The first Quaker Meeting House proper to be built in the settlement of Norton was on the site of the current affair in the year 1671. Much altered over the years, the present structure dates from 1903 when it was rebuilt in the style of the original building.
What is remarkable, though, is how the religious body itself has managed to survive at all. Whilst some sources refer to the town’s ‘comparatively peaceful history’, the Quakers have suffered anything but a quiet existence there. Born around the time of the English Civil War, the Quaker movement made enemies of both Roundhead and Royalist alike – though the former tolerated them due to Quaker sympathies among their foot soldiers.
On the Restoration in 1660, there was a severe clamp-down on the activities of the ‘obstinate men and women’ of the parish ‘who would not let down their conventicles’. King Charles II sent a party north to root out the Quakers – one Simon Townsend having his house taken (the site of the alleged activities of the dissenters). Townsend and several others were severely punished, with the period of oppression in and around the town continuing deep into the 1660s.
The record books are peppered with cases brought against the peace-loving ‘Society of Friends’ groups of this period. At the very height of the oppression, the Norton group built their first ‘official’ Meeting House on the village green in 1671. Massive fines, transportation and the like continued for those openly flouting the obligation to attend ‘national services’ in favour of their own religious gatherings, but the Quakers hung on until the ‘freer’ days following Charles II’s death in 1685. Though, in fact, an Act was passed against them as late as 1687 barring them from entry into many professions, they laid low thereafter, concentrating on social and industrial endeavours to stunning effect through the Industrial Revolution and beyond.
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