High-mindedness on the low road

The Quakers
January 2, 1998

The Society of Friends, popularly known as the Quakers, were the most respectable of revolutionaries. In their origins, they embodied the dissidence of dissent in its most uncompromising form. They rejected totally the idea of church and clergy, religion in its formal guise, whether inspired by hierarchical authority or the rule of the scriptures. They were millenarians who proclaimed the supreme power of "the inner light". Led by George Fox, they would break up or interrupt church services, often ending up in brawls or in prison. In Restoration England, they endured violence and persecution, until the Toleration enshrined in the settlement after 1689. In civil terms, they rejected distinctions of privilege or rank, and the authority of the state, central or local, over their codes or worship. They were liberal or radical in outlook from the 17th century to the 20th. They took up unpopular causes such as prison reform and opposition to slavery and war. They were pioneers of equality for women and racial minorities. For all their small numbers (their ranks barely exceeded 20,000 down to the first half of the present century), they were a leaven of protest and dissent, foremost among the "troublemakers" of whom A. J. P. Taylor, himself a rebellious "reeve" (prefect) at the famous Quaker school, Bootham's York, was the remembrancer.

And yet these attractive idealists also embodied an almost chilling rectitude and moral discipline. They controlled the upbringing of their children and censored the publications of their connection with almost totalitarian zeal. They feared the arts as liable to stir up worldly or fleshly enthusiasms. They championed austerity in speech, conduct and dress; a liberal breakaway group, delightfully termed "the gay Friends", was denounced. These outcasts became the unlikely champions of social conformity. They believed in public honour and ferocious self-regulation; in their business affairs they embodied strictness in financial dealings and altruism towards their work-force. Their creed seemed almost too honourable for this naughty world -and indeed it was. As they prospered in commerce and business in the 18th and 19th centuries, these selfless disciples of the inner light became harbingers of materialism and the conspicuous consumption that went with it. The cocoa magnates -JFry of Bristol, Rowntree of York, above all Cadbury of Birmingham -were led into adopting the most ostentatious, even sensationalist forms of mass marketing and advertising. The paternalism that inspired Quaker model villages at Bournville and New Earswick were condemned by class-conscious workers and their trade unions. Quakers turned a blind eye to the fact that Barclays's banking practices thrived on slave labour in the West Indies, that pacifist Quaker ironmasters such as the Darby dynasty benefited from the mass proceeds of European war, and that Quaker chocolate enterprise in York flourished while 28 per cent of its underpaid workforce was in various stages of poverty, as the Quaker Seebohm Rowntree himself remorselessly demonstrated. In the end, the Quaker regime, like every projected rule of the saints throughout history, offered passive obedience to the compromises of power and profit. The high-minded had to shuffle along the low road. To quote Lionel Robbins, a good man had unwittingly entered a brothel -"and rather enjoyed it".

The moral culture of this remarkable minority is depicted in James Walvin's attractive but inevitably slight book, based on secondary sources. A product of his earlier research into the anti-slavery movement and the Rowntree dynasty in York, it provides a succinct survey from the origins in the civil war and Cromwellian eras down to the early 20th century. It well illuminates the tensions between theory and practice in the Quaker world -the difficulty in imposing central direction on a necessarily anarchic structure; disputes over Quaker education that led to an unusual emphasis on scientific pursuits such as botany; the eventually successful attempt to halt the decline in numbers in the later 19th century. It emerged then that Quaker discipline had been not just severe but suicidal; the ending of the rule by which Quakers who "married out" were expelled from the connection worked wonders.

Other aspects of the Quaker world are not dealt with so satisfactorily. We learn almost nothing about the transatlantic links with brethren in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. The politics of the Quaker world are covered only superficially: nothing, for instance, about their role in newspaper publishing that saw George Cadbury become a pivotal figure in the radical revival and the rise of Lloyd George through his purchase of the Daily News during the Boer war. The concluding discussion of Quaker influence on New Liberalism and social reform is superficial. To attribute the rise of the welfare state almost entirely to the writings of Seebohm Rowntree exaggerates the influence of that undoubtedly innovative and inspirational social scientist. The author might also have explored the Quaker impact in other areas of life, such as science or academie. An ascetic figure such as Oliver Franks was a towering exemplar of the Quaker ethos of "Be Faithful", as don, ambassador and all-purpose public servant.

What Walvin does provide, however, is an account of the extraordinary impact of this tiny sect on industry, banking and trade at the take-off phase of the industrial era. It is an astonishing story of enterprise and dynastic networking. Up to three-quarters of the iron industry in its early phase was in Quaker hands, headed by the Darby family of Coalbrookdale renown. Financing the new industrial enterprises were major Quaker banks such as the Peases and Gurneys; two of today's four major banking houses are of Quaker origin: the Scottish Barclays and the Welsh Lloyds. In the revolution in consumer goods in the 19th century, people bought their chocolate and cocoa from Fry, Cadbury and Rowntree (supplemented by fruit pastilles in the last case); their biscuits from the Quaker companies of Carrs, Peek Freans and above all, the Reading giant, Huntley and Palmers; their shoes from the Quaker Clarks; their pills from the Quaker Allen and Hanburys; their matches from the Quaker Bryant and Mays. Victorian wash-days featured lavish use of Reckitt's starch and "blue". Other Friends were Swan Hunter in shipbuilding and Price Waterhouse in accounting. Without Quaker enterprise, British capitalism would have followed a different and perhaps less dynamic course.

Some aspects of this were predictably ugly -witness the notorious role of Bryant and May in the match-girls' strike of 1888. But what redeemed the Quakers as capitalists as well as believers was an enduring strain of ethical commitment. From Elizabeth Fry to Seebohm Rowntree, they offered distinctive diagnoses of disregarded social ills. They were early in seeing the need for purposive state intervention to replace ill-directed charitable voluntarism. In the abolition of the slave trade, they forged a paradigm of reforming idealism that carried on through Buxtons and Noel-Bakers into the labour movement. The Quakers were, and felt themselves to be, an elite, commercial and spiritual, God's revolutionary vanguard. But by translating their private ethic to the public domain they promoted a wider creed of improvement. Edward Gibbon wrote of the early Christians that it was not in this world that they sought either to be agreeable or useful.The Quakers, their natural heirs, proved to be both.

Kenneth O. Morgan is a fellow, Queen's College, Oxford.

The Quakers: Money and Morals

Author - James Walvin
ISBN - 0 7195 5750 X
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £22.00
Pages - 243

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