High Flatts Meeting House

This page relates to a visit I took to High Flatts Quaker meeting house in October 2008 when it was not being used for a meeting. I didn't know much about Quakers before my visit other than they used to wear wide-brimmed black hats with a buckle (think 'Quaker Oats'); that they are pacifist and they don't make much noise. I was aware of them being something of an irritant to the church authorities when their movement first started. From a historical point of view, Quakerism has been (might still be) strong in our area.

The main idea of Quakerism appears to be a rejection of authority but it emphasises a spiritual and personal meditation. An abiding principle is that everyone has within them 'that which is of God'. Meetings are reputed to be quiet affairs where people sit in contemplation, although impromptu proclamations ('ministeries') will occur from time to time. For people like me with little knowledge about this sort of thing, here is something which I lifted from a Quaker website:

What are "Quakers"?
Quakers are members of the Religious Society of Friends, a faith that emerged as a new Christian denomination in England during a period of religious turmoil in the mid-1600's and is practiced today in a variety of forms around the world. To members of this religion, the words "Quaker"and "Friend" mean the same thing. The Quaker way of life is described as 'simple, contemporary and radical, with no dogma or creed.'

Penistone has some evidence of Quaker activity, especially Chapel Farm (Mill's farm) on Chapel Lane and Lumbroyd is a typical Quaker burial ground just up the road, to the left of the crossroads. The Quaker connection is an interesting part of Penistone area's historical heritage. According to the wall plaque, this was the site of a former Friends Meeting House which had a good eighty-four year run from 1763 to 1847. It was demolished in 1859, which was around the time when Penistone acquired a railway.

Quaker burial grounds appear to have a pattern of being enclosed by walls with trees around the periphery. The first view below of their spinney is from the bottom of the Hartcliff hill and this helps you to locate it. From this direction you would turn right after you see a seat on your left. There's not much to see really. I have long suspected that a similar spinney up the road from Castle Dam might also be a Quaker burial ground.


Quaker Bottom
The main meeting place in our area today is at High Flatts, where you can see a gate sign marked as the 'Society of Friends', clearly visible from the main road. It leads down to 'Quaker Bottom'. This name has long been associated with the High Flatts Meeting House area (not from the hazard of sitting on hard seats for too long). In 1764, James Jenkins of Bristol described High Flatts as a desolate area of rough moorland of about fourteen miles long and seven miles wide, when he visited as a ten year old boy. When he returned in 1799, much of the land was enclosed but he still described it as mainly wilderness. Going back more than a century earlier to the beginnings of Quaker meetings, you can imagine how remote and bleak it was in its elevated position.

The Beginnings
If a legend is true, High Flatts is one of the earliest Quaker developments in the country. The story goes that John Firth of Shepley stood guard over George Fox (1624-1691 often named as the founder of Quakerism) who was incarcerated in Nottingham Castle during the early 1640s. At that time, the law demanded that everyone attend church on Sundays (under the Conventicle Acts). It was difficult and dangerous to have other kinds of religious meetings. John Firth is said to have deserted in 1642 and brought what he learnt of George Fox's philosophy back with him and the Quaker movement took hold in the area.

Quakers were diverse people looking for a spiritual religion rather than the established religion of conformity. They wrote pamphlets on Truth, Equality, Simplicity and Peace, which still have some relevance in the modern age. One reason why Quakers were persecuted and imprisoned in the early days was that they refused to swear oaths.

LanePorchOutsideD Cooke explaining
View from upstairsDate Stone 1697GraveyardThe view

Back to High Flatts. A barn was adopted by the Quakers and, by the 1650s, meetings were being held there. You can see JBE 1697 on the date stone (I don't know who JBE refers to). An upper floor extension was added to one end in 1701, with stables added below. Around 1754-5 more work was done, which might have been the construction of a balcony and a further height increase.

If you study the outer walls, you can see that the barn roof was raised twice, with the oldest layer being of narrow stones that were quarried nearby at the time. Looking at the end wall, it is possible to make out two roof lines below the current one. In 1864 the floor had to be raised as it had rotted through contact with the earth below. The frontage and porch was also added, giving it much the same appearance as it has today. The porch roof is one giant slab of stone. You might be surprised to learn that in those days there was a windmill nearby.

Meeting roomMeeting roomMr Cooke in full flowInside view
StairwellUpstairsCeiling detailUpstairs

Our Tour
With my sister and brother-in-law, I enjoyed a guided tour by Mr David Cook in October 2008. He has a strong connection with the Quakers and a wealth of knowledge about local history which covers a wide range of topics. His parents and other relatives are buried in the Quaker graveyard next to the building. As in Penistone, the graveyard has trees along its boundaries. David told us many facts but I retained very little.

The Friends' meeting room is quite basic, without the usual trappings of an organised religion. In fact it is part of their philosophy to not have a preacher telling people what to think and this is likely to be from the times when the established church was far too dominant. You can see the the room is laid out in a square, without pulpit or focal point. There is no crucifix and no font, just bench seats and a table. The upstairs gallery used to look out upon the room but in the 1970s was boarded up to make it into a separate children's room. The ceiling has circular vents leading to who knows where. There is a kitchen area near the porch, so it seems that a civilised cup of tea is not out of the question.

Open Access Scheme
Many thanks David Cook for his tour and the depth of his local knowledge. David sees it as important that it should not be lost to the passage of time. You can see that it is far from being a wilderness these days. In fact the Meeting Place is next to some very scenic countryside which is owned by David and he encourages people to share in its beauty by walking there on the waymarked trail. David is taking part in a government Open Access scheme and is keen to encourage visiting parties from schools or of individuals to visit this picturesque area and learn something of the local history.


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