Local Quaker History
George Fox travelled past Rugby on several occasions, but there is no evidence he actually visited. His journals record one such journey when he stayed at the Dun Cow in Dunchurch.
The Rugby Meeting House
Despite being close to Birmingham, a major Quaker centre, there is little evidence of Quaker activity in Rugby before the start of the twentieth century. While a ‘Circular Meeting’, when Quakers from different counties came together, was held in Rugby in 1735, the first Quaker funeral was recorded in 1908 and the first Quaker wedding did not take place until 1934.
In1903, William Noble reported to Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting in Birmingham that he had visited Friends in Rugby and Dunchurch. They had begun an Adult School in Rugby and wished to start a regular Quaker Meeting. Their enthusiasm belied their numbers. At this point, there were only two Quaker families numbering four adults altogether. The energetic Elsie & Edmund Wedmore were the mainstay of the Adult School and the driving force behind the creation of Rugby Quaker Meeting.
The next year, Monthly Meeting sent a committee of Friends to Rugby to hold public Meetings for Worship. There was a series of public meetings throughout 1905 and by the end of 1906, regular Meetings were being held at the Masonic Hall (now the RADEA Ex-ServicemenClub) in Castle Street.
A year later, towards the end of 1907, Rugby Friends felt confident enough to formalise their status and became a Preparative Meeting. By October 1908, their expanding work in the Adult School and the continual disruption of worship by the clamour of the nearby Salvation Army Citadel, pushed Rugby Friends to consider finding new suitable accommodation. Birmingham Friends promptly created another committee to aid them in this work.
Money poured in, an architect from the Bournville estate, Bedford Tylor, was appointed and a dual purpose Meeting House and Adult School was built in Moat Street (now Regent Place). Given the antecedents of the architect, it is unsurprising that the Meeting House is virtually a slice of Bournville, dropped into the heart of Edwardian Rugby.
The new building was officially opened as an Adult School on the weekend of the 16th October 1909. A contemporary account of this opening described the building: three classrooms were separated by folding wooden partitions around a central pillar, so one single space could be created, as needed. As the reporter approvingly noted, ‘Efforts have been made to erect a useful building free from expensive ornamentation, and yet of such treatment that the whole shall be picturesquely effective… Hand-made sand stock bricks, together with hand-made antique tiles, and oak porch, oak gates and fence, with a little colour gained by insertions of rough-cast, go to make up the effects’.
Improvements came in fits and spurts over time. A major renovation in 1955 created a corridor around this central space and overhauled the crumbling porch. The creation of the corridor complicates matter since upon entry, confronted with a door ahead, a door to the left and a corridor to the right, first-time visitors are often hesitant! The forecourt, overshadowed by the Public Baths, was covered with tarmac in 1962 to provide needed parking space. Older members of the Meeting recall that before the next stage of renovations, starting in the 1980s, the interior was predominantly gloomy with dark-green painted wooden panelling and long green wooden benches. The last surviving bench can be seen in the garden. Complaints about the absence of a proper meeting space for children, noted since the 1970s, culminated in the building of an extension in the 1980s. The latest changes to the building in early 2000 refurbished the main meeting room to the layout and decor that is seen today.
The garden, a lawn with borders, was an unplanned bonus. The long double plot at the back of the Meeting House was originally purchased with an eye to future extension and the Meeting’s finances did not extend to hiring a permanent gardener or warden. From practically the first month in the new premises, Friends discussed what should be done with the garden but no firm decision was ever reached. Occasionally a Friend paid for the services of a gardener; at other times Friends pitched in together to improve the garden. One Friend planted three poplars at the back of the garden in 1931, one of which survived until 2015.
Since its construction, the Meeting House has served many functions. It hosted the Rugby Adult School until the Percival Guildhouse opened in the 1920s, then housed and fed several groups of hunger marchers during the distress of the interwar years. During the Second World War, the Meeting House accommodated evacuated elderly victims of the Blitz on the East End. In the postwar period, the Meeting has allowed the Meeting House to be used by playgroups, sympathetic local associations, homeless churches and charitable groups. Notably in the 1980s, CND marchers and Buddhist monks stayed in the Meeting House.