Joanna Hodgkin

Quakers in Love

A love story, a window into a little known world and a portrait of a remarkable woman.

With Sarah Godlee as companion guide I have been fortunate to discover a family as warm-hearted, complex and engaging as Jo March and her sisters, a religious society full of fascinating individuals who stubbornly refuse to fit the clichéd image of the two-dimensional non-conformist, and a way of life that can teach us much about the way we live now.

Quakers in Love
March 6, 2023A few days ago a friend sent me a photograph of a small watercolour, painted almost 200 years ago. He wrote ‘I have been given a floral watercolour miniature from my aunt Rachel’s house on which she noted on the back that it was painted by Sarah Rickman in 1830. Would this Sarah have featured in your research, do you think?’ Yes! She didn’t just feature in my research: she was its star. Sarah Godlee Rickman (1798-1866) and her cousin Dr Thomas Hodgkin (same dates, he was the medical pioneer who identified the leukaemia that bears his name) were close as children and considered marriage in their youth. But at that time Quakers forbad marriage between first cousins though it was common enough in the rest of society: Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin – no one murmured when they married their first cousins. But they weren’t Quakers. When her husband died, five years after she painted this water anemone, Thomas who had stayed single spent two years trying to get the Society of Friends to fall into step with the rest of society. They ignored him. He and Sarah had to give up their hopes of making a life together.   All her life, in tragedy and delight, Sarah was a maker.  She did brilliant silhouettes – the Wellcome library bought a whole album of them without knowing who had done them – all with her distinctive ‘SR’ signature These examples show her portrait of William Miller, the well-known engraver, who was two years older than her, and his sister Elizabeth, two years younger, who became the third wife of Thomas Rickman the  architect. They date from one of her long visits to Edinburgh. The Millers were delighted by the addition of such a bubbly and sociable young woman to the small coterie of Quakers north of the border.  Her leatherwork was so professional that recipients of her gifts complained people assumed they had been purchased – nothing amateurish about anything she did. When she and her sisters ran a little school in Lewes, she made a leaving gift for each girl, gifts that were treasured for decades – and which maybe survive still. In 1824, back home with her family in the Bear Yard in Lewes, she began a ‘Family Journal’ full of gossip and news and reflection, laughter and tears, a document in which a  whole family and their circle dance across the pages. When I read it first, they became so familiar, as if they had just left the room, that it was hard to believe she’d been writing nearly 200 years ago. And she painted. I’d seen sketches she did as preparation for silhouettes, but this is the first botanical painting of hers I’ve found. One of the many singular things about Sarah is how much of her survives. She was neither rich nor famous, but her legacy has been treasured by her family and others through the generations. An anonymous friend put together a handwritten account of her ‘Life and Writings’. Nicholas Godlee, great grandson of one of her brothers gathered as many of her letters and papers as he could – and generously let me work through them all when I was writing about the lifelong devotion between Thomas Hodgkin and her. Nicholas’s interest in her had first been sparked when he inherited a small table she had made. Cabinet making and sculpture were all activities she plunged into with zest.  Perhaps this is her secret. In spite of the many difficulties in her life, she embraced each day with honesty and gusto. Friendship, literature, family, creativity – she enhanced the lives of all who knew her – ‘the sun of our system’, as a sister described her – funny, warm-hearted, waspish and kind. Her personality somehow survives in the objects she made. Like this little painting of the water anemone. Hardly a great work of art, but the creation of a woman whose life was itself a work of art. And it sets me wondering. How much else that she made or wrote still survives, scattered and still treasured? Nicholas had two volumes of her Family Journal, from January 1824 to December 1828, but there are references in her letters to later volumes. It was passed around her family who insisted she carry on. Have all the later volumes been destroyed, or are they still treasured, still surviving?  [...] Read more...
February 26, 2023November 27th 2022: an unlikely gathering took place in Lordship Rec, a park in Tottenham, North London, organised by the wonderful group of people who are Tottenham Clouds.  About thirty people had joined to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of a quiet man who left a mighty legacy: Luke Howard. He was a pharmacist, which at the beginning of the nineteenth century meant someone who worked in the field of chemical experimentation, not just doling out medicines – though he did that as well. But his passion, from childhood, was observing the weather. Most especially, clouds. His paper, On The Modification Of Clouds, was read out to a small scientific group one evening in 1802 – as a member of the Askesian Society, he had to produce a paper or pay a fine.   Amazingly, the impact of that paper resonates still. The names he chose, Cumulus, Cirrus, Stratus and Nimbus are still the basis of cloud naming. He is recognised as the father of meteorology. He was also the only Englishman that Goethe called ‘Master’ – but that’s a digression. On the day we gathered, the sky was dense with those endless dense white-grey clouds that seem to blot out everything. In his words:  I relish his scolarly description of a skyscape which is basically a huge mash up of every kind of cloud there is cumulus, cirrus, stratus with nimbus thrown in just in case. There was a lot of pluviam about to effundens that afternoon, but the six of us in the photograph were more intrigued by totting up the greats: if Luke Howard is my great x 3 grandfather, and your great x 4 grandfather, what kind of cousin are we?   Distant, is the only answer to that. I wasn’t there because Luke Howard is my many greats grandfather – genes too diluted to claim any honour – but because he is a man I have come to know well. In the story I’ve been researching of Thomas Hodgkin (1798-1866) and his decades-long love for his cousin Sarah Godlee (1798-1866 also) Luke Howard plays a more than walk-on part. He was a luminous figure in the Quaker firmament of the early nineteenth century, but he was also a neighbour and mentor to Thomas and his brother John when they were boys. Thomas’s brother John married Luke Howard’s daughter, Elizabeth. Their stories were interwoven all through. Elizabeth’s correspondence with her deeply unhappy younger sister Rachel gave me my first window into the world of those Quaker women born at the turn of the century. Elizabeth was someone with a gift for happiness, as her less fortunate sister knew. Elizabeth’s death at the age of 33 was one of those tragedies whose consequences ripple out beyond her own circle for decades to come.  The best known image of Luke Howard shows an alert man with a far seeing gaze, appropriate for someone who spent so much of his life looking up at the sky. When he was sitting for his portrait at ‘Glovers’, Elizabeth reported : ‘It is undoubtedly now a very good likeness, but taken, we must allow, in a moment of animation which is not our dear father’s usual mood. Fancy him just roused up by some remark which takes his attention and pleases him and saying “Now, Robert, what is that? Let me hear that again?” and thou wilt have it just.’ Elizabeth used the old-fashioned ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, as did all Quakers at that time. Plain speech was important to them. But the note of asperity – ‘animation is not our dear father’s usual mood’ – speaks volumes.  My favourite image of him, however, was sketched by Elizabeth’s eldest son, Eliot. He was seven when she died. The following summer he and his siblings went to stay with their grandparents, Luke and his wife Mariabella, at their home in Ackworth, Yorkshire. Now in semi retirement, Luke Howard was devoting his energy equally to meteorology and farming, and the children enjoyed the animals and activity. Eliot wrote – in French; they were a family that expected a lot of their children – to his father still in London recording his delight in being allowed to chop down a small tree. Note the very clearly marked wedge where the axe must fall. And is that his jacket lying on the ground behind him? Eliot continued to decorate his letters with cartoons all his life.   Presumably the two little girls on the left are his younger sisters, and the woman with them either their governess or their aunt. Is the second person with the stick behind their grandfather his old coachman? Luke Howard wears a top hat to observe the chopping of the tree. Maybe he was already moving away from the traditional Quaker dress for men. He was on the verge of leaving Quakers in the upheaval which was tearing the movement apart – the Beaconite controversy. Whatever tensions and unhappiness surrounded the family – and Eliot’s little brother Thomas is conspicuously absent, most probably in trouble for quarrelling – Eliot looks to be enjoying his moment of action. [...] Read more...
February 24, 2023When young Thomas Rickman boarded the London to Liverpool coach on a dark December morning 1807, he faced an instant dilemma. What words should he use? Did he greet his fellow travellers as ‘you’? Or ‘thee’ and ‘thou’? His allegiance to the Society of Friends dictated the latter. But the temptation to use the pronoun everyone else regarded as normal was almost overwhelming. When settling in for a long journey, the inside travellers were always quick to assess the company they’d be keeping during the long day ahead. Coach travel was made or marred by one’s companions. Thomas’s clothes already marked him out as an oddity: the wide-brimmed hat, breeches and antiquated coat that Quakers still wore in the early nineteenth century – did he have to compound his outsider status by the way he spoke? His concern is surprising for two reasons. Firstly, he was not technically even a member of the Society of Friends: he had been disowned three years before because of his marriage to his first cousin Lucy, a woman he’d loved from boyhood. First cousin marriage was common in nineteenth century England – Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria both married first cousins and no one batted an eyelid. But Quakers followed their own rules, and Thomas and Lucy had faced fierce opposition from family and friends. Still, disownment did not mean the kind of never-darken-my-doors-again severance the word implies. They continued to attend meeting and to be supported by the same family and friends who had earlier discouraged their marriage. But in December 1807 Thomas and Lucy’s hopes for a life together had been torpedoed. His corn factor business had failed and as a bankrupt he had no way to support his wife. Three days earlier he’d seen her leave on the Lewes coach to go back to her parents. That evening he had written in his journal ‘Sat down very solitary to my Dinner my tears flowed oh Lucy how has thou felt this Day many feelings rushed on me’ – (Punctuation was never Thomas’s thing.) With his life in freefall, one might assume he was too stressed to bother about the opinion of his fellow travellers on the Liverpool coach. Not so. On arrival in Liverpool he noted with relief, ‘To bed early with some Gratitude for the support experienced thro’ the Day and having been favour’d to keep the plain Language thro’ the Journey and while here’. To be a Quaker in the early nineteenth century was to be ‘other’. The early years of bitter persecution had long gone, imprisonment and even death were no longer the price to be paid for membership of ‘our society’. Now Quakers had to endure a less obvious and often underestimated trial: embarrassment. To wear odd clothes, to refuse to take your hat off (men), to insist of odd quirks of speech – all this marked you down as seriously weird. And young Quakers had the same longing to fit in with their peers as anyone else. Some years later, Thomas Rickman’s nephew Burwood Godlee, always regarded as the epitome of the conformist Lewes Quaker, wrote to his brother who was starting a new career as a barrister in London encouraging him to stick to the Quaker ways, however hard that might be. He admitted that ‘the peculiarities of Quakerism’ had been a ‘scene of contest my whole life from a boy’. Even for Burwood, who never ventured far beyond the safe world of his tight knit Lewes circle, the temptation to avoid social embarrassment was ever present. I sympathise. In this ‘post-religious’ age, to admit to being part of a Christian community is to invite scorn, bafflement, derision or – perhaps worst of all – pity. You’re religious? Really? After Darwin and Dawkins, after the endless scandals of abuse and persecution? When large chunks of the Christian hierarchy appear to be obsessed with what people do with their sexual organs? and now even undoing all the progress that’s been made in terms of equality and generosity towards all people? You really identify with all of that? By a twist of history, to be Quaker is to escape much of the contempt. I attend an Anglican church but I only have to mention my roots in the Society of Friends, to trigger instant relief: ‘Oh yes, Quakers. I have a lot of respect for them’. Whenever I mention the embarrassments of religion to fellow worshippers there is immediate recognition. Lots of people take care to distinguish between being religious and being spiritual. Latter ok, former suspect. Same with prayer. Tell people you are meditating for half an hour every morning and they accept it easily. Tell them you’re praying and most look away, embarrassed in their turn, as if you’d admitted to something one really doesn’t speak about in polite – or ‘cool’ – society. Which is why, I suppose, the embarrassments of religion are so seldom discussed. Because they are … well, embarrassing. So what is the solution? Talking about it is a start. Beyond that, for me anyway, it’s a work in progress. And what of Thomas and his Lucy? A week after his arrival in Liverpool, he noted in his diary that he had been seized with anxiety and ‘in a fear of something happening to my Lucy’. Her health had been precarious since childhood and any kind of stress was liable to precipitate an attack of erysipelas. She had been unwell for several days and died in her sleep on the night of 13th December 1807, having finished a letter to her husband ‘believe me as ever, most tenderly thine,’ before turning in for the night. Thomas’s journal is a blank for a week after he got the news, and for several days it was barely coherent. Alone and practically destitute in Liverpool, he got through his grief by tireless walking whenever he had the chance, and often during his lonely walks he paused to sketch the churches in the area. In time, his study of church architecture led to the publication of An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture from the Conquest to the Reformation in 1817. He divided medieval architecture into Norman, Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular, a system of classification that has been used ever since. He’s remembered now as one of the leading Gothic architects of the day. He gradually drifted away from the Society of Friends and became an Anglican, though he remained close to his Quaker cousins. Who continued, as I do now, to sometimes struggle with the embarrassments of religion.   This article first appeared in The Friend, 2023           [...] Read more...

Subscribe to my newsletter

* indicates required