The Quakers – founded in the 1640s by George Fox – believed that true Christians should ‘quake’ in awe before God. They thought that everyone, including women, had the right to speak out during meetings.
Quakers objected to swearing, doffing their hats to ‘superiors’, … payment of tithes, payment for the building or upkeep of churches, which they called steeple houses.
They insisted on meeting for public worship in the open, or on their own premises, reproving vice or immorality publicly, even invading steeplehouses (churches) to do so, and using their own clergymen for marrying and burying.
For any of these ‘offences’ transgressors were subjected to a variety of punishments – imprisonment, fines, seizure of their property, flogging or to be turned out of town
(extract from Vol 1. 1650–60 An Abstract of the Sufferings of the People called Quakers )
A large group of Quakers was active in the village during the latter half of the seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth. They were in constant conflict with the authorities, their crimes ranging from refusing to take the oath of allegiance, through not paying their tithes to ‘suffering meetings to be held in their house’. Inevitably Fovant Quakers experienced considerable aggression from the authorities. The records of the Society of Friends state that in 1661 John Merryweather and his sons John and Andrew, members of a prominent Fovant Quaker family, were apprehended in their house, arrested and taken to Fisherton Gaol in Salisbury. Members of other Fovant Quaker families, Abbot, Day, Strong, or Scammell also suffered the same fate for similar reasons.
Such determination to hold to their beliefs eventually paid off for, according to the record of the Quarter Sessions held at Devizes on 14th April 1702, ‘The several dwelling houses of Osmond Day and Elizabeth Dunn and James Abbott all of Fovant in the county of Wilts, are set apart and intended to be made use of for the exercise of religious worship by Protestant dissenters called Quakers.’.
Elizabeth Dunn, in her will dated 1705, left land in Fovant to be used as ‘a burial ground for my brethren called Quakers’. This was situated in the north-east corner of the former garden of The Poplars public house, in Sutton Road. In the late 1990s the pub was demolished in preparation for a housing development. Before building could start an archaeological excavation took place in order to determine whether any Quaker burials had occurred there. No evidence was ever found. Furthermore, there are no burials at Fovant recorded in the List of Deeds of Meeting Houses and Burial Grounds in the Wiltshire Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends covering the period 1648–1837.
That so many of the die-hard Quaker family names, Abbott, Day, Strong, Merryweather and Scammell appear in subsequent Fovant Parish Registers would seem to suggest that at least some members of these families were assimilated into the religious life of the village church. By 1783 the Bishop’s Visitation Records report that ‘There are no Presbyterians, Anabaptists or Quakers in the Parish, and the Parishioners are decently regular’. The Bishop was misinformed. The Quakers had either moved on or become adjusted to religious life in Fovant, but Nonconformity was alive and well in the village, simmering, biding its time.
Click on the link below to find more information on an investigation into the Fovant Meeting House and Burial Ground: