Quakers in Radnorshire

George Fox visited Wales several times, initially arriving in Cardiff and moving on to Swansea and then northwards to Brecon. That became one of the many occasions when Fox when chased out of the town by an angry mob. In 1657 he ventured into Wales again, this time passing through Leominster, and proceeding to preach “on a common in Radnorshire”. Although the common is not

named it is generally accepted that it was Pen y Bont common. Llandrindod did not become a town until the presence of the Chalybeate Spring brought the Victorians to “take the waters”. In 1657 the largest town in the area was the felting and tailoring centre – Pen y Bont, and Fox may well have made his way there.
Not being able to speak Welsh Fox used the services of a young man called John ap John. John had been sent by Morgan Llwyd, at the time a famous Welsh preacher, to appraise this man Fox. When they met John immediately fell under the spell of the charismatic young preacher, and so could well be considered the first Welsh Quaker.
The Quaker idea took hold in the area around Pen y Bont very strongly. The nature of spirituality that Fox was promoting had no need of any person to intercede between the individual and the Spirit and had no need of a special place to go to worship. Quakers would meet anywhere, in barns, houses, even on mountainsides or commons. However, as time went by they met with a problem. Being considered heretics by the established church, and in common with many other Puritan sects, refusing to pay tithes to the church, their dead were denied burial in Church grounds. This problem was overcome in the Pen y Bont area when a number of local Quakers leased a small plot of land high on the hill above Llandegley as a burial ground. Some years later the additional land was obtained upon which to build a Meeting House known as the Pales Meeting House. This remains the oldest Quaker Meeting House in continuous use in Wales, although Dolybran near Meifod is older.
With the restoration of the Monarchy persecution of Quakers and other radical bodies increased. The non-payment of tithes and the holding of illegal meetings were the usual reasons for Quakers to be fined or imprisoned; although the Quaker refusal to take oaths, which included an oath of allegiance, and to “give hat honour” to their “betters” exacerbated the persecution. In a dramatic event in February 1683, a Monthly Meeting somewhere in the parish of Llandegley (probably at Pales) was interrupted by the High Sheriff. Friends were dragged out and locked up in an alehouse, whilst the Sheriff rode off to get the Magistrate. Held overnight in bitter conditions, a number of Friends were marched over the "bleak hills" to the nearest prison, probably Presteigne, a good walk away.
An important process was underway elsewhere in Britain that had strong repercussions in Radnorshire. Admiral Penn was a member of the court of Charles the first and had loaned the King a considerable amount of money. With the Restoration of Charles the second that debt became due, however, the Admiral had died by this time and so the debt became due to his son. The son, William, although also a member of the royal court had become interested in what he heard of Quakers, and had decided to go and meet Fox and decide about them for himself Penn was persuaded by meeting Fox, and thenceforward considered himself a Quaker. He approached the King with a proposal. Money was in short supply for Charles, and he considered himself surrounded by enemies, in particular, the Puritans and the residue of Commonwealth thinking. However, he did have titular ownership of large tracts of the New World. Penn persuaded him that in place of the money owing he should gift Penn some of that land, and Penn would use it to create a great experiment – a distant state where religious tolerance was offered, an opportunity for persecuted minorities to start new lives. Penn wanted to call it Sylvania because it was forested, but the King insisted that the name paid tribute to Admiral Penn, hence Pennsylvania. Many Welsh Quakers took up this opportunity and emigrated, the Welsh tended to keep together. Radnor Meeting is one of the oldest Quaker Meetings in America, while other Welsh names, for example, Bryn Mawr ( the women's university) can still be recognised. Some Quakers did not feel it necessary to emigrate but bought tracts of land so that others less well-off could do so. John ap John, Fox's interpreter, was one who did that. Many minorities in Northern Germany and Holland also took advantage of the tolerance established in Pennsylvania, and there are many communities there now who trace their history back to the great experiment, including the Amish and the Shakers.
The departure of so many Friends affected the progress of the Society in the home country, the Pales Meeting was reduced to the point where “one elderly, lame, old man would make his way over the hills to make his peace with God”.
In Victorian times Leominster Quaker Meeting looked after the interests of Radnorshire Friends. While Quakers in England had generally become a prosperous group Radnorshire was still an area of great poverty. It was decided in 1867 to establish a school in the Pales Meeting House. William Knowles was the first teacher and he was followed by a quite unique American Yardley Warner who had, what was at the time, a very unusual teaching style. Warner was very active in the area during his time as the teacher (when he was very well supported by Anne, his wife who was a midwife and nurse) together they provide previously unknown pastoral care, while Yardley was as passionate about Temperance as he was about Quakerism. Some of the pupils of this school were amongst those who shaped the course of Quakerism in the Llandrindod area.

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