History of Quakers in Marlborough

A Quaker woman, Mary Goodman walked into Marlborough one market day in 1658 and urged townsfolk to “mind the fear of the Lord”. She was quickly hustled before the Mayor, who ordered her to be flung into gaol. The next day she was tied to a pillar in the Market Place and whipped. It was not the first time Mary had been whipped in Marlborough, it had happened the previous year. But this time people felt sorry for her. A common drunkard, asked to take up the whip, refused “as he would have no such thing on his conscience”. The man eventually hired to chastise her was given a long coat and a visor, so he would not be recognised. Another Quaker woman, Ann Clayton, was whipped on another occasion that year.

There was a small, but committed group of Quakers in Marlborough at that time. A leader was William Hitchcock, the son of a previous mayor and a man of some wealth. He was a friend of the Society’s founder, George Fox, and of William Penn. George Fox visited Marlborough in 1656 and 1672 and spoke in William Hitchcock’s home.

Although Puritanism, and not the Church of England, held sway under Cromwell’s rule from 1649 to 1660,  there was little tolerance of any Friend who felt moved to exhort fellow townspeople to join their faith. In 1656, Daniel Smith of Marlborough was punished for preaching to passers-by from his shop door by being imprisoned in a close dungeon, in time of frost and snow, without any bed, fire or candle for nine weeks and his friends were not allowed to come near him. Others were fined 10 shillings for being found at Meeting, and a philanthropic tradesman who ran a well-ordered workhouse was put out of business when he became a Quaker. William Hitchcock was thrown into prison in 1657 for accompanying a Robert Storr to Meeting. He was several times fined for his attendance at Sunday meetings.

Friends shunned churches, “steeple houses”, and after their death their bodies were closely guarded lest they be taken away to be buried in the town churchyard. In 1658, William Hitchcock gave a piece of land at Manton Corner as a burial ground.

When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, efforts were made to enforce worshippers back into the Church of England and Dissenters were punished. Robert Bryant was gaoled in 1660 for refusing to take the Oath of Allegiance and afterwards the local militia pulled down the walls of the burial ground and sold its gates, timber and ironwork in the Market Place. Two men were gaoled for two years in 1662 for refusing to pay church tithes.

Despite a royal amnesty in 1671, when 500 Quakers in many parts of the country were released from gaol, persecution continued for offences such as failure to pay tithes or take the Oath of Allegiance. 

 A chance for freedom came in 1681, when William Penn was granted a royal charter to set up his “Holy Experiment” in the New World. Religious tolerance and democratic principles were to be the corner stones of Pennsylvania.

In the same year Marlborough’s William Hitchcock bought 500 acres in Chester County from William Penn. His servants John and Amy Harding, with John Kingman and Ralph Withers, all from Marlborough Meeting, settled there and set up a new Meeting and school in Marlborough village in Pennsylvania. Moses Minal, of Mildenhall, bought land from Hitchcock in 1685 and established a new Mildenhall.

Two years later, ancestors of the present Chandler family – George, his wife Jane and their seven children of Great Hedge and John Chandler from Oare – set out for America. George died of smallpox at sea but John and Jane bought 100 acres in the new State.

An end to persecution in England came in 1689, when the Act of Toleration allowed freedom of worship.

Marlborough Meeting became one of the wealthiest in the county and Friends set about raising money for a Meeting House. They eventually bought premises behind the High Street, between today’s Castle and Ball and the Royal Oak, which was licensed in 1721. By the end of the century, numbers were beginning to decline and the last meeting was held in the Meeting House in 1821, though Quakers continued to meet in each other’s homes.

The modern rebirth began soon after Win Uttley came to live in Marlborough in 1957 when Friends began meeting in houses in the town and, from 1978 when numbers rose, in the Jubilee Rooms. The present Meeting House, in The Parade, was bought in 1986, and has been in regular use ever since. Many other groups meet there and appreciate its peaceful atmosphere.

Chris Wheare