The year was 1652. The aftermath of the Civil Wars was still grumbling on—it was only three years since King Charles I was executed in Whitehall. The Commonwealth, proclaimed in 1649, had put down rebellion in Ireland by massacre and terror.
The population of England was only a tenth of the present day, the ruling class was small and interrelated, but most people lived in villages and knew little beyond the village boundary. England was almost entirely an agricultural country—80% of the population lived and worked on the land. Agriculture was inefficient with poor crop varieties, great problems with weeds, few enclosures to defend crops against grazing stock and almost no storage of fodder to carry animals over the winter, with the result that in the spring draft animals were few and weak and planting was late and slow. The banking system had only just begun and hence business and industry were in their infancy. Nevertheless the move to the towns had started and urban problems of disease and crime were on the increase.
The rising population was putting pressure on food resources. The roads were mere tracks, almost impassable in winter, transport was largely by pack horse and localised food shortages were common. Although it was nearly 50 years since the establishment of Virginia large scale emigration continued—in the previous 10 years some 1% of the population had gone overseas. This was enhanced by forced transportation in punishment for felony and vagrancy.
Religion too was in turmoil. The Act of Uniformity (1559) forbade the use of any but the authorised Prayer Book and made it an offence not to attend church on Sunday, punishable by fines or a session in the stocks or pillory. Superstition was rife and it was only a few years since witch hunting was at its height and the Pendle Witches had been judicially murdered.
Early one spring morning in 1652 a young Lincolnshire man on his way from the West Riding was moved to climb Pendle Hill. After much prayer and fasting and dispute with priests and professors of religion he had a series of revelations which led him to challenge the religious norms of his time.
George Fox's revelations were the foundation of the Society of Friends, later to be called Quakers after their tendency to tremble and shake when infused by the Spirit, and these are still the principles on which the Society is based today. The most important is that human beings can be in direct contact with God, the Infinite, the divine dimension—whatever you want to call it—without the need for any intermediary, intercessor or priest. Because like other nonconformists Quakers were excluded from university education they turned to business and industry and were especially deeply involved in the beginnings of the iron and steel industry.
But let us return to George Fox on Pendle Hill. After refreshing himself at a spring he made his way to Sedbergh whence he made his famous address to thousands gathered on Firbank Fell. There is no record of whether he passed through Bentham at this time but later that same year four Friends whom he had convinced on that journey, Richard Dewsbury, Richard Farnsworth, Robert Fell and John Snowden, visited Bentham and "witnessed to the truth" at the church in Low Bentham. The gathering was broken up by rowdies and Robert Fell was badly beaten up, afterwards dying from his injuries.
The persecution continued in Bentham in spite of which the Quaker preachers still persisted in coming. In 1655 George Bland "in company with two other men" was beaten in the street; in 1656 Robert Barras was beaten to death and in 1657 Robert Burrough "began to speak at the church when the preacher was done and was beaten and stoned and died thereafter". When Friends were brought to trial—say for not attending church or for unlawful assembly—and evidence against them was faulty or lacking, they could be tendered the oath of allegiance and imprisoned for refusing to take it. This happened to Marmaduke Tatham and 269 other Friends from this area in 1660. Tatham and another were sentenced to have their tongues torn out but this barbarous punishment was not carried out. Although the Act of Toleration in 1689 allowed Friends and other Nonconformists the freedom of assembly, it was not until 1696 that an Act of Parliament was passed permitting Friends not to take the oath, either of allegiance to the King or to support their testimony in court. On the other hand Friends' refusal to pay the tithes to support the clergy of the Established Church brought them into constant trouble until the early 19th Century.
It was also in 1660 that George Fox was first imprisoned in Lancaster Castle on a miscellany of uncertain charges mainly of disturbing the peace but also of being "the King's enemy". In 1663 Fox was again committed to Lancaster Castle along with some other Friends, this time for refusing to take the oath of allegiance. After some two years imprisonment in this foul place Fox was so weak he could not stand and when an order for his transfer came through he had to be lifted onto his horse. Thus he came to Bentham, in the spring of 1664 and was housed for the night at the King's Arms on the corner of what is now Station Road and Main Street, where the Midland Bank now is.
In June the following year, in an exceptionally hot summer, the Great Plague came to Britain. It first hit London and in the first six months more than 100,000 people died. London was virtually evacuated and business came to a standstill. When it hit Low Bentham is not known but later that summer the village was infected and was isolated for many weeks. Food for the survivors was left in one of the two "Plague Stones" which still exist at the edge of the village on Low Bentham Road and Burton Road and payment was left in a pool of vinegar to sterilise it.
It is not known how many people died in the village but if the death rate matched that of other affected areas something like half the population may have died Local rumour still has it that many Quakers who died of the Plague were buried in a mass grave at Eldroth, where the old burial ground is still marked by a stone engraved with the words "Friends' Burial Ground: 1662", but this is contradicted by the lists in the records of Settle Monthly Meeting. However, it was true that consecrated ground in churchyards could only be used for burial by a priest, which Friends refusing, they established their own burial grounds—known gravestones being sited at Low Bentham, Eldroth, Newton-in-Bowland, Rylstone and Bradley.
By 1680 Friends in Bentham had grown sufficiently strong to embark on establishing a meeting house. A barn and land were bought at Town Head, Low Bentham, for £11 plus 3s 4d for solicitor's fees (at 1.5% less excessive than those today), by a trust consisting of four Friends—Thomas Shirrow, grocer of Wray; John Carr, husbandman of Bentham; John Tatham, joiner of Tatham and Elizabeth Moore, widow of Ousegill. The money was raised by subscriptions and 60 Friends contributed to the cost, amongst whom the names of Tennant, Kendal, Wildman and Cumberland were prominent.
Meanwhile Friends were still unpopular with the establishment and in 1670, under the Conventicle Act of 1664, Sam Watson was fined £15 for holding a Quaker Meeting at Eldroth Hall and in 1682 Giles Moore of Overgails was fined £20 for having "a peaceable meeting" in his house, both excessive sums in those days.
By 1692, in Bentham, more land was bought to enlarge the burial ground at Town Head, the old ground being recorded as quite full. This was walled in 1703, a workman being engaged to do so. The burial ground was further enlarged in 1710 when an adjacent close called "Wiggonber" was acquired for this purpose. At the same time the accommodation for the living in Meetings must have been getting quite tight as steps were taken to acquire Calf Cop. On the 2nd day of 3rd month, 1718, (Friends originally rejected the widely accepted names of the days and months as being derived, as they were, from the names of pagan gods), John Moore reported that he had purchased the estate of Calf Cop from Thomas Gibson and his mother, in the names of himself, Stephen Sedgewick, James Tatham and John Kendal "to accommodate us with better conveniency than we have had hitherto".
The 1700's were a century of development with many new beginnings in both industry and agriculture. Watt's improvements of the steam engine made cheap power readily available. Rapid mechanisation of wool and cotton manufacture revolutionised those industries and Quakers were especially involved with the new discovery that iron could be worked with common coal instead of—as before— with charcoal only. New turnpikes, such as what are now the A65 and the A683, took over the old tracks and the first canal was built by the Duke of Bridge-water. Townsend's importation of the turnip from Holland enabled livestock to be kept economically over the winter and the enclosure of the old common lands gave new impetus to the improvement of production from both crops and livestock.
In Low Bentham the Grammar School was founded by William Collingwood of York who died in 1725 leaving £30 per annum for the support of a "higher master" and £25 per annum for an undermaster and the first school was built on School Hill, High Bentham, 1735. Somewhat later, in 1785, Low Bentham Mill was established for flax spinning. This was to have a very significant effect on the development of Quakerism in Bentham.
It seems to have taken Friends a long time to collect the necessary funds to get on with building their new Meeting House for it was not until 1760 that the original house was demolished and the materials used to build the new Meeting House which is still in use at Calf Cop. This was completed in 1768, the stone over the doorway, dated 1718, having come from the earlier building. Over this period the number of members in Bentham remained fairly constant at between 50 and 60. In a letter dated 28th 6th month 1817, from John Yeardly to his wife he wrote about their contemplated move to Bentham to take up employment in the new Flax Mills that "It is a small meeting indeed; there are only about two female Friends", who were Mary Townson and Grace Bellman who died in 1855 and 1867 respectively.
The 19th Century was remarkable for the great advances made in the understanding of the universe. Scientific advances tended to be resisted by the established churches but were accepted by the un-dogmatic and creedless Quakers—so by the end of the century there were more Quakers in the forefront of science as members of the Royal Society than any other denomination, including the established church. Slavery was another concern of Quakers. Although keeping existing slaves continued until 1834, the trade in human misery received a mortal blow by the passing of the Act abolishing the Slave Trade in 1807. This hit hard at ports such as Lancaster which were involved in the triangular trade between Africa, the West Indies and Europe.
After the fall in numbers in the early eighteen hundreds Quakerism in Bentham evidently recovered for in 1864 a new and much larger Meeting House in High Bentham was commenced on land adjoining what is now Tweed Street. Much of the cost was borne by the Rice family of Grove Hill whose house is now the Freemasons Hall—and (along with John Rowntree of York) one of the main contributors was John Thomas Rice who was also a director of Bentham Mills Ltd. The new Meeting House was completed two years later. John Thomas Rice died in 1872 leaving £500 in trust to his widow who died in 1910 and Friends still benefit from this trust today. In 1877 the old Flax Mills in Low Bentham were bought by the firm of Benson Ford & Co. and the 100 years association of Quakers, the spinning of natural silk and Low Bentham commenced.
The number of Friends increased along with the number of workers in the silk mill. 56 workers were employed in 1877 and the number of Friends was 42. As well as the silk workers they came from all walks of life—T Edmondson, farmer; Wm. Cumberland, mason; Edward Holmes, shopkeeper; R Marsden, farmer; J Knowles, grocer—whose descendants still attend meetings today; Wm. Stephenson, tailor; A Anderson, twine maker; and others such as Kendall, Pooley and Rice (widow of John Thomas Rice). By 1881 there were 48 members and 51 attenders; at the turn of the century the number of workers had increased to 230 and the number of Friends to 58 with an equivalent number of attenders and by 1925 the number of Friends was 86.
Some recollections of this period came from Audrey Beckett now in her 80's and living in Skipton.
"William and Dinah Knowles lived in Robin Lane. William wore a square bowler and Dinah a bonnet cape. My father and I would walk with them as we were going to church (Audrey herself later became a Quaker). Where the Council Houses are at the bridge end of Wenning Avenue was a big house, 'Hillcroft', which was a gentleman's residence with grounds going right down to the mill. The owners of the mill, then a linen mill, who were also Quakers, were called Clibben(?).
"The building at the top of Station Road and Main Street (now a bank) was a very large grocery shop with a lively china department upstairs. It was owned by the Knowles family and many of the various Knowleses worked in the business. I can still remember going in as a small girl with my mother for coffee and seeing it ground there. At one time Quaker meetings were held in a room there.
"Phillip Harvey farmed at Ellergill. In the 1920's his cows got foot and mouth disease and his cows all had to be burnt. We could smell the burning up at High Bentham and he was very upset as he loved his cattle.
"Brian Holmes was the chemist in Main Street (now a building society). He was a Quaker and a big Liberal and teetotaller. He sold the business to Thomas Pumphrey, another Quaker, who opened the shop out with the goods all open as today. Brian didn't like this and said it encouraged folk to steal.
"John Carr, manager of the Coop, was governor of Bentham Grammar School and an oddity but a good man. He was buried at Calf Cop in 1932 and the Grammar School boys made a guard of honour on the path to the door of the meeting House, Alan (her husband) and I were there. Calf Cop then was much different—no sanitation.
"Old Benson Ford took wine with his family at meal times; but Charles, his son, after seeing the misery caused by his workmen on Monday mornings after drinking beer all weekend, stopped drinking altogether. His home was very simple—no stair carpet, no car—and he was a train fanatic. He gave all his books on trains to Lancaster University. The workers gave him a lovely book about trains on his 80th birthday when he was still visiting the mill on his bike."
I have found little record of the years between World War I and World War II but the general slump doesn't appear to have hit Bentham, its silk mill and its Quakers very hard. Numbers of Friends gradually rose to a peak of over 100 in 1945, probably influenced by the influx of evacuees from urban areas threatened by bombing. Certainly an evacuee hostel was run by Friends in Jubilee Cottages in Main Street, High Bentham.
However, the silk mill was not to survive the development of artificial silk and other man-made fibres and by the 1960's was in the doldrums, to be closed in 1970 and turned into a development area for small businesses. Friends' fortunes fell likewise. Numbers fell off rapidly and the High Bentham Meeting House was closed and sold to North Yorkshire County Council in 1973 for use as a Youth Centre. In 1982 Bentham Preparative Meeting lost its status as a separate meeting. However this was restored in 1989, but now we have less than 10 active members and its status is again in doubt.
Ralph E.H. Atkinson. This article is a shortened version of a talk given to the North Craven Heritage Trust. Photographs by the author.
Plague Stone, Low Bentham Road.
Friends' Old Burial Ground, Eldroth.
Calf Cop Meeting House.