A short history of Quakerism in Devizes
The first Quaker Meeting in Devizes started in the 1650s. They described themselves as Friends of Truth, the name Quakers being given to them by others, and we are still officially the Religious Society of Friends. William Penn, one of the early Publishers of Truth, writes of speaking to a large public meeting in the Market Hall at Devizes.
Under Charles II, despite persecution, it was estimated that Devizes Quakers numbered nearly 100. They met in private houses, as did other groups in Bromham, Heddington and Market Lavington.
The authorities in Potterne and Bishops Cannings were particularly fierce. A Potterne blacksmith was imprisoned for several years and his house and goods were confiscated. His wife and children were dependent on the better off Quakers for their survival. This was one of many such cases which caused numerous Friends to emigrate to Pennsylvania, the colony given to William Penn in 1681.
Numbers declined throughout the 18th century, partly because many emigrated to Pennsylvania, and the Meeting died out in 1824. But before its end it included for 11 years a famous preacher, Samuel Capper (1782-1852), who toured the British Isles every summer addressing great crowds of poor people whom the churches ignored. His other concerns included adult education, the Bible Society, the temperance movement and animal welfare.
The burial ground, now part of Hillworth Park, dates from 1665. As soon as the Act of Toleration was passed in 1689, Quakers built a meeting house there. Then in 1702 they built another in the High Street, which was sold in 1926 and is now a private house. The one on the burial ground was let as a dwelling and has since disappeared. The ground was sold in 1905.
Devizes Meeting was revived as a small group in 1854 and struggled on until 1907. The last Quaker family was the Simpsons, Edward Simpson being a grocer and Mayor of Devizes in 1907-8. They retired to Somerset in 1919 and we know of no Friends in the town until about 1975, when a small worshipping group was formed. This grew until we felt the need to build our own meeting house, which was opened in April 1994.
The term Quaker has long been associated with the avenue of trees leading from New Park Road towards Roundway village (and confusingly with a new housing development). However, old maps name it as Keeper’s Walk, connecting it with the house occupied by the Keeper of the New Deerpark. Perhaps the association arose because in the earliest period of our Meeting many members lived in Bishops Cannings parish and approached Devizes by this route.