Swarthmoor Hall was built in 1586 by a yeoman famer named George Fell. Situated in the region known as Lancashire North of the Sands, it became a prestigious dwelling for George’s son Thomas Fell, a judge. With his wife Margaret, some eighteen years his junior, they extended the hall as a family home for their eight daughters and one son.
The historical turning point for the hall was the visit of George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends (commonly known as Quakers), in 1652. He arrived when the judge and Margaret were not at home, but was welcomed in by their children. When Margaret arrived home that night from Lancaster, the children related to her that Fox had had a huge row in the house with Lampitt, their local vicar. Margaret was open to itinerant preachers visiting the household and soon became convinced by Fox’s preaching. George Fox’s ideas were radical, teaching that priests were not only unnecessary, but they and their churches were actively corrupting.
Judge Thomas had been away from the hall for quite a time. First he was on his judge’s circuit tour of Wales, and then he had attended to business in London. As he journeyed close towards his home, he was met by a group of people on one of the Morecambe Bay sand routes. This included Lampitt, the vicar of Ulverston Church, and Justice Sawrey. They told him that his home was ‘bewitched’ by George Fox. While eating his evening meal, Margaret told him about Fox and he agreed to meet with him afterwards.
Judge Fell never became a Quaker, unlike his wife and daughters. Perhaps he saw the movement as far too radical, and not in keeping with his professional role as a touring judge and Member of Parliament. However, he did allow the Quakers to meet at Swarthmoor Hall and he would listen to their meetings from his study, though not take part. Fell remained committed to worshipping at Ulverston Church.
A Quaker Headquarters
In 1658, Judge Fell died, the same year that Oliver Cromwell did. Cromwell had been tolerant of Quakers, but his immediate successors were not and there was a nationwide persecution of Quakers, with many of them imprisoned. Margaret herself was put into prison at Lancaster Castle in 1664, not being released until four years later.
Swarthmoor Hall became the headquarters of the Society of Friends. Margaret immersed herself in correspondence as the Quaker movement built. Missionary journeys were planned from the hall and relief funds set up for Quakers that were imprisoned. The building also became a regular stopping-off point for travelling preachers.
In 1669, Margaret and George Fox got married. The very next year, she once again was imprisoned at Lancaster, this time for 18 months. Soon after, Fox himself was also imprisoned in Worcester gaol on his return from America and Margaret petitioned King Charles II for his release. When he was freed he came back to Swarthmoor to recuperate and to finish dictating his journal.
Margaret and Fox often lived quite separate lives, as Fox’s Quaker responsibilities kept him touring the country. Margaret herself became a travelling preacher too, campaigning for women’s rights within the movement. They last saw each other in 1690, with Margaret travelling down to London where Fox was in poor health. He died the next year, and Margaret would survive another eleven years, dying at age 88. In her later days, she handed over the the running of Swarthmoor Hall to her youngest daughter Rachel Abraham. Margaret was buried at Sunbrick Burial Ground, at Bickrigg common, a Quaker burial site.
Swarthmoor in New Hands
Swarthmoor Hall was left to Margaret’s son George, the only non-Quaker amongst her children. He sold it to her daughter Rachel Abraham and husband Daniel. It passed via their son to Thomas, their grandson, but when he became bankrupt, in 1753, it was taken over by his creditors. The house and grounds were sold to a Captain William Lindow, a Lancaster merchant. His family rented it out for the next 160 years to tenant farmers. Like so many Lancashire halls, this period of tenancy saw the hall fall into disrepair, with it being described in 1799 as in a “ruinous condition, having gone much to decay”.
In 1912, the hall was bought by Emma Clarke Abraham. She was a direct descendant of Rachel and Daniel Abraham. She was given financial help from the Quakers on the understanding that it would come back into Quaker ownership. Under her stewardship, major repairs were carried out, including restoring the balcony overlooking the garden and the unblocking of windows.
In 1954, the hall and surrounding land was purchased by the Religious Society of Friends from her nephew, Edward Mitford Abraham. Swarthmoor Hall once again became a world focus for Quakerism. Six of the historic rooms were set up in the Stuart style, with donations of furniture, artefacts and books from the time period. More recently a large meeting room has been added, along with guest accommodation, a kitchen and a popular café.
Visitors today are greeted with the site of a somewhat austere-looking building, due to its grey render, stone mullioned windows and local slate roof. Inside are a number of historic rooms that can be explored, and the interior very much transports the visitor back to the Stuart Age.
The Great Hall was used by the Quakers for meeting and worship. The furniture is all from Stuart times, and features interesting pieces such as a double sided table. This has a rough side and smooth side that can be flipped over from one to the other depending on how it was to be used. There is also a hooded chair, which would have been suitable for a draughty house.
Judge Fell’s Study, where he would sit and listen to the Quaker meetings, features a standing desk and an early edition of George Fox’s journal. Margaret and Thomas’s bedroom has fireplace carvings identical to the ones at Cartmel Priory and presumably done by the same travelling craftsmen.
George Fox’s room features a number of artefacts once owned by him. The largest is a four-poster travelling bed made from lignum vitae, the heaviest wood in the world, given to him by Quaker plantation owners in Barbados. There is also his sea chest, and his Henry VIII bible.
The furniture, the rooms and the donations of artefacts from once prominent historical Quakers really make Swarthmoor Hall a unique place to visit for anyone interested in this period of Lancashire’s history. An audio guide is available from the shop as part of the entrance price, and this takes you through the historical rooms. There is also a wealth of interpretation within the rooms themselves.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2020
Access and Opening Times
Swarthmoor Hall is currently undergoing renovation, and will re-open in 2022. Check their website for the latest advice on the re-opening of it to visitors here
The Life and History of Swarthmoor Hall, Elizabeth Dawson and Steven Deeming (2016). Publication available from the shop and copies can be read within the hall
On site interpretation within Swarthmoor Hall
Lancashire’s Historic Halls, David Brazendale (1994), Carnegie Publishing
Swarthmoor Hall Heritage Report (2017). Available online as a pdf document.