There were Quakers in Leighton Buzzard in the mid-eighteenth century, but as there was no meeting house they travelled to worship in Woburn Sands (Hogsty End). The house of Joseph Brooks of Leighton Buzzard was registered for Quakers in 1761, but a regular meeting was not settled in the town until 1776 when meetings were held in a loft at the rear of premises in Market Square owned by John Grant, a grocer and chandler. In 1787, John Grant built what is now the small meeting room and registered it as a meeting house in 1789. The main meeting room was added when the building was extended in 1812. At the time the extension was for the women’s meeting. In 1844, John Grant’s widow finalised the transfer to Friends of the meeting house and of the adjoining cottages, which Grant had also bought. The cottages are now managed by a housing association.
The plain interior of the meeting house expressed the simplicity demanded of Friends at the time. The high windows and lack of distracting ornament were designed to help Friends detach from the world during the period of worship. The meeting house was restored in 1953 and the wood stained to the colour it is today. The benches remain but are set to the side of the building, clearing a space for a circle of chairs in the centre of the room.
There is no hierarchy in meeting today, and worshippers are welcome to sit where they please, but this was not the case when to he meeting house was built. The ministers’ gallery and facing benches remain where they were at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the endorsed ministers and the elders occupied them. The benches that are now situated at the side of the meeting room were arranged in two rows, one for the men and one for the women, and faced towards the elders and ministers.
At the opposite end of the meeting room to the minsters’ gallery is the nineteenth century room divide. Since 1670 men and women Friends had held separate business meetings. The room divide made a space for each meeting and has shutters that can be opened for large meetings and for weddings and funerals. When men and women’s meetings were set up, it was intended that they had spiritual equality and parallel agendas on church affairs but the meetings soon became gendered. Thus the women became responsible for the care of the poor and for the domestic arrangements in the meeting house and so on, whilst the men took responsibility for church affairs. Towards the end of the nineteenth century women began to question the separation and in 1909 the first fully United Yearly Meeting was held. There is a further room divide in the small meeting room. Built in the 1960s, this divide provides a sound barrier between the two rooms, particularly when there are enough children for a children’s meeting or tea to prepare while a meeting is in progress.
As part of the 1953 restoration, the gravestones were moved from the graves to the sides of the burial ground, and a lawn was laid over the burial area. In keeping with Quaker practice, the gravestones are of the same size and materials and have the same form of words. They were placed in the same manner in the burial ground to avoid distinction between rich and poor. Some of the gravestones have been re-laid to make a path to the far end of the garden.
The Bassett family were probably the best known Quakers. Peter Bassett was influential in creating a bank in the town ( now Barclays). Mary Bassett has a school named after her in the town. She died in London but her ashes are buried in Leighton Buzzard burial ground.