THE STURGES AND EARLY QUAKERISM
Feb 04

This paper was prepared by Elizabeth Sturge, to be read at the Pilgrimage in 1930. Due to her ill health, it was read on her behalf and later published by her, for private circulation, under the same title. That small book carried an introduction by Helen Sturge based on a report of the Pilgrimage for “The Friend.” This is reproduced separately on this website, as are the not entirely accurate genealogical charts from the book.

The family of Sturge seems to have been settled in Gloucestershire for more than four hundred years. We know nothing of its origin, but such evidence as we have points to its having been always closely attached to the land.

Although it is probable that careful research would throw light on an earlier period, we cannot go back with certainty beyond about the middle of the sixteenth century, when a John Sturge living at Frampton Cotterell was Lord of the Manor. Our cousin Margery Hollings, however, who met with allusions to the family in old county records, writes of an earlier John Sturge as follows:-

“There was a John in the fifteenth century who desired to marry a woman named Margaret. She betrothed herself to William (I have forgotten the surname.) John knocked William into a ditch as he was returning from church with Margaret, and carried her off on his horse. She brought an action against John, which was heard at the Gloucestershire Assizes.”

Two other Sturges are mentioned who, a little later, were witnesses to a deed concerning lands just over the border in Wiltshire.

All these persons were probably directly or collaterally connected with our family; but, in the absence of any parish registers, it is difficult to say in what degree. The character of its members would seem to have changed for the better, for later history records no such sensational incidents as this.

Thomas Sturge, the first with whom we can claim with certainty as an ancestor, must have been born in the reign of Elizabeth, or possibly in that of her predecessor. He lived, we believe, in the old gabled house “of some pretention” still to be seen in the hamlet of Gaunts Earthcott, a few miles from Bristol, the date over the door being 1605. More than a century and a half has elapsed since it was occupied by a member of the family, but my grandfather knew the place well and his description enables us to identify it. Thomas belonged to the well-to-do class of yeoman who owned and farmed their own land, and for many centuries formed the backbone of the nation. Probably if not a son, as the dates would suggest, he was a near relative of John Sturge of Frampton Cotterell, but he himself and his descendants for three generations lived in the substantial homestead at Gaunts Earthcott and carried on their business as farmers.

Beside the sons who successively inherited the old holding there were other off-shoots of the stock who settled elsewhere, generally in the same county, and from these were descended branches now difficult to trace. The second Joseph had a brother William, representatives of whose family lived in a fine old house at Yate; but I am not aware that any members of it are left. From another brother – Nathan – who lived at Aust, came a branch, one off-shoot of which settled in Bristol and developed a talent for music. John Player in his annals, written in 1802, mentions that at the funeral of a Joseph Sturge, who had been a member of the town band, the band attended and played “The Dead March” in Saul. I think the dingy shop which I remember as existing in my childhood in Bristol, in which musical instruments were sold, must have been kept by a descendant of this man, and that two little boys of our name who used to play the violin in a juvenile orchestra which gave concerts in the sixties [1860] under the title of “Dr Mark’s Little Men,” must have been sons of the owners of this shop. Few representatives of the male line of either branch seem to be left, for the name is rarely met with. One family in Bristol, with relatives near Sharpness in Gloucestershire, are all I have heard of in recent years. Their connection with the main stock we are unable directly to trace; the possession, however, of a portrait said to be that of a musical ancestor named Joseph Sturge sufficiently attests their origin.

As I have said, Thomas Sturge of Gaunts Earthcott had several sons: Joseph, from whom we are descended, was the first of a line of Josephs extending down to our own day. Little is known of him, but much may be surmised, for his life coincided with the stirring times of the Civil War, the Commonwealth and the Restoration. It is impossible that the lives of people, living even in the depths of the country, should not have been influenced by these events.. Parts of Gloucestershire still bear marks of the general upheaval in the number of houses of which the dates show that they were either built, or rebuilt, during the comparatively settled years which followed the Restoration. Our ancestors cannot have been unaffected by these changes; but we do not know which side they favoured, and these are not the events that have left their mark on the family history and character.

While the outward framework of the State was being - we may almost literally say - hammered into shape, the spiritual life of the nation, that which makes it a living soul, was developing on far other lines and by very different means. Of these movements Quakerism was one of the most notable.

George Fox’s life coincided almost exactly in date with the reign of Charles the First - he was born in the last year of that of his predecessor. It is interesting to think of the two streams of intense feeling, apparently unconnected, which developed side by side, each gaining momentum as time went on. When George Fox, after a youth of great spiritual conflict, entered on his ministry in 1648, the national struggle was reaching its culmination, but one would not suspect it from a study of his Journal; nor when, in the following year, the King was finally tried and beheaded, does the tragedy appear for him to be matter of great moment. Throughout the time of turmoil his thoughts are fixed on a kingdom not of their world: he urged men to cease from strife and earthly ambition and, setting their affections on things above, to follow the light within.

Nevertheless, George Fox was a great organiser; by 1667 he had settled the framework of church government for the Body he had founded, on the lines on which it has ever since been carried on; but not for him was the business of casting down and setting up dynasties. Principles of living, and not the practical problems of statesmanship, are the work to which prophets and spiritual leaders are generally called, and so it was with George Fox.

Tremendous is the impact of religious genius on the world around. By 1654 the force of Fox’s personality had produced a body of preachers filled with the same burning zeal for the conversion of souls as himself, and with much of his own magnetic power over the men and women who came under their influence.

George Fox’s early journeys were chiefly in the Midlands and northern counties. In later years he frequently came to Bristol, which soon became an important centre of Quakerism; it was in the old meeting house in Broadmead that in 1669 his marriage to Margaret Fell took place. It was, however, the visit of two of his preachers in 1654 which introduced the new doctrines to this part of the country - an event of far reaching importance to us, for it proved to be the turning-point in the lives of our ancestors - Sturges, Players and Youngs - and determined the bent of their descendants for many generations.

The preachers were two of his early converts - John Audland and John Camm. They addressed large gatherings on Filton Common and at Winterbourne, and must have been men of extraordinary power, for their preaching almost revolutionised the countryside. It must have seemed to the conventionalists of the day - the country gentry and clergy - that the world was indeed being turned upside down, so numerous were the conversions, and so sturdy were the converts in defence of their convictions. The first Joseph Sturge and his family were among the earliest to be convinced, as we gather from the circumstance that he was buried in 1669 in the graveyard at Hazel, a spot which must always be of deep interest to us, for almost all our Sturge ancestors, up to about a century ago, were buried there.

Amongst the most urgent needs the new sect was called upon to meet was the provision of burial-grounds. Cut off, as the Quakers were, from the use of parish churchyards, the necessity to buy “a parcel of land” in which to bury their dead must have preceded even that of building meeting houses in which to worship. This no doubt accounts for the number of small, now disused, graveyards to be found all over the country. Hazel, which was founded by a group of Friends who lived in this part of Gloucestershire, is a very interesting example of such a plot, and it is still occasionally used. To enter the small enclosure, overshadowed by trees and almost covered by sunken stones, on many of which initials and a date can still be deciphered, is to be transported in feeling to an age when life in these rural districts was still remote and primitive. It is said, as a proof of the widespread conversions in Gloucestershire, that a thousand persons were buried in this graveyard within a comparatively short time. It is much to be regretted that no list of these burials before 1808 appears to be extant, although no doubt a register was kept. Changes of personnel and the re-arrangement of Monthly Meetings in the last century no doubt account for the loss of some contemporary records; for not only is this list missing, but the first minute books of the Frenchay Monthly Meeting, to which this group of Friends belonged, have also disappeared, although there is more than one reference to them in later minutes and concern is expressed for their safekeeping; one of them mentions the name of the custodian at that time (circa 1725.)

Notwithstanding its peaceful aspect, Hazel burial-ground was once the scene of a curious, almost comic, episode. One day in 1713 the door was found to have been left open and a number of cattle and hogs were grazing inside and doing much damage. On inquiry, it was learned that they had been driven in on purpose by a man named Thomas Smith, who averred that the ground was his property. On being interviewed, he declared that it had formerly belonged to his wife’s family, and he considered that it ought to have been part of her jointure. “Friends,” said he, “had had the use of it for nothing long enough, and now they would have to pay him rent.” He proceeded to fix a lock on the door so that no one could go in without applying to him. All this is gravely set forth in the minutes of the Monthly meeting at Sodbury, in April, 1713, at which Thomas Sturge and two or three other Friends reported the unsatisfactory result of an interview they had had with Smith. As a matter of fact the ground really belonged to Friends, who had bought it more than fifty years before. The property had then been put into the hands of Trustees, to one of whom - named William Rogers - the deeds had been entrusted for safe keeping. The Trustees were all now dead, including William Rogers. For some reason the man had taken offence at something Friends had done, and in a fit of temper had thrown the document into the fire, set his boot upon it and burned it. Smith knew that Friends were the rightful owners, but he took advantage of the awkward position in which they were placed to make this claim. The position was, in fact, very difficult, and continued to be so for many years. The Monthly Meeting decided to take counsel’s opinion as to what they could do. In the end some compromise was arrived at; but it was only temporary, for thirty or forty years afterwards the trouble broke out again. This time it was another man, named Adams, who claimed to be the owner. The meeting deputed the Joseph Sturge of the day and two other Friends to try to get a deed of conveyance arranged. Apparently they did not succeed, for in 1779 it is once more reported that one William Churchus “have broke open the door at Hazel and put his own lock on.” Friends were not to be beaten, however, but promptly sent three of their number to take his lock off and put on one of their own. It was several years before the ghost of the missing deed was finally laid, and they were able to obtain formal possession.

To return to our early ancestors. I have said that the first Joseph had several sons - no doubt there were daughters, but of them there is no record. Besides William, Nathan and Joseph - from whom we come - there were two others, James and Thomas. Of James we do not know much; he evidently early left home and went to live near Bristol, for in 1670 we find his name among those of a number of Friends who signed a curious protest made by Bristol Monthly Meeting against the practice, not “agreeable to the principles of Truth,” of ornamenting tombstones by carving or painting them. Some stones still to be seen at Hazel are probably among those referred to. The protesting Friends signed their names, and among them appears that of James Sturge, in good, clear handwriting, showing that he was well educated for his day - probably better than the clerks of Frenchay Monthly meeting in the early years of its existence, whose script is often very difficult to decipher. Some of those present on the occasion thought it would be more consonant with Friend’s principles to have no tombstones at all, but the matter appears to have been compromised by allowing initials and date of death.

The other brother, Thomas, who continued to live at Gaunts Earthcott, was also a sturdy upholder of Friends’ principles. More than once in Besse’s History of the Sufferings of the Quakers we find his name included in a list of persons whose goods had been seized for non-payment of tithes. The proceeding were harsh and no attempt was made to discriminate. It is mentioned that cattle worth £50 were often taken to discharge a debt of ten shillings. Thomas married a young woman named Mary Wilkinson, but we hear nothing of any descendants. He is a prominent figure in the early minute books of the Frenchay Monthly Meeting; evidently he was one of those useful men who can always be relied upon to be on the spot, ready to do what is wanted. Thus he was one of those sent to speak to the troublesome man Smith about his doings in connection with Hazel burial-ground. Again, “We do appoint Thomas Sturge and John Ruston to go and talk to Nathaniel Cooksey about his disorderly living.” Sometimes he has to visit a young man or young woman who have “let out their affections to persons not belonging to our Society,“ and have or intend to make a “disorderly” marriage. Little allowance was made for poor human nature in those days, and Thomas’s name often appears among a number of others who sign a “testimony of disownment” against some unrepentant damsel or youth. Occasionally the delinquents do repent - can it be that the marriage has turned out a failure? - and then they write a letter of most abject apology, promising never to do it again!

I am sorry to say that one of the people who had to be “talked to” on account of unbecoming conduct was Thomas Sturge’s own nephew, Caleb, a son of the second Joseph, who was evidently a man of indifferent character. The nature of his offences is not stated, but when he is finally disowned in 1720 the reason alleged is that “he have of late lived a very disorderly life and conversation and very disagreeable to what we make profession of.” Friends had shown a great deal of patience, for the case had been “under care” for many years, and numerous emissaries had been sent, “who,” it is reported, had “advised, entreated and admonished him for his good, yet still he persisteth and goes on the same.” A list of the names follows of the Friends who sign the testimony of disownment; naturally it does not include that of his uncle, who probably was no longer living. We should like to know what became of Caleb, but that is the last we hear of him. Tradition, however, says that he was so lazy that rather than trouble to saw up a tree for fuel he made a hole at the back of the grate, pushed the trunk through, and thus gradually burned it.

Apart from such incidents as the above, the early minutes of the Frenchay Monthly Meeting are chiefly concerned with notices of intended marriages, which were very numerous in these country districts. As marriages according to Quaker usage were illegal, Friends made a point of conducting them with as much publicity as possible. The lovers had to present themselves in the men’s meeting and personally announce their intended marriage, and to do this more than once. Two or three Friends were then appointed to make sure that they had the consent of the parents and were clear of other engagements, and it was not until satisfactory reports on these points had been received that the meeting gave permission for the marriage to proceed. The names of our ancestors often appear in both capacities. They diligently investigate the applications of other people, and one after another the various Josephs, Nathans and Thomases (for the names are constantly repeated) as well as their numerous sons and daughters, obtain the desired approval and enter into the bonds of matrimony.

Once, however, a hitch occurs. In 1770 a certain John Gayner and Jane Sturge, the daughter of Nathan of Yate, come to the Monthly Meeting at Olveston and announce their intended marriage. The usual inquiries are made and the parties “pass the meeting,” as the phrase went. About a year afterwards we are surprised to find the same Jane going through the same ceremony with another young man. The engagement has been broken off, and the young woman is now engaged to someone else. This indicates such instability of character as Friends could not lightly pass over, so before sanctioning the marriage they insist on her producing a certificate of release from her former fiancé. One fancies one discerns an undertone of pique in the letter in which John writes:-

“This is to certify to you and all whom it may concern that I have no claim on Jane Sturge and do give my consent for her to marry Jacob Woodward or any other person which she may approve of.
John Gayner, Junr.”

But we must not linger over the old minute books, interesting as it is to note the changes brought about by the lapse of time.

As we have access to no records earlier than the volume of 1692, we know nothing of the lives of our ancestors who were first convinced, beyond the fact that they became Quakers; it is enough that when we turn its discoloured pages we find their children are faithfully following in the footsteps of their parents - diligent attenders of meeting and taking their part in its business. Before long, however, we are conscious of a subtle change. These are not the men who were convinced on Filton Common, or in the orchard at Winterbourne, and were cruelly treated and imprisoned for conscience’ sake. It is true that they are still faithful upholders of Quaker testimonies; year after year their goods are seized for non-payment of tithes and “those called church rates,” or refusal to pay the fine when drawn for the militia; and weak brethren, who fail to maintain the standard, are rigorously dealt with; but insistence on conformity to Quaker rule has taken the place of zeal for the conversion of souls. In the minds of these earnest upholders of Truth the Law has supplanted the Gospel. It is a familiar tale of the second stage of every great spiritual revival.

Nevertheless, there is a soul of goodness in things evil. Throughout this time of apparent barrenness the stream never runs dry. During the long period of Stuart and Hanovarian sovereignty, too often marked in high places by unbridled license and gross debauchery, there exists a centre of Quaker purity, marred through it be from time to time by instances of moral failure (which the minutes record in terms of unvarnished simplicity,) and through it all persists that quality, hard to define, which has come to be recognised as the peculiar Quaker character.

When the records begin to take definite shape about 1700 the second Joseph is still alive. We know nothing about him except what may be inferred from the fact that his name appears in Besse’s History of the Suffering of the Quakers among a number of others who were distrained upon in 1677 for refusal to pay tithes. A few years later his son-in-law, Jonathan Russell, was imprisoned for the same default. In 1706 Joseph is referred to, with his wife Barbara, as giving formal consent to the marriage of their son Joseph to Mary Young, and that is all we know of him. He died about 1710.

Of the son, too, there is not much more to tell. Almost the only reference to him, which we can be sure of, has to do with a quarrel. He is mentioned in connection with a long-drawn-out dispute which his sister Elizabeth, who was twice married, had with her first mother-in-law, and in which he took his sister’s part - surely not an unamiable trait! The meeting at length appointed some Friends to go into the matter and try to get it settled. As it is not referred to again, I presume they succeeded.

With the entrance on the scene of the fourth Joseph - the last of our common ancestors, although he was born in 1722 - we find ourselves on more familiar ground, for he married Frances, sister of John Player, the family annalist, and tradition enables us to form some idea of the character of their children.

There were several sons and two daughters, most of whom in their turn married and had large families, which are represented to-day by a goodly company of descendants. Some of them are to be found as far afield as the United States, South Africa, New Zealand, and the Solomon Islands.

The eldest son, Thomas (born in 1749,) must have left home early, for I can find no mention of him in the minutes, not even a notice of removal. He married a young woman named Lydia Moxham. They had several children, one of whom, the youngest son, George, was a familiar figure in our childhood, for he married my father’s sister Jane. My uncle and aunt had no children, but his brother, Nathan, left many descendants. The poet, Thomas Sturge Moore, and his brother, Dr. George Edward Moore, Professor of Mental Philosophy and Logic at Cambridge, are grandsons of Thomas’s daughter Lydia, who married her cousin Henry, a son of her Uncle Joseph of Elberton.

Uncle Joseph of Elberton (born 1754,) who is the ancestor of the large group of Birmingham, Gloucester and Charlbury Sturges, was evidently a very useful man. He lived for a good many years in a fine old manor house, which was then used as a farmhouse; but when his son Joseph - afterwards the well-know philanthropist - was about ten years old the family left it and removed to another farm called Shipcombe. For some years he was Clerk of the Monthly Meeting, and - as well as his brother Jacob - he filled at different times the offices of Elder and Overseer. When in 1795, he signed a certificate of removal, it is interesting to note that the Clerk of the woman’s meeting, who had to sign it too, was Mary Sturge. This would be either his wife Mary (Marshall) or my great-grandmother Mary (Young,) the wife of Jacob. Whichever it was, she must have been an able woman, for both were mothers of large and increasing families. It is a pity that, as the woman’s minutes books are not before us, we cannot tell much about their activities, but their frequent requests for money for the relief of the needy show that they were active in attending to the wants of the poorer Friends.

Another later entry may interest us in passing: the certificate of removal which was drawn up when in 1814 Joseph Sturge, the younger, afterwards the well-known philanthropist, left the old home to begin life in the wider sphere that so energetic a youth needed - in Worcestershire. The document runs: “Dear Friends, Joseph Sturge junr. being removed from us to within the compass of your Monthly meeting, these are to certify that he was of sober conduct and a diligent attender of meetings; and on enquiry nothing appears but that he left us free of debts and marriage engagements.”

This is signed by numerous Friends who were present and Joseph Storrs Fry, “Clerk at this time.”

Joseph Storrs Fry was the original J. S. Fry of the Bristol cocoa factory - not the kindly, ministering Friend (but withal shrewd) whom many of us remember, but his grandfather. He lived at Frenchay and was Clerk of the Monthly Meeting for many years. His firm handwriting and businesslike minutes, with careful marginal notes, bear witness to the clear-headed conscientiousness of the able organiser who carried on, and largely increased, the cocoa works which had been founded many years before by his father.

Four years afterwards, in 1818, Joseph’s younger brother Charles also leaves the old home for Worcestershire. For him the meeting is content to certify that he is an “orderly youth” and we “recommend him to your Christian care and oversight.” This again is signed by Joseph Storrs Fry, with my grandfather, Jacob Player Sturge, as Clerk.

Jacob, the youngest son of Joseph and Frances Sturge, is represented by a large number of families who live in Bristol or the neighbourhood. He married Mary Young, who must not be confused with her cousin the wife of the third Joseph. They settled at the Red House Farm at Westbury-on-Trym, near Bristol, and lived there until his death in 1811. Like his brother Joseph of Elberton, my great-grandfather was active in Friends’ business and a diligent attender of meetings. Evidently his professional experience - for he was a land surveyor as well as a farmer - was often useful to Friends, for we find him placed on many appointments for looking after the property of the meeting. His sons Young and Jacob Player (my grandfather) followed in his footsteps, both as Friends and land surveyors, each in turn served as Clerk of the Monthly Meeting. Both, as well as their sister Sarah, who married Henry Fowler Cotterell, have left many descendants.

Joseph and Frances (Player) Sturge had two daughters who were both married in 1794. Celia married John Clothier of Street and Frances - or Fanny as she was affectionately called - Joseph Clark, also of Street. The two sisters, who are said to have been much attached to each other, passed the meeting together, and doubtless there was a double wedding. Both of them left a family. Fanny’s descendants are very numerous. They are people of much energy and public spirit, and are well known both in their own county of Somerset and in connection with the many activities which are carried on by Friends.

It will be seen that the neighbourhood of Olveston is rich in family associations. There is first the meeting house in which George Fox is said to have preached; the scene of the “Firstday” and weekday meetings which our ancestors so diligently attended, as well as the larger gatherings which must nearly have filled it, when in due rotation the Monthly Meeting was held there.

There are also a number of houses, some of which we can identify, while some have ceased to be associated with their whilom inhabitants. Elberton Manor House and Shipcombe Farm at Tockington, which were successively the home of Joseph Sturge (the fifth of the name) and his wife Mary (Marshall,) can easily be recognised, and the house known as New Leaze, in which the Marshall grandfather spent the last years of his life in order to be near his daughter and family.

It is believed that it was to the house opposite the Meeting House that George Fox and Margaret Fell retired for their brief honeymoon after their marriage in 1669 [*Note – The visiting company on the occasion of the “pilgrimage” included a descendant of Margaret Fell, and was thus directly connected with this interesting tradition.] The house has a more recent family association also, for after the death of my great-uncle Young Sturge in 1844 his widow resided there until her death in 1858.

Their son Edward and his family lived in a picturesque old farmhouse on the roadside at Northwick, which many years earlier had been the summer resort of his parents. When his daughter, the late Amy Jane Sturge, died in 1929, one of the last links with the old life was severed; her childhood and youth had been passed in the neighbourhood, and to the end she loved its old associations and her many village friends.

Farther afield are other places which should not be overlooked. The old Jacobean - or Tudor - homestead at Gaunts Earthcott has already been referred to. Its style and comfortable proportions bear witness to the easy circumstances of the yeoman farmers of that day. A pleasant home it must have been to the young people who grew up in it, and in turn left for homes of their own.

Hazel burial-ground, so full of memories of which I have told the curious history, will also attract us. It is a spot of great charm, lying as it does almost hidden in yet unspoiled rural surroundings.

Another interesting dwelling is that in the village of Tockington, where Fanny and Mary Player spent their long lives. They were the daughters of John Player, to whose manuscript, written in 1802, we are indebted for much information about the family which would otherwise have been lost. John Player, who it will be remembered was the brother-in-law of the fourth Joseph Sturge, was a man of some mark in his day. In the minute books one constantly meets with his name as a Friend to be placed on important appointments, and besides these activities on behalf of the Meeting, he was a farmer and land surveyor, the founder of the Bristol firm of J. P. Sturge and Sons. He was born in 1724, and married late in life. Others beside myself may remember his daughter, “Cousin Mary Player,” bedridden, but lively and full of ancient lore. She died in 1878, their joint lives thus covering a period of a hundred and fifty-four years. Both were buried at Hazel, and here also lies the lover whom tradition says she did not marry because he was an “infidel.” Neither of them ever married: he lived near her and used, it is said, to read to her in her old age, until - both over ninety - they were laid to rest in this quiet spot - a touching little romance.

This short review of the life and surroundings of our ancestors, during the three centuries which have elapsed since the rise of Quakerism, brings forcibly before us the changes, slow but sure, which have gradually transformed this country in its system of government and the social life of the people, and hardly less Quakerism itself. Probably these earnest, simple minded men and women would feel wholly out of place in a modern Friends’ Meeting; shocked at the absence of peculiarity in speech and manners, and at much which finds a place in the lives of their descendants, and perplexed by a variety of interests, of which they have never heard, and which they would feel had little relation to Truth as they understood it.

We are, after all, creatures of our own day. We cannot put back the clock, and would not if we could. It is for us to interpret the signs of our own times, and so to act in the turmoil of change which seems almost as perplexing now as it was in those far off-days, that we may make our contribution to the future as surely as they did; and if at times we find it hard to understand the ideas of a new generation which faces life from another standpoint than ours, let us take heart from a study of the past - even such a slight sketch as I have been able to give of the life and times of our Quaker forefathers.

ELIZABETH STURGE - Bristol, July, 1930.