The 1650s were a time of tremendous political and religious upheaval in the United Kingdom, including in central Somerset. Glastonbury Abbey had been “dissolved” only just over a century before, resulting in a great many literate former monks being absorbed by the local community, and the Bible had been translated into English and printed, making it available to ordinary laymen and women. The terrible Civil War, culminating with the execution of Charles I, had only just finished (and a few years later, another uprising was also to occur locally, ending in the Battle of Sedgemoor). When some of George Fox’s followers arrived in the West Country in 1655, many people listened to them and were “convinced”, and a Meeting was established in Street in 1656.
The first recorded Quakers in Street include Henry Gundry and his six brothers and sisters; they gave land for a Quaker burial ground somewhere between “Living Homes” and the NatWest Bank, now under the Clarks Village carpark. They usually met in each others’ houses on Sundays, although for a while they used the Abbot’s kitchen in Glastonbury Abbey.
Because Quakers refused to take oaths (according to Jesus’ teaching), refused to pay tithes (not wishing to support the established Church of England), worshipped in silence and without rituals and sacraments, and also did not take up arms, they were considered a seditious lot, and many of them ended up in the jail at Ilchester.
In 1682, Henry Clothier, married to Henry Gundry’s sister Elizabeth, moved from Alford to what is now Middleleigh Farm in Street. A little later, John Clark of Greinton moved to Street. Because Quakers insisted on marriage within the Society of Friends, Clarks and Clothiers intermarried, and were later joined by Morlands.
However, in 1750, John Clark’s great-grandson, also John Clark, caused consternation when he proposed to marry Jane Bryant of Greinton; she was an Anglican! One of the Quaker Elders warned him, “If thee marry this giddy girl of Greinton, thee will bring thy father’s grey hairs down in sorrow to the grave!” His cousin James Clothier recommended waiting until “she may come to join the Friends”. Nevertheless, John married Jane in Greinton church. Wishing to avoid being “disowned” by the Quaker Meeting, he apologized contritely to them, and Jane did indeed become a Friend herself; later they were both appointed Elders.
John and Jane’s second son, Joseph, married Frances (“Fanny”) Sturge while his cousin John Clothier married her sister Celia, in a joint wedding in the Quaker Meeting House in Olverton, Gloucester, in 1794. Joseph and Fanny had three sons, Joseph II who inherited the family farm, Hindhayes, in Street, and Cyrus and James who were to start the Clark shoe business.
Meanwhile, Friends in Street had built a Meeting House, on land donated them by Hannah Banks and John Godwin, in the early eighteenth century, on the site of the present building which replaced the original in 1850.
Over the centuries, Quakers had become accepted as a perhaps eccentric sect, no longer a threat to the safety of the country. They developed a reputation for hard work and for honesty, and Clarks Shoes were one of many Quaker companies that arose in the nineteenth century, along with other Quakers who became prominent in scientific discoveries. Because of the “testimony” of simplicity, earnings were often re-invested in the companies, rather than being spent on luxuries. The welfare of their workers was of great concern to Quaker companies, and so money was spent on improved housing for them, on schools, and on opportunities for leisure activities that would provide an alternative to excessive indulgence in the local cider or beer! Street is a good example of this.
Quakers have also promoted peaceful resolution of conflicts, and many, including some in Street, became Conscientious Objectors during the First World War, in spite of extreme persecution. In the Second, being a CO was more respectable. In the First, some Quakers who did “join up” were disowned, but by the Second, it was left to the individual’s conscience. After both wars, Quakers became very active in relieving the suffering that followed. A local example is Dr Hilda Clark who ran a maternity hospital in France during WWI, and then ran the Quaker relief programme in Vienna after it; she and her great friend Edith Pye, a nurse, are now buried near this Meeting House.
Quakers have always been involved in education, both in providing schools for Quaker children (such as Sidcot, in north Somerset) and for the general community. Living Homes in Street now occupies the former “Board School”, built with money made by supplying boots to soldiers in the Crimean War (Clarks felt they needed to reduce the suffering of the soldiers, but must not profit themselves thereby!), and Elmhurst School is centered around the former home of Cyrus Clark. There are many Quaker teachers, both in Quaker schools and elsewhere.
And present-day Quakers in Street? Judge for yourself!