When George Fox began preaching in the north of England in 1652 he met with support from a group of people who had separated themselves from the Anglican Church. This group of non-conformists were one of the many sects which had appeared in Cromwell's time and were known as 'Seekers'. The early name for Quakers was 'Seekers after truth'.
Richmond became a major centre of Quakerism and in 1669 it is estimated that there were between 40 and 50 Quakers who attended meetings, initially in each others homes. A meeting house was built around 1677 on the east side of Fryer's Wynd at the rear of what is now the Georgian Theatre.
In 1652, a group of Quakers known as the Swaledale meeting began to meet in cottages and farmhouses. The passing of the Quaker Act of 1662 made it illegal for five or more Quakers to meet for religious assembly and many members were heavily fined or had their possessions confiscated.
After the passing of the Act of Toleration in 1689 non-conformists were allowed to worship where they pleased, with the stipulation that the premises used for worship were licensed. Low Row meeting house was built in 1727. It is now demolished but the field above the site is still known as Quaker Garth.
Swaledale was a very isolated community. Surviving minutes show a decline in membership towards the end of the 18th century. In 1791 a decision was taken to discontinue the joint activities of Richmond and Swaledale Meetings. After this, members of Swaledale meeting met infrequently until around 1850.
(The outstanding contribution of Quakers in Swaledale was the founding of Reeth Friends School. It is now the county primary school but friends still make up a proportion of the Trustees).
One of the first people in Wensleydale to become 'convinced' as a Quaker was Richard Robinson of Countersett Hall, possibly after hearing George Fox preach at Askrigg.
Countersett Hall was used as a meeting house and it is known that George Fox stayed there. Quakerism became particularly strong in the surrounding area and persecution inevitably followed.
Following the Act of Toleration in 1689, meetings were licensed at Aysgarth, Bainbridge, Carperby, Countersett, Hawes, Leyburn and Masham. These were mostly private buildings owned by Friends. Purpose-built meeting houses were erected at Countersett, Hawes, Leyburn, Aysgarth, Bainbridge and Carperby. The majority of these were still in use in 1890. The present Bainbridge meeting house was built in 1836 to replace a cottage bought in 1668. The burial ground has been in use since 1672.
The meeting houses at Hawes, Leyburn and Aysgarth have been demolished. Carperby meeting house was sold in 1984 and Friends moved to Grove Square, Leyburn in 1985.
Today, three meeting houses are in regular use at Leyburn, Bainbridge and Countersett.
Source Edmund Cooper -The Quakers of Swaledale and Wensleydale. Pub. 1979 by