Quakerism began during the ferment of the English Civil War, when the lessening of social control enabled groups of ordinary people to question the values and structures of 17th century England. The Quakers were one group among many, but one of the few to survive the savage persecution which followed the restoration of order. But their numbers were much reduced, to small groups of families in towns such as Bridport, Dorchester and Sherborne, and villages like Fovant and Marnhull.
Records of Quakers in Shaftesbury begin towards the end of the century, when William Fry of Ashmore gave land in the Wiltshire-Dorset border hills for a Quaker burial ground as Quakers were not permitted interment in churchyards. Burials were recorded there between 1678 and 1775, and the remote valley has been used again in recent times for both burials and the scattering of ashes. Details are documented on the outside wall of the present meeting house, and Ashgrove is now the scene of pilgrimage every tenth year.
The first Quakers met in people’s homes, in barns or in the open air, but in 1746 a meeting house was built in St James, set back against the hill with the land in front used for burials. lt was not until 1906, by which time Quakers had become tolerated and even respected, that the meeting moved up into the town. ln addition to their own needs the new meeting house at the top of Gold Hill housed the Working Men’s Club, which offered social and educational activities. This building was eventually sold and in 1977 a residential property in Abbey Walk, originally the coach house of Castle Hill House, was purchased and converted into a meeting house. Extended and improved in 2003, and with a well-tended garden, this provides a quiet setting for worship each Sunday and a useful venue for various groups during the week.