Spiceland History by John Bell

Fry Small

The old Meeting House of Spiceland

The old meeting house of Spiceland lies deep in the narrow lanes near the border of Devon and Somerset between the Culm Valley villages of Culmstock and Uffculme. It stands simple and dignified in beautiful grounds in the shadow of the Blackdown Hills.

The current year 2015, marks the 200th anniversary of the building of the existing Meeting House in 1815. However, as the date of 1670 carved above our entrance doorway attests, our story goes back much further. Why, people ask, do we have a Meeting House in such a remote place? How does Spiceland get its appealing name? To find answers we must go back to the earliest days of Quakerism.

Tradition holds that George Fox preached in the open air in the Orchard at Spiceland in times of persecution. We know from his journal that in 1662 he held a ‘blessed meeting’, five miles off the town of Cullompton in Devon on his way to Wellington in Somerset, both places having corporations openly suspicious of Quakers as disturbers of the King’s new government . However, there were many local people associated particularly with the woollen industry who were willing to brave the military arm of the authorities, to follow their consciences and to gather in peace in a remote place.

Spiceland then lay on an ancient road, now lost, between the two hostile towns so it is likely that George Fox did preach here in 1662, and also in 1668 when he was again in the area. We think that the date of 1670 over the doorway marks the time that an open-air meeting became ‘settled’ on the site.

Our first written evidence is a deed of 1683 which tells us that a close of land called Spison was purchased in 1679 for ‘ a large and convenient dwelling house’ .. ‘ a free and open place for the people of God called Quakers to wait upon the Lord and Converse of the things of God and to build up one another in the most Holy Faith’ . Prudently our first Trustees called the building a ‘dwelling house’ rather than a ‘meeting house’ as such buildings were illegal at this time and persecution in the period 1682-1684 was severe.

Although ‘Spison’ is the first recorded spelling in 1683, ‘Spiceland’ was the customary spelling. The most probable origin is some association with the family of ‘Spicer’ who are known to have held land in Culmstock Parish from the 14th century and subsequently. In contrast our USA namesake, Spiceland Quaker Church in Indiana, dating from around 1800, is built on land where spice bushes once grew.

After the Act of Religious Toleration in 1689, Quakers and other non conformists could worship in peace.  There were then huge meetings for worship at Spiceland and elsewhere. In July 1691 the diary of John Banks, a travelling minister, recently released from prison, mentions the gathering of ’near a thousand people at the meeting at Spiceland’ . We know from our burial records that people came to the site from around a dozen rural parishes, some travelling 15 miles, which meant stabling and sometimes staying overnight.  A minute from these times appoints certain Friends to look after ‘children, horses and dogs’ so it must have been quite lively. Our ancient cob and thatch linhay still survives as a testament to these times.

We have traced 62 burial records for Spiceland in the decade 1700 – 1710 which indicates a scattered membership of about 200.  Most members were associated with the cottage woollen industry in the parishes of Uffculme, Culmstock, Burlescombe, Halberton and Holcombe Rogus. As the cottage woollen industry declined there was large scale emigration from the area particularly of the rural poor.  In 1768 and 1772, we have the burial records of woolcombers, Mark and Robert Cadbury of Burlescombe. Their brother, John Cadbury, started the dynasty of Birmingham chocolate makers. His marriage to Hannah Tapper of Exeter Meeting is recorded at Spiceland in 1729.

(Photograph of Friends Church Spiceland Indiana to be inserted here)

In the wider world there is a Spiceland Quaker Church in the New World in Indiana dating from early 1800’s.   The name of Uffculme appears in several place names around Bournville in Birmingham associated with the Cadbury families indicating their remembered attachment to the Spiceland Meeting.

Despite the decline in numbers, there were some more prosperous local Quakers; our few headstones in the old burial ground in the period around 1800, record the names of Fry of Woodgate, Were of Uffculme and Sampford Arundel, and Southey of Culmstock. It was these families and the Hensons of Burlescombe who found the resources to build the new stone Meeting House in the year 1815 on the site of the old cob and thatch ‘dwelling house’ of early times. Our recent loving restoration has preserved the simplicity and dignity of this building with all its original fittings.  There was once a separate room for Quaker women to discuss family business on the other side of the wooden screen.  When the famous Elizabeth Fry, visited Spiceland in 1825, her diary records “a sweet little meeting … may I long remember it.”

Elizabeth Fry 1780 - 1845

Elizabeth Fry  1780-1845

Despite the new building in 1815 our community declined. In 1851 the numbers attending were recorded as 15 but by 1883 there were no Quakers remaining in the Uffculme area. In 1885, the building was closed but a caretaker remained as a tenant of Devon and Cornwall Quarterly Meeting and our land was rented out. Occasionally Friends from Exeter came to visit the site in summertime to hold special meetings and to reflect on past memories.

Although an attempt was made in 1925, with the support of the Cadbury Family, to revive the meeting, it took a world war, or rather Quaker reaction to the war, to bring the Spiceland name back into national attention. In 1939, some in The Society of Friends sought to provide alternative means of serving humanity rather than being conscripted into military service. They were joined by members of other faith groups from all over Britain, who responded to the offer of the Devon and Cornwall Quarterly Meeting to provide a home to train conscientious objectors in practical skills such as agriculture and hospital service. Early in 1940 this group of visionaries assembled at Blackborough House on a hill a few miles away but overlooking the then derelict Meeting House of Spiceland.

(Photograph of Spiceland Training Centre June 1941 to be inserted here)

Although both places were remote, the location was geographically convenient as it was situated midway between London and Lands End. The name given to this remarkable institution was the ‘Spiceland Quaker Training Centre’ and the story of how this disparate bunch of ‘conchies’ and layabouts, as to begin with they were regarded by some local people, and how eventually mutual respect developed, is well told in Stanley Smith’s engaging book, subtitled ‘ Cups without Saucers ‘ published by Sessions in 1990. Some 400 people passed through the Centre during the War Years. Many of these went on to make a significant contribution in the wider world.  Happily there are still Quakers around today who remember their experiences in those stirring times and who proudly still call themselves ‘ SPICELANDERS’.

So it was that in 1940 the old Meeting House was opened again as place of worship to serve Quakers at the Training Centre and in consequence its setting of peace and beauty became known to a wider audience. Some came back to the Uffculme area after the war and a small group of Friends began a permanent meeting at Spiceland . Burials again took place in the ancient burial ground. Appeals were launched through the Friend in 1952 and 1959 seeking particularly the assistance of the wartime ‘Spicelanders’ to repair the building  ‘so that others may also have rest and refreshment of spirit’ associated with our ancient site.

Even so, it was a continual struggle for a small community to keep up the site in its rural remoteness and there was talk of closure in the 1960’s. Happily Spiceland was saved as a place of worship by West Somerset Quaker Meeting who accepted transfer of the meeting from Exeter Friends who had cared for the site for many years previously. The tiny caretaker’s house was extended and by 1978 this became a tenanted cottage providing a regular source of income for the Meeting. Our current tenant is an inspired gardener who adds much to the beautiful appearance of the site

The ravages of time are always a problem and we owe much to the efforts of volunteers who have carried out building repairs over the years. In 2005 we realised our tiny old burial ground which contains the remains of so many Friends of the past had no more capacity.

Our 200th Anniversary

After much hard work to restore our building and to enhance the rest of our facilities including the opening of a new Burial Ground, our Meeting held a celebration on Saturday 27th June 2015. Please click here to go to the event article on this web site.