Whitby’s Hidden Quaker Burial Ground

I’m not one for vaulting walls. I’m one for floaty skirts, impractical pointy boots and extreme levels of clumsiness that I downplay until the medical concerns of friends and family grow too great and I have to spend weeks apologising that ‘you were right, yes, it was indeed broken.’

However, you offer me a hidden seaside burial ground and I’m over that wall faster than you can say ‘mind the drop!’

[Look, ‘hidden’ is relative, okay?]

Whitby’s Quaker burial ground is impressively well hidden. To most passers-by, it looks like a garden extension to some of the more grander Georgian houses on Bagdale. Similarly, it could appear to be some wasteland, unused by the well-tended Pannett Park, which it neighbours. Were it not for the modest plaque, or the distant glimmer of granite graves, I would have passed by myself. But, being the deathly magpie that I am, I see a grave, I have to know more.

[Steps leading up to the Burial Ground]

From the outside, the burial ground looks like a simple, rectangular walled garden of about 10 x 15 metres with 2 metre high walls and a gateway that leads to a busy road and walkway. To see the few remaining graves with some clarity, mountaineering isn’t necessary; walk to the water feature at the edge of Pannett Park, as though you were heading towards town, and peer over the wall.

The walls, should you be interested in composition, are of coarsed squared gritstone, with large quoins (masonry blocks at the corner of a wall) to the south west and east corners with flat capstones.[1] The original site was much larger and possibly included a house within the original enclosure. The gateway has a modest lintel marked 1682, which dates the establishment of the graveyard itself. Historic England records no gravestones, which is not uncommon for Quaker cemeteries. The visible gravestones and memorials are most likely early 19th century, when the cemetery officially became redundant.

The Dacre area of Whitby was the focal point for the Nidderdale Quakers in the late 17th century, with a new meeting house being built in 1696 and in use well into the 19th century. Sadly, as with so many disused religious buildings, this was later demolished and may well have been located at the top of the burial ground, where a wall and some rubble now sits.

Quakers are a Christian denomination that are characterised by their simple Meeting Houses (places of worship) and notably liberal and equalitarian approach to religious services. All are equal within Quaker churches and they have no clergy, standardised prayers or hymns. Services commonly consist of believers sitting quietly together as they wait for the holy spirit to speak through one of them.

[The rubble at the north end where a house may have once stood]

George Fox, a prominent Quaker visited Whitby twice, in 1651 and 1652, and it was during the latter visit that the seaside town formed its first congregation.[2] It was George Fox who coined the name ‘Quaker’ after telling a judge that he should ‘tremble at the name of the Lord’ during a trial. Due to their simplicity of living and honesty, Quakers often became hugely successful in business as they were seen as the most trustworthy of businessmen. Similarly, many Quakers lived in lavish houses that were furnished modestly, in line with their simple lives.

[George Fox]

In 1659, a croft in Bagdale (then Backdale, in open countryside) was bought for use by the Quakers and subsequently, the adjoining land was bought by the Chapman family, who proposed its usage for burials. Curiously, the Chapmans maintained the Quaker way of life, but attended Anglican services, meaning that for all their troubles, they weren’t permitted to be buried in the Quaker burial ground.[3]

[The meeting house as it is today, a Spanish restaurant]

According to Whitby Civic Society, the Quaker congregation in Whitby declined dramatically in the mid 19th century and they considered selling their new meeting house. This inevitability was staved off until 2006, where it now operates as a Spanish restaurant.

In an extension of their modesty, Quakers were commonly buried without memorialisation – as graves may elevate one individual above another. In the 19th century, the emergence of simple headstones with initials came into practise, to identify, rather than celebrate, the deceased. Whether the Quakers at Whitby once had such headstones that were then removed is unclear, but the small burial ground continues to exist in a peaceful, anonymous oasis of town life. Which, save for my inelegant spying, seems really rather fitting.

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Additional Sources/References:

https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2509946/quaker-burial-ground

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1315289

[1]https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1315289

[2] https://www.whitbycivicsociety.org.uk/a/29515866-32347774 – Quakers by Mike Dawson

[3]https://www.whitbycivicsociety.org.uk/a/29515866-32347774

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