Saturday, 20 November 2010

Quaker Meeting Houses

Mounting block - listed Grade II!
The Religious Society of Friends or Quakers were strong in Sussex right from their beginnings in the 1650s, when George Fox preached in the area and William Penn came to live in Warminghurst.
One of the very first purpose-built meeting houses was constructed at Ifield in 1676, and it remains remarkably unchanged to this day.
The meeting house is a simple room attached to the side of an existing cottage. The walls are faced with local sandstone, with large mullioned windows to let in as much light as possible.
Inside, the plain wooden furnishings include a raised pew for the elders and a screen that separated the men and the women, with sliding partitions so both parts of the congregation could be linked when appropriate. The Quakers no longer have elders or separate the sexes but these interesting features still survive. There is even a hidey-hole to conceal the preacher when disputes with authority turned violent, and persecution was one reason why early meeting houses tended to be in isolated positions, as was the lovely Thakeham meeting house.
William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, was one of prime movers behind the purchase of a farmhouse near Thakeham called Little Slatters, which was converted into a meeting house by adding a gallery in the hall of the lovely half-timbered building.
Penn used to walk six miles across the fields from Warminghurst, arriving 'full of matter', not stopping as he doffed his hat and strode to his habitual position, starting to speak even before he reached his seat.
Later, the meeting house somehow acquired the curious name 'Blue Idol', how nobody knows, but is is otherwise almost unaltered from Penn's time. It stands at the end of a country lane in beautiful gardens devoted to the memory of the great man.

By the time Littlehampton Meeting House was built in the 1830s the Quakers were accepted and respectable, so the building is not in the remote country but in the centre of town. It looks more like a church than a house, with flint walls and pointed Gothick windows, but it still retains the charm and simplicity of all Quaker meeting houses.
Ifield Quaker Meeting House is currently being restored so donations are extremely welcome.