. The study of scripture lay at the heart of life in the home; and daily Bible readings took place each evening with all the household, including the servants, treated on equal terms. University entrance was prohibited to ‘dissenters’ until the late 19thcentury. Many Quakers went into business and trade, rather than the professions, and they gained a reputation for trustworthiness and honesty. Some of Britain’s high street banks (such as Barclays, and Lloyds) were founded by Quakers.

Quaker customs

Quaker communities remained tightly knit with strong internal support groups. Certain customs and practices held Quakers apart from their peers, and gave them their distinctive character. For example, their use of the informal ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ for everyone, of whatever rank, was an indication of their perception of everyone as equal in the sight of God. Their use of full names, without titles, again implied an equal respect for all.

The days of the week and month were given as ‘first day’ ‘second day’, 1 mo 2mo – originally to avoid reference to the pagan deities (as in Wednesday, Thursday, January, March etc). Quakers adhered to a principle of temperance and restraint in all things. Clothing and furnishings were kept plain and simple, with little adornment. There was a suspicion among 19th century Quakers of the theatre, arts, music etc., and a corresponding respect for the rigours of science.  Leisure time activities were based on natural history, scientific study, politics and social work in the community.

Young Joseph Rowntree’s copybook

A sense of the Quaker values that were instilled in their members is suggested by the words of Joseph Rowntree in a copybook written at the age of 12:

‘Beware of imitating expensive persons. Civility is an indispensible qualification. Do nothing that may injure any person. Endeavour to avoid temptations to vice. Fame stimulates ambitious disposition. Gaming is a wicked and destructive custom.’

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