Somewhat more than a year ago, when speaking to the Upper Wharfedale Field Society, I invited Members to visit Airton Meeting House. Sadly it is not yet been possible to do this. Neither was it possible to celebrate in May 2020 Historic England’s redesignating the building, its external stone bench and the archway leading into the Meeting House yard as grade II* in recognition of its national significance. Particularly mentioned as a reason for the upgrading is the interior woodwork. Also in May 2020, Roots of Radicalism in the Yorkshire Dales was published, giving detailed information about local Quakerism and its antecedents.
Successful efforts to obscure its original purpose have left uncertainties about the origins of the Airton Meeting House. It was built in about 1610, most probably by Josias Lambert, father of the future Major General John Lambert, as a semi-clandestine meeting place for unknown dissenting worshippers who may have identified themselves as Seekers. George Fox probably preached here in 1652. Since then it has been used for Quaker meetings for worship. It is both one of the oldest Dissenters’ places of worship in Britain and one of the earliest Quaker meeting houses. Although constructed to resemble a vernacular stone barn, the absence of a door facing onto the street, concealed entrance in what should be the building’s rear face and exterior stone bench indicate that its intended purpose has always been that of an assembly hall. The building and burial ground were purchased from the Major General’s family in 1700 by William and Alice Ellis, who endowed it to Quaker trustees.
In the early 17th century, the building had a single room, stone-slated roof, and suspended wood floor. Probably it had bare stone walls and no ceiling. There were a door and small windows only on the building’s concealed south side. Although it was constructed as a meeting place for people, Gervais Benson, writing in about 1658, described it as resembling “a barn in a field” where he preached to assembled Quakers.
In 1697, William Ellis, a master linen weaver who lived in Airton, wrote that “a few years previously” he had refurbished the Airton Meeting House. An oak partition wall with drop shutters was installed, separating the building into large and small meeting rooms. The main room was given oak wainscotting and a raised bench constructed along its west wall. A small window was inserted high up in the north wall. His recently widowed wife, Alice, had more extensive work done in 1710: the Meeting House roof was raised to match the height of the adjacent re-built cottage, two fireplaces were added, the south-facing windows were enlarged and a gallery inserted reusing some of the original heavy oak floor boards. Remnants of the earliest lime plaster show that the lower walls were painted manganese dioxide red, the gallery walls dull yellow ochre. The present limewashed pink walls are a toned-down reference to the earlier dark red.
Sometime in the eighteenth century, oak wainscotting on the north and south walls was replaced with pine. The old oak was used to re-front the gallery above the hanging shutters and the gallery stairs were rebuilt and boxed in. Since then, the Meeting House has experienced several phases of neglect and renewal. People who knew the building shortly after WWII have described it as having greater unity of appearance than it does now, with polished woodwork and little colour differentiation between the age-darkened pine and the oak fittings. This changed in the early 1950s, when the floors were creosoted and all the woodwork including the seventeenth-century oak prepared with a dense white filler before being covered with hard, shiny grey paint. Then and subsequently some floor boards were replaced and woodwork repaired with little attempt to match new to old.
By the start of the twenty-first century, the Meeting House was semi-derelict and partly unroofed. When major structural repairs were completed in 2007-2008, it was found that, had neglect been allowed to continue, the building could have been lost. Among other faults, the bases of posts supporting the gallery and some structural timbers and floorboards had rotted away and there were major cracks in several walls. As well as restoring the building, inappropriate paint was removed from the woodwork. Regrettably, this resulted in disparities between the acid-bleached pine and darkened oak, which is further marred by remnant blotches of paint and filler. We are initiating a fundraising campaign to enable us to better conserve all the wood fixtures and to complete additional conservation works and repairs which a recent survey has shown to be necessary.
There is little to say about the furniture in the Meeting House. A mid-20th-century Resident Warden wrote in his memoirs that the benches, which mostly derive from a 19th-century Sunday school, were sometimes referred to as “bum numbers”; more recently they have been described as “notoriously uncomfortable”. If we can raise sufficient funds to do so, they will be replaced by more comfortable seating.
Should anyone reading this article want to purchase a copy of the book, Roots of Radicalism, mentioned at the start of this article, or be willing to assist with fundraising, able to donate towards the costs of conservation works to the Meeting House, or want more information, please email Laurel Phillipson (firstname.lastname@example.org ) using “Attn: Laurel Phillipson” as the subject heading.
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