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A Short History of the Meeting House
and School at Great Ayton


Meeting House
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There has been a Meeting House in Great Ayton on the present site since 1700 at least. Friends living in the area having met together since 1651 when George Fox, before being led toward the North West, travelled over and around the North York Moors after hearing that ‘the seed was in Cleveland.’ On his way from Stokesley to Staithes via a ‘market town,’ probably Guisborough, he visited Great Ayton. Certainly many local meetings were ‘settled’ in the following year.

Ayton meeting is a part of Guisborough Monthly Meeting, whose boundaries and constituent meetings have changed from time to time, and which originally belonged to Yorkshire Quarterly Meeting. A major turning point came for Ayton in 1841 when Friends in County Durham, having concern for children of ‘disowned’ Friends and who were therefore not eligible for Quaker education, were searching for a suitable site to establish an agricultural school on their behalf. Unable to find a site in the preferred area of Bishop Aukland, Durham Friends sought the assistance of a kinsman, Thomas Richardson – ‘The Friend in Lombard Street’; then retired from a successful career in banking. He came to live in Great Ayton on his retirement in 1830, as his wife was in poor health and needed ‘good, country air;’ it was his grandmother’s birth place and where many of his wider family also lived He and his wife leased Ayton House where they lived until Martha’s death in 1841.

 As well as providing financial backing for many northern industrial enterprises, Thomas Richardson partnered his cousin Edward Pease together with George Stephenson in their venture into the Stockton and Darlington Railway. He was also one of the six founding owners of the Middlesbrough Estate, which led to the development of the town of Middlesbrough, and he had a great personal interest in education.

He responded immediately to the request for help, offering £5,000 towards the purchase price, £6,500, of his cousin Philip Heselton’s estate which was situated next door to the Great Ayton Meeting  House. Thus the North of England Agricultural School for Girls and Boys came into being. Soon afterwards Thomas Richardson built Cleveland Lodge for himself nearby, and watched diligently over the school until his death in 1853; eventually providing well over £11,000 towards its establishment.

‘Disownment  for marrying out’ ended in 1854, and the school changed with the times, becoming the Friends’ School but still an inherited concern of Durham Friends. Guisborough Monthly Meeting had transferred to Durham Quarterly Meeting in 1850, the newly built railways allowing quick and convenient travel to meetings in Durham.

In the 1960s the school was expanding rapidly, so much so that there was no room big enough to accommodate all 300 pupils at one time. Great Ayton  Meeting, by this time the only Preparative Meeting in the Guisborough Monthly Meeting, worked hard to raise the £15,000 needed to extend the Meeting House and so provide the necessary hall for the school. The close relationship between the school and the meeting continued with rooms for children’s meeting, facilities for general meeting and space for social activities being provided by the school, which also cleaned and maintained the Meeting House in exchange for making use of it in its entirety for school purposes.

In 1992 the Meeting undertook work on the fabric of the building on behalf of the school, which at that time had also found it necessary to sell the adjacent cottages. Since the Meeting had made use of rooms in these cottages for many years, especially for children’s meeting, it suddenly found itself without useful small rooms or suitable accommodation for children.

The closure of the school in 1997 came as a shock and bereavement to Friends near and far and to villagers alike (as of course it also did to those directly connected with the school- i.e. the staff and scholars and their Old Scholar associates). In addition to suffering this emotional impact, Friends were left with a building quite inappropriate to the needs of a typical Quaker Meeting and without the major ‘hirer’ of the premises from whom to derive an income for running costs.

There is now a recognised Meeting at Guisborough, but Great Ayton Meeting House is the only property owned by Guisborough Monthly Meeting. At this point in our history, we hope to reinvent ourselves as a Meeting, to provide a base for Quaker worship and work, education and enjoyment for Quakers locally, regionally and nationally, and for the benefit of all the wider community; thus we hope to become ‘good stewards’ of our inherited ‘wealth’, the Meeting House at Great Ayton.

Carole A. Avison


With thanks to Robert Campbell, we can include a portion of "Bulmer's 1890 History, Topography & Directory of North Yorkshire," which mentions Friends' School, and Great Ayton Meeting House. 

 

 

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