The Spirit of the Old Town’s Kimberly Black as Elizabeth Stirredge
Quakers and friends from other community groups got together on 29th September to celebrate the last weekend of a long hot summer in a garden ‘Apple Day’. The event was to mark the occasion of three hundred years of the establishment of the Quaker Meeting House in Hemel Hempstead’s Old Town.
The event attracted dozens and drew in members of the Friends of Jellicoe Water Gardens who made the meeting house garden the final destination on their heritage walk along the Gade. People of all ages basked in the Indian Summer sun, and enjoyed freshly pressed juice from the two trees in the garden, which was established as a walled burial ground for the Quakers in 1718.
The highlight of the afternoon was an outdoor performance by Spirit of the Old Town of a short three-act play specially commissioned for the event. Called ‘300 Years in Hemel’ it explored the rich lives of three historical figures who lived and worked in Hemel Hempstead. Kimberly Black, founder of Spirit of the Old Town Productions, wrote and directed the play and performed the role of Elizabeth Stirredge, a Quaker prophetess who came to Hemel Hempstead in 1688. Her stirring monologue recounted her encounter with King Charles where she blamed him for the persecution of Quakers and other non-conformists around that time. She leaves behind a published memoir, and is buried in the old Quaker burial ground in Wood End, which is now the site of a planned new housing development.
Joseph Cranstone Junior (1793 – 1878) and his son, Lefevre Cranstone (1822 – 1893), were two Victorian Quakers whose lives made an impact on their local community and the wider world.
“Man of Iron”, Joseph, played with passion by Mark Crane, told the audience of his work setting up the iron foundry in the Old Town and his contributions to the local civic life and urban landscape. Lefevre, played by Tom Watkins, was an artist who left the town and the Quaker meeting to marry a non-Quaker and seek his fortune by travelling to the US and Australia. His social documentary paintings of scenes of daily life are now on display in galleries and the US White House. ‘Lefevre’ told the poignant story of leaving his wife Lillia and children behind in Hemel Hempstead where she established a school in the town. Lefevre died in Australia.
Joseph Cranstone Junior was buried in the garden in an unmarked grave. The afternoon took on a greater resonance when his final resting place was revealed to be the exact spot where Mark Crane was due to deliver Mr Cranstone’s final monologue. Mark said afterwards, “I felt the hairs at the back of my neck go up. It was an emotional moment!”
Around 20 kilos of apples were pressed and squeezed through the course of the afternoon and every drop was drunk. After the show, Clerk of the Meeting, Audrey Pitchforth thanked the Spirit of the Old Town saying, “We have read the history but seeing the actors made the names come to life. It made us all realise that they were real people and it was very moving.”
The Apple Day was part of a series of events organised by the local Quakers in their tercentenary year. They have included a pilgrimage to the original burial site beyond the town boundaries in Wood End, a special Meeting for Worship and musical events. The final event will take place on 28 October at 7pm – a performance by the London Klezmer Quartet. The complete history of the Quakers to the present day in Hemel Hempstead is recorded in an anthology of writings called “We Go Deep” which is on sale at £5.00 from the Quaker Meeting House, St Mary’s Road.