Tavistock History

From the Tavistock Times, 25 November 1977:



Second in a fortnightly series on local religion and religious buildings –

by Edward Vulliamy

“With your old leather britches

And your shaggy shaggy locks

You are tearing down the pillars

Of the world, George Fox”

"So runs a song about the rebel Christian, George Fox, whose vision and preaching inspired the foundation of the Religious Society of Friends, better known by its nick-name ‘Quakers’ in the mid-seventeenth century.

Fox referred to this part of the world as ‘that dark country’ because of a long term of imprisonment in Launceston jail, where there is still a plaque above his dungeon.

And in 1655 Fox came to Tavistock during the period when, based in Plymouth, he and other Quakers were ‘most actively engaged in everywhere spreading what was so happily called “the Truth”’, records recall.

The history of Tavistock Quaker Meeting by Mr Francis Dymond of Exeter, printed in 1899, says that Fox and his colleagues had ‘very conspicuous success’ in areas they are known to have visited!

But there was no settled Quaker Meeting in Tavistock until 1702, when Exeter Quarterly Meeting granted £1 4s. 0d. ‘for ye rent of a house to mett in at Tavistock’.

After 275 years, Tavistock’s Friends meet in a canal cottage built, as the pointed windows would suggest, in the early 19th century. It may well have been built with the canal in 1817.

Silence is the means by which the Friends at a meeting are drawn together, and this stillness should be broken only by the words or prayers of any Friend wishing to speak on something about which he or she feels deeply.

But Tavistock’s Quakers have not always been too well placed to achieve the silence. The present Meeting House is in the Canal Road car park, and harbours public toilets whose plumbing systems can be heard through the stillness of a Sunday morning.

And in a Room in Exeter Street, used from 1823, when the Society expanded in Tavistock, Meetings were ‘frequently disturbed by loud talking and other noises in the courtyard which the room adjoined’, wrote Mr Dymond.

And this was only ‘in addition to the disadvantages of the situation’, says Mr Dymond, for ‘Exeter Street was in a poor locality, little better than what is now called a “slum”’.

Of the 36 Friends who attended in the 1830s, several were involved in the copper and tin mining industries, or trades dependent on them.

And it was at this time that representatives of the Society went to see the Duke of Bedford at his house in Endsleigh to arrange for the building of a Meeting House to hold 100 people ‘at the Princetown end of what is now the Dolvin Road cemetery’.

The Quakers in Tavistock were now poised for their heyday when over 60 people, many of them young, attended Meetings regularly.

A diarist called Mr Stephen Grellet recalled in 1832 a youth for whom ‘the pleasures of the world had no attractions’.

‘His delight was to retire to the woods or lonely places to wait upon the Lord. He knew nothing of Friends, and the manner he had heard them spoken of rather prejudiced his mind against them.’

However, this youth was joined by others and ‘became acquainted with the Society’. This was the core of Tavistock’s largest ever meeting.

Mary Tavy and Whitchurch were Quaker strongholds, says Mr Dymond.

Beside the Meeting House was a Quaker graveyard, and the first man interred, in 1836,was John Tresize, a miner crushed by a falling rock.

‘It will be remembered that Tavistock was not, as it is now, served by two Railway companies’, Mr Dymond reminds his readers.

Quakers in Tavistock became dependent on the Swarthmore Meeting House in Plymouth after the final closure of the Dolvin Road building in 1870.

But after the second world war, Mr Melville Bickford, a Tavistock Lloyds Bank manager who died in Plymouth this year, revived the Meeting in the reading room of the former Tavistock subscription library at Abbey Gate.

With him was Tavistock teacher and artist Mr Vic Gregory, an attender (non-member) at meetings. – Mr Gregory recalls that kindred spirits in Tavistock were brought together by their opposition to the fighting of World War Two.

Eventually, that small Meeting was dissolved. The Meeting was revived again in 1971 by a group of Friends who met once a month in each other’s houses rather than go every week to meet at the Swarthmore in Plymouth.

And by 1976, the Friends had decided that for the Society to make itself known in the town, it would have to meet weekly and in a public place. And the Quakers took a lease on the council-owned cottage in Canal Road in January, 1975.

The cottage was build for a canal worker and his family, and is identical to that at Mill Hill, which was once another of the three termini on the canal.

The local authorities used the cottage as a storage place. The District’s ballot boxes are still kept in a small upstairs room.

But Tavistock Rural District council had planned to pull down the group of buildings of which the cottage was one. Devon County council set up a committee to retain the buildings, and on the committee was County Councillor and Plymouth Friend, Mr Francis Lawson.

‘It never occurred to me at that time what the building would be used for,’ says Mr Lawson. ‘There was not even a Friends Meeting in Tavistock then. But I’m glad it is being made good use of.’

The cottage is now a building listed by the Department of the Environment.

The local Friends celebrated their lease of the cottage in 1975 with an exhibition of books and pamphlets to inform people about the Society.

The Meeting House is used during the week by local groups like Tavistock’s Amnesty International branch and for adult literacy classes. The Oxfam committee and a Transcendental Meditation group have also used the House.

The Society has never set aside people as Priests or Ministers. ‘Everyone,’ says a Friends statement, ‘has an equal part to play.’"


‘Friends’ in ‘Tavistock’s Yesterdays: Episodes From Her History’, Book 10, by G Woodcock, first published in 1994 by the author and printed by Penwill Ltd, Kelly Bray, Callington, Cornwall:

"The Society of Friends was formed in the middle of the seventeenth century. Commonly known as the Quakers, the Friends were to show a strength and endurance scarcely matched among the many movements and sects that grew out of the turmoil of that extraordinary period of English history.

They had already gained footholds in Devon by 1668, when George Fox, the founder of the Society, paid the last of his four visits to the county. There is, however, no evidence from this early date of there being Friends in Tavistock, or of meetings being held there. The earliest reference to Quaker activity in the town came a little later, in 1702.

On August 1st 1702 a meeting of members of the Society, held in Exeter, authorised the payment of a sum of twenty-four shillings to a Richard Hingston "for ye Rent of a house to meet in at Tavistock". If, as a result of this, premises were hired, there is no record of where they were. The absence, in the minutes of later regional meetings of the Society, of further payments may suggest that the attempt to establish a regular Quaker presence in Tavistock had been premature. Indeed, there is no record throughout the eighteenth century, in for example the Diocesan Reports that normally included such information, of a meeting house. An application for a licence for such a house was lodged, in 1740, apparently at the behest of a supporter who worked in the Duke of Bedford's estate office, but it was not pursued. And no eighteenth century vicar of the parish in submitting reports to his superiors of dissenting activity, made any mention of Quakers The most likely interpretation is that, throughout the century, a small group of Friends in the area kept alive what they called "The Truth", but that they never constituted a number sufficient to make possible a permanent meeting house.

In 1821 Vicar Bray became the first incumbent of the parish to report the existence of a group of Friends. "The Quakers", he wrote, "have but lately appeared, and I know not that they have a place of worship". He obviously was not aware of their presence, however sporadic, over the previous century, but his uncertainty over their worship was understandable. The Quaker community consisted, at that date, of five families. Two years later this small group felt sufficient confidence in the future to obtain what was almost certainly the first permanent meeting place. A room in a house in one of the slum tenements of Exeter Street was made serviceable, and there the Friends worshipped for a period of ten years, during which time their numbers increased to thirty-six. The sat isfaction of having a home of their own was real, although it was found that meditation was often disturbed by noise from the adjoining yard. Such distractions were troublesome but an even greater problem arose with the attempt to squeeze thirty-six Friends into a small room for worship.

In 1834 the small, but growing, community decided that something must be done. And, this being Tavistock, that "something" was an appeal to the Duke of Bedford. The Duke's family had always valued its reputation as a supporter of the rights of dissenters, and the request was sympathetically received and promptly responded to. A site was provided on Dolvin Road, some 100 yards from Abbey Bridge, and on the right hand side of the road as you left the town. A rectangular plot, 65 feet long and about 125 feet in depth, was surrounded by a wall, the line of which can still be discerned. Here was to be a small meeting house surrounded by a burial ground. The building was a square, stone structure with a capacity of about 100. It was opened on June 11th 1835, when forty-two Friends attended the inaugural meeting. Attendances on the following Sunday were said to be sixty-three in the morning and about fifty in the evening. These numbers, which included well-wishers from Plymouth and from further afield, were not to be sustained when the congregation had settled down to a routine pat- tern of meetings. The numbers recorded by the Ecclesiastical Census on March 30th 1851 may, at sixteen and fifteen for the two services, be a more accurate guide to the strength of the local community of Friends.
By 1865, there had been a decline to a situation where the only two regular attenders were a brother and sister. For five years these two Friends ensured that the meeting house opened each Sunday morning. In 1870, however, thirty-five years after its opening, the house was forced to close. The lease on the property, dated July 1836, was in 1877 surrendered to the Duke in return for a payment of £50. At the same time the furnishings were removed to the Plymouth House, and the building, described as "in a state of dilapidation from disuse", was, in 1879, demolished. The enclosing wall was removed, so that the site became merged into what was now the Dolvin Road cemetery. It remains unclear how many Quakers had been buried on the old enclosure. John Tresize, a miner killed in an underground accident in February 1836, had been the first. The only distinctively Quaker headstone to survive bears the names of two people who died in 1849, and who, because they were victims of cholera, found their resting places in the far south-eastern reaches of the Dolvin Road site.

The demolition of the meeting house brought to an end the life of the Tavistock Society. There was to be a gap of three quarters of a century before any attempt was made to revive it. After the Second World War, Melville Bickford, a local bank manager, led a small number of Friends in a revival which re-established the local Society in a room at Court Gate. The group was, as its predecessors, numerically weak, to the extent that the arrival or departure of one family could make the difference between survival and oblivion. By 1955 it had closed, and the scattered handful of Quakers in the region were once more obliged to travel to Plymouth to attend worship.

In 1971 there was a further, and, as it turned out, a more securely founded restoration. Members of the Society met in each other's homes until, in 1975, they settled into an early nineteenth century building on the wharf. To worship in a listed building seems, somehow, appropriate to the Quakers, who may share with their house the distinctions of being both historically significant and relevant in a contemporary setting."

From 'The Beginning of Quakerism in Devon & Cornwall' by Hubert Fox, 1985

"In 1663 George Fox returned to the West Country. At Topsham he met Margaret Fell and her daughters Sarah and Mary, then went to Totnes where he likely visited Edward and Joanne Edmunds, and then Henry Pollexfen at Kingsbridge, where a large meeting was held. Henry went with Fox to Plymouth, and to Justice Porter in Cornwall, and to Thomas Mount where they held another large meeting at Halbathic, near Liskeard. There was yet another large meeting at Humphrey Lower’s, then a general meeting for the whole county at Loveday Hambley’s farm. Fox rode on to Land’s End and returned, holding meetings wherever he went. He came into Devon over Horsebridge near Tavistock, and rode through Tiverton to Cullompton and Wellington. In his Journal he wrote that the officers who broke up meetings had to hire carts and lift Friends to take them to the Justices, and when the townspeople refused to pay the bill for the carts the officers had to pay it themselves! William Waldron, Squire of Bradfield, was a moderate Justice, so when a cartload of Quakers was brought to him he went into hiding."


From 'Early Records of the Society of Friends in Devonshire' by Dimond, 1873:

"p.44 12mo 1740 A licence to be obtained for a meeting in a house at Tavistock, ‘there being a Friend of good repute settled there as steward to the Duke of Bedford, namely Jarvis Knight."

"p.63 The Tavistock and Torquay Meeting-houses are now [in 1873] held by a similar tenure [ie leasehold for 99 years], the term in the former case commencing in 1836, and in the latter in 1853."


From 'The Quaker Meeting Houses of Britain' Vol 1, p.142, by David Butler, publishers Friends’ Historical Society 1999:

"A meeting was settled in Tavistock by 1702, for which in that year Quarterly Meeting paid a year’s rent of £1.4.0 for a room or house*. There are occasional references to a meeting in subsequent years, including the proposal in 1740 to obtain a license for the current premises, and another mention in 1785. In 1823 a new meeting was settled, for which in 1835 a meeting house was built on a leasehold site of 22 x 42 yeards in Dolvin Road, at a cost of about £1,500. It was a plain square stone building seating about 100; the land behind was first used for burials in 1836. Upon the closing of the meeting in 1876, the property was surrendered for £50 to the landlord, the Duke of Bedford. The seats were taken to the Sunday school at Plymouth meeting house, and the building was demolished soon after.

The meeting was revived in 1951 and again in 1975, meeting at Canal Road, which from 1983 is referred to as the meeting house.

*From “Early Records of the Society of Friends in Devonshire” by Dimond, 1873: “To Richard Hingeston for ye rent of a house to mett in at Tavistock £1.04.0.”


From the Tavistock Times, 11 Nov 1983:

"More Rent: “Rent for Friends’ meeting house on Tavistock wharf to be raised from £100 to £400 pa. Accepted, if the premises can be sublet; this agreeable to West Devon Council’s Policy & Resources Committee."


From 'Documents in Advance, for the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 1986 (Exeter):

"Tavistock has been a PM for eleven years now. It meets in the upstairs front room (the stairs are steep) of a Georgian canal wharf cottage. The meeting room furniture includes three benches that started life in Tavistock’s meeting house (1834-70), went to Plymouth to be used in the Treville Street adult school, and came back here in 1975. The mantelpiece has an alarm clock, a vase of flowers, and holiday postcards sent by members. A relaxed and homely scene. On a cold Sunday, it is good to find the room warm. Perhaps as many as six or eight young children come up with their parents. It was lovely when Nick used to sit and look slowly round the room, making eye contact with each worshipper in turn; but children change so quickly. After 15 minutes – and it’s now 10.15 – the children and their helpers go downstairs, and there remains another half hour of meeting. How often this is enriched by the presence of an enquirer! Quite a number of these have come first through being in the meeting room in a peace group meeting, and half a dozen of these have joined Friends. The low centre table glows: old, polished mahogany, with a bowl of flowers, the Bible, the books of discipline, pamphlets “Your first time in a Quaker meeting”, the Queries and Advices, and the collecting bowl.

After meeting there is a cup of tea and a biscuit – and that valuable half-hour of conversation with the fragrance of worship still around. Preparative meeting (to which the attenders are invited) or a discussion may follow. Three quarters of the members live outside the town, up to eight miles away; so Sunday is their only contact with Friends".


From Devon Libraries Local Studies Service: Tavistock Community page:

"The Abbey Bridge was built in 1764: and widened in 1859-60. Vigo Bridge*, also over the Tavy, dates from 1773. Near here the beautiful Quaker Cemetery should be noticed, with its clipped cypresses, rhododendrons, weeping willows, and great copper beeches."

*Note: Vigo Bridge, in Vigo Bridge Rd., crosses the Tamar east of Lawsons. The cemetery is on the east side of the bridge, in Mount Tavy Road (the road to Princetown). The 1835 Meeting House, now demolished, was in Dolvin Road, the continuation of Mount Tavy Road to the south-west. It was probably adjacent to the cemetery. AR-J