The Friends Meeting House in Lewes

a brief guide

The Quaker movement reached Lewes in 1655 when Thomas Robinson 'Declared the Truth' at The Croft - John Russell's house in Southover High Street. Later that year George Fox and Alexander Parker came to a meeting in the same house. For several years afterwards Quakers met in private houses, or held occasional meetings in public. At that time any worship, other than that of the established church, was illegal, and many Quakers were heavily fined or imprisoned for holding meetings, for refusing to pay tithes, and refusing to attend church.

In 1675 Quakers opened their first meeting house, in Friars Walk, about 100 yards north of the present building. It probably consisted of an ordinary house with some of the walls between rooms removed to make more space. At that time the authorities had the right to tear down any illegal places of worship, but Friends appointed Jane Kidder to live in the meeting house so that it should count as a dwelling house which was not subject to demolition.

In 1674 a deed was signed for a ''burying ground' in Lewes, but the first record that we have of a burial in Friars Walk dates back to 1697 when a lease for 1000 years was agreed with John Newnham of Barcombe.

In 1782 there were plans to enlarge the meeting house, at first by 'extending the building in length', and then by taking off the roof and preparing two convenient chambers on the second floor. Discussions went on for some time, but the presence of a slaughterhouse on one side and a noisy carpenter's workshop on the other were felt sufficient reason to build elsewhere. In 1784 work began on the present meeting house, sited on an unused part of the burial ground.

The new meeting house was expected to cost 220, of which 100 would come from the sale of the old one. The Particular Baptists bought the old building for 110, while the final cost of the new building was 229.8.6. The carpenter in charge of the work was George Whyles, and Thomas Boxall was the bricklayer.

In 1801 and later in 1812 some alterations were made, as the meeting room wasn't large enough. Since then, except for the fitting of electric light and central heating, the interior of the meeting room has hardly changed, but the outside has been extended several times.

The whole of the grass area was once the burial ground. Until the middle of last century Quakers didn't permit grave stones. Recently the stones that had been dotted about the grass were moved back into rows against the wall.

The part of the building that appears to be red brick is deceptive. A careful examination will reveal that the bottom three feet of the wall really is brick, but further up the walls consist of a wooden frame covered with 'mathematical tiles', which are overlapping tiles which were nailed onto the front of many timberframed buildings in Lewes to make them look like brick. Notice the specially made black tiles framing the windows. The porch, with its white pillars, looks just a little too large. It covers the place where the two original doorways were, one, with a small wooden porch into the meeting room and the other into the warden's rooms.

Now go to the left hand (south) side. If you look carefully under the window you will see that this was once a doorway - the entrance to the warden's rooms which replaced the original entrance after the porch was built. This end of the building was extended about 10 feet to the south.

The white frontage at the north end covers the area where a warden's cottage was built in mid-Victorian times. The other porch and the brick part to the right were added in 1978 when the kitchen, library and children's rooms were provided on the ground floor, and the warden's flat extended upstairs.

Enter through the porch at the centre. A flight of stairs leads up to the warden's flat, while the door on the left, inserted in 1976, leads to the meeting room. This is often used for a variety of activities, some run by Quakers and others by members of outside groups who borrow or hire the room. Usually you will find the benches arranged in a hollow square with a small table in the centre.

This is where Quakers, who refer to themselves as 'Friends', hold their meetings for worship. There are no special places, as there are no ordained ministers, and no officials play any special part in the meeting except by shaking hands after about an hour to indicate its close. Anyone is welcome to attend. At the beginning of the meeting people come in quietly and sit where they choose. Gradually they settle down. Sometimes everyone will remain silent for the whole hour, but quite often, after the introductory period of silence, someone will rise to speak. Most people are reluctant to speak, and do so only when a feeling of compulsion comes over them. The attempt to discern whether it is right to speak, is still referred to as 'Quaking'.

This arrangement of the room is comparatively new. Once the seats all faced the low platform which then extended the full width of the room. Men sat on the benches on one side, nearest the door, and women on the other side, facing the platform which was known as the stand, or the ministers' gallery, Any Friend whose spoken contributions were thought particularly helpful could be 'recorded' as a minister, and would then sit in the ministers' gallery. This encouraged Friends to study and develop their gifts, but as it tended to discourage others from taking a full part in Meeting the practice of recording ministers was discontinued in 1926.

Benches in front of the ministers were reserved for the elders, who kept careful watch for anyone falling asleep or otherwise behaving inappropriately. At the back is the 'public gallery', useful on the occasions when the main part of the meeting room was too crowded. Last century children from the several Quaker schools in the town would sit upstairs. At that time men's business meetings were held in the gallery, while women met below, and the front of the gallery could be closed by wooden shutters.

At the back there are three adjacent doors. The two doors which are now fixed are the original ones. When the Meeting House was built the meeting room only went as far back as the two wooden pillars, and the gallery came forward about 6 feet further than it does now. The room wasn't large enough, so the back wall was removed and rebuilt several feet further back. This left the gallery extending behind the staircase; not an ideal arrangement but the best that could be managed. In 1986 death watch beetle was discovered beneath the floor. It was necessary to remove all of the floorboards for treatment, and only about 1/3 of them were in good enough condition to be replaced. The original boards had extended only to the first back wall, and new lengths had been inserted when the room was extended. Several stones were set into the floor. At least one was the base of an enclosed stove, but the function of the others is not clear.

How the Meeting House Grew