The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Ireland marked the 350th anniversary of their presence in Ireland and, indeed, Waterford a few years ago. Their history in this city and its hinterland has been a noble and distinguished one. A Mayoral Civic Reception was held at City Hall hosted by Mayor Tom Cunningham at the time to celebrate and honour that proud history. As a community they were at the very heart of the commercial and industrial life of Waterford and raised its flag high in trading across the world. We will return to this story later.

Some history

The Society of Friends was founded at the time of the English revolution (mid 17th century, Cromwell and all that) by George Fox (16624-1691). Of the many sects that arose from the religious cauldron of revolutionary England, the Quakers survived and prospered. In the early years religious intensity often expressed itself in ‘shaking’ or ‘quaking’ before the Lord and so they became dubbed Quakers ever since and happy to do so as it has acquired a respected resonance over the centuries.

Those early years were far from easy and their preachers were frequently imprisoned for public expressions of their faith and they were seen as a thorn in the side of the established Anglican Church. The fact that the sect was growing and prospering was seen as an even greater threat. Little things, significant and revealing of their attitude – like the practice of keeping hats on indoors – originated with Fox’s determination not to make signs of obeisance to any man, including the king.

For Quakers, the spiritual life was understood in entirely personal terms, so that they did not employ sacraments or other outer forms of worship. The doctrine of the Inward Light saw Quakers’ speech as a prompting of the Spirit, and this developed into the style of silent worship of popular imagination. As any member may be ‘moved by the Spirit’ to witness, all members at a Quaker meeting for worship were potential ministers.

Therefore there is no clergy of any form in Quakerism, each one takes personal responsibility for one’s spiritual life. From the very beginning men and women were on equal footing, Margaret Fell, Fox’s wife, was an impressive woman and powerful personality, so there was little chance of a ‘little woman’ playing second fiddle!

Business heads

Financial prudence was their watchword in business affairs and therefore to run one’s business otherwise was deemed
unacceptable as this might lead to
bankruptcy which was regarded as dishonesty, as the money of others was put at risk. To minimise such a risk, the Quakers kept a close eye on each other’s commercial affairs. They trusted and helped each other and took the sons of relations and fellow-Quakers as apprentices. That proved very successful for the conduct of business. This system, their honest dealings and plain living enabled them to grow prosperous as manufacturers, tradesmen, bankers and merchants. Seamas O Maitiu, in his excellent book on the history of W&R Jacob, the famous biscuit makers, tells us that they eventually came to dominate key 18th century industries in Britain and Ireland. Quaker families became household names in the fields of iron-making, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and banking.

In the 19th century they went on to play a key role in new industries such as shoemaking, biscuit and chocolate making. Barclays, Lloyds, Price Waterhouse, Swan Hunter, Clarks’ shoes, Wedgewood, Huntley and Palmer, Cadbury, Fry’s, and Rowentree all have Quaker origins in England. In Ireland, famous Quaker business families include the Pims (pioneered railways in Ireland – including Waterford to Tramore) Grubbs, Bewleys, Lambs (remember the jams?). And very importantly the Waterford Quakers, firstly the Malcolmsons of the huge and world famous cotton mills of Portlaw and their equally famous Neptune shipbuilding company at Adelphi Quay. Indeed their SS Una was the first ship to sail through the Suez Canal (Bill Irish has a great book on the history of Waterford ship building).

The Penroses and the Whites were also into shipping. Brewing was long associated with Strangmans, Goffs and Davis, and of course the Penroses and Gatchells are famously linked with the introduction of glass-making into Waterford. The Penroses were also big movers and shakers in Cork around this time. I discovered recently. Jacobs founded their biscuit factory in Waterford at 33 Bridge Street as provisions for a teeming harbour of ships.

Their achievements in these areas alone have been truly remarkable especially when one remembers that they remained a minority sect never numbering more than one percent of the population in either England or Ireland. On reading the Malcolmson story, in particular, and their enormous achievements which was on a truly international scale, one wonders where are the monuments, the plaques, street names and city squares named in their honour. The same question could be asked of Sir Thomas Wyse who coincidently was born in 1791 in the house where the School was founded 7 years later.

Community service

From 1655 Waterford Quakers
established their roots in the parish of St John. In 1694 they procured a Meeting
House off Bowling Green Lane, on the site of the Christian Brothers School in Manor Street. At that time this very area was
teeming with all sorts of trades, crafts and a virtual hive of local industry. In later times circa 1893, the Meeting House (now still active in the form of Garter Lane Theatre) was relocated to O’Connell Street and finally to a site at Newtown- 1973. As described above they flourished over the centuries by dint of their industry and so did the prosperity of the city and its people as they were regarded as caring and
benevolent employers.

Their role during the Great Famine will always be appreciated especially in Waterford with the likes of Tuskar Lodging House, Munster Dining Rooms and
Famine Relief committees who did so
much for those who suffered so much hardship at that time.

Joan Johnson has written on this topic but also on the Ellis’s of Letterfrack who did so much practical good in bleakest Connemara during the same period. Over the three centuries plus various members of its community have served on the city’s Corporation and invariably also
involved in any major civic projects that enhanced the position of their city e.g. Bridges, Railways, Canals etc.

It is fitting

Adjacent to their original Meeting House on the Manor was their 17th & 19th century burial grounds where many of their distinguished forebears were interred. These grounds were sited along side John’s Lane and were given over to the Corporation in 1950, to be developed as a public amenity, and was thus the origin of Wyse Park. The paths of history cross here again as the
lands here were acquired by the Wyse
family (not Quakers) following the dissolution of the monasteries etc by Henry the 8th. Part of this estate (Manor St John) was subsequently acquired by the Quaker community. You can readily see where the local names came from. But as we are all painfully aware that this area had fallen into a sorry state but the local council finally swung into action in a restoration project and the area has undergone a significant improvement. There are a number of plaques erected there since to record that historical connection.

Of ethos and values

Their legacy to Waterford has been immense and the flag still flies, so to speak, in the form of Newtown School which was founded by the Quakers 210 years ago (1798) and is still sustained by the ethos of its founders which keeps it at the forefront of Irish education and prospering after all these years. This continued reputation it enjoys today is due in no small measure to its esteemed and highly respected Headmaster Henry Collins. He has led the school with distinction for the past 20 years, helping to maintain its reputation as the very epitome of Quaker educational ethos and values. In short, a gentleman of fine words and even finer deeds.

Go seachtain eile, slan