William Penn and the Quaker Linfields of Sussex


Earlier this year, on October 14, we celebrated the 350th anniversary of the birth of WILLIAM PENN (1644-1718), undoubtedly the most famous of the early Quakers. Among his many achievements was the foundation of his utopian colony in America where people were allowed to worship without fear of persecution. Yet he also spent a large part of his life in Sussex, where he lived in a mansion house at Warminghurst near the village of Thakeham. Until the establishment of proper Quaker Meeting Houses, Friends would assemble at other members’ homes, and after their arrival at Warminghurst in 1676, the Penn household was also made available for this purpose. Warminghurst came into the area of the Horsham Monthly Meeting, and when Penn left England in 1682 for his first visit to America, he took with him many Quakers from the local area. In 1691 he helped to buy a property at Coolham, some four miles away, where the Thakeham Meeting House was established. Subsequently known as the ‘Blue Idol’, this famous building is still used to this day as a place of Quaker worship. It receives many visitors, often from the United States, who, among other things, come to savour the atmosphere so redolent of Penn’s era.

Penn found it difficult to stay in one place for any time and was continually travelling. His visit to Pennsylvania in 1682 kept him away for some two years. After his return to England he remained at Warminghurst until 1691 when he was forced to go into hiding due to the uncertainty of his political affiliations to the previous King, James II. James was a Catholic who had hoped to restore the Catholic faith as the established religion, and he found people like Penn very useful in his attempts to undermine the religious settlement that had followed the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. But James’ removal from the throne in 1688 made Penn’s position very difficult. In 1694 his wife Gulielma died. He married HANNAH CALLOWHILL in 1696, and they moved back to Warminghurst, despite Hannah’s dislike for the place, where they had some seven children. Eventually, in November 1707, the house was sold, thereby ending Penn’s thirty year association with the place. He died in 1718.

So who were these so-called ‘Quakers’ and what made them so different from everybody else? Officially known as the Religious Society of Friends, they emerged as a Puritan sect during the middle years of the 17th century. They believed that ‘divine guidance’ came from an inward light, without the aid of intermediaries such as clergy or the rites of an established church. Unfortunately for them, their spiritual convictions were seen as a serious threat to the religious settlement that had been established after the Restoration. Their austere faith was regarded with suspicion, making them easy targets of ridicule and abuse in a society endemic with intolerance and bigotry, partly borne out of the upheaval of the previous decades. But instead of quietly hiding away and worshipping as they pleased, they seemed to openly defy the law, thereby offering themselves for persecution. Their refusal to swear oaths made it very easy for those in authority to have them arrested and thrown into the fetid filth of the local prisons. Many died from the diseases they contracted. Yet their faith must have amazed their tormentors: they blessed their gaolers as they were dragged away, prayed for their souls and forgave them for treating them with such cruelty. Many emigrated to America to escape the persecution at home.

The Quaker Linfields

During my research into the Quaker Linfields, it soon became obvious that not only were they contemporaries of William Penn but they also lived in the same part of the country – indeed, they must have actually known the great man! Of course, their backgrounds were completely different. Whereas Penn came from an aristocratic background and his father was an Admiral, the Quaker Linfields were small yeoman farmers and tradesmen, the people to whom Quakerism appealed most widely. In fact, Penn was very much an exception in the Quaker movement.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect about the Quaker Linfields is how they seemingly had followers in at least three different branches of the family. It is, of course, worth remembering that the Quakers did not have official lists of members as such – it is only from their extensive records that we are able to discover who belonged to the movement. But, in practice, as we shall see later on, it is often the case that we may suspect an individual of being a Quaker even if the records may fail to confirm it (anyway, who said family history was easy!)

The first identifiable Quaker in the family was a JOHN LINFIELD who appears as early as 1662 in Besse’s “Collection of the Sufferings of the People called Quakers” when he was fined and sent to prison at Horsham for attending an illegal Quaker meeting at Arundel. Unfortunately, we have not been able to positively identify him. He belonged to the Arundel Meeting and was sent to prison again in 1665, on this occasion for failing to attend the parish church. These Quaker prisoners were very badly treated, and many died as a direct result of the abuse they received. They were also heavily fined and lost personal property of a value completely disproportionate to their alleged offences. Such was the penalty in those harsh times for failing to conform! John Linfield died in 1670, and was buried at Arundel in the Quaker burial ground.

As a society, we are founder members of the new Quaker Family History Society, which was set up in June. I have sent them an article about the Quaker Linfields, which should appear in a future edition of their journal, Quaker Connections. In this article, I have attempted to identify who John Linfield may have been, and speculate that it was JOHN LINFIELD (c.1642-1682), yeoman of Hurstpierpoint, and son of JOHN LINFIELD and ANNE BEARD who were married at Woodmancote in 1641. I now realise that they were completely different people. My reasons were slightly tenuous, perhaps, and relied on the following pieces of information: (1) John married SUSAN AVERY of Hurstpierpoint (date not found), who came from a family with strong Quaker connections. Susan’s uncle was THOMAS AVERY (1602-78), who was sent to prison in 1663 for refusing to swear. Friends who died at Hurstpierpoint were usually buried at Twineham, but her aunt JOAN AVERY “…desired to bee buried at Hurst grafe yard by her children but denied the priest and it was accordingly dun.” (2) There is documentary evidence that the family had links with the Quaker HUMPHRY KILLINGBECK, who held Quaker gatherings at his house in Twineham during the 1660s. Killingbeck’s name appears as an assessor on the inventory of John Linfield’s father in 1660, and he is also a beneficiary in the will of his mother in 1672. Of course, it may be purely coincidental that they knew Humphry Killingbeck, and does not, by itself, prove anything. Nevertheless, John of Hurstpierpoint may well have been a Quaker at some time during his life – he certainly had enough links with them. All that can be said with any degree of certainty is that he was not a Quaker in 1676 or he would hardly have taken his son to be baptised in the local parish church!

Evidence from the West Sussex Protestation Returns shows that by 1642 the mid-Sussex parish of Nuthurst contained the largest number of Linfields, some five families, all directly related. Interestingly enough, Nuthurst was one of the first places in Sussex to receive the Quaker “message” when JOHN SLEE, THOMAS LAWSON and THOMAS LAWCOCK repaired to the house of BRYAN WILKASON, soon after they “declared the truth” in open market at Horsham. This was in March 1655, and soon after, GEORGE FOX also visited Wilkason’s house as part of a general tour to the Friends of Sussex. Undoubtedly, there would have been many recruits and it would appear that WILLIAM LINFIELD (b. 1633) and his wife, Mary were among them. When their son PETER (b. c1658) died at Nuthurst in 1672, they requested that he be buried in the Quaker burial ground at Twineham. They also attended the Quaker marriage of their daughter MARY to WILLIAM GRINFIELD at THOMAS PARSON’S house in Cowfold in 1681. Their son JOHN (c1655-1729) married MARY WOLVIN at William Penn’s house at Warminghurst in 1693. In the long list of witnesses to their marriage, no-one from the Penn family appears to have attended, possibly as it took place during one of Penn’s frequent absences. John was a blacksmith by trade and lived in the cottage adjoining the Ifield Meeting House, which was opened in 1676. He moved there sometime before 1689, and, according to the account book, paid an annual rent of 5 to the Ifield Meeting. He would most certainly have met Penn on several occasions, particularly as Penn was a frequent visitor to the Ifield Meeting where he often preached. The last Linfield entry was in 1729, the year of John’s death, when his son JOSIAH paid up the “to years rent” then due and received an amount owing to the family for disbursements by his father. Josiah (1699-1755) was also a Quaker blacksmith, continuing very much in his father’s footsteps.

The marriage certificate is, perhaps, the most useful Quaker record to the family historian. It was publicly read, and was then witnessed by all who attended; but, most important of all, relations often appeared on a separate list. The closer relatives signed first, but the appearance of a name does not mean that the individual concerned was a Quaker. The number of signatories is usually quite large, sometimes more than fifty, and usually reflects the size of the meeting – but it is rarely fewer than 20. Thorough enquiries were undertaken by the meeting for church affairs before permission was granted to couples hoping to marry. Among the requirements was the willing consent of both sets of parents, whilst mixed marriages were strictly forbidden. Not surprisingly, the Quakers lost many younger members with the enforcement of such a restrictive rule. The marriage of JOHN LINFIELD and MARY WOLVIN in 1693 is a typical example and is worth reproducing in full:

“Whereas John Linfield sonne of William Linfield of the parish of Horsham in the County of Sussex husbandman & Mary Wolvin Daughter of Thomas Wolvin of Warminghurst in the said County husbandman haveing declared their Intentions of taking each other in Marriage before severall publick Meetings of the people of God called Quakers in the parish of Horsham in the sd. County of Sussex according to the good order used among them whose proceeding therein after a deliberate Consideration thereof were approved by the sd. Meetings they appeared cleare of all others & having consent of parties & relations concerned. Now these are to certifie all whome it may concerne that for the full accomplishing of their said intentions this Two & Twentieth day of the Fourth month called June in the yeare according to the English accounte one Thousand six Hundred ninety three they the said John Linfield & Mary Wolvin appeared in a publick Assembly of the aforesaid people and others mett to gather for that end & purpose in the house of William Penn in Warminghurst in Sussex aforesaid and (According to the Example of the holy men of God recorded in the scriptures of Truth) in a solemne manner & he the said John Linfield takeing the said Mary Wolvin by the hand did openly declare as followeth (viz) I John Linfield doe in the presence of God & you his people take Mary Wolvin to be my wife promising to be to her a faithfull Husband till death seperate us & then & their in the said Assembley the said Mary Wolvin did in like manner declare as followeth (viz) I Mary Wolvin doe in the presence of God & you his people take John Linfield to be my Husband promising to be to him a faithfull wife till death seperate us and the said John Linfield & Mary Wolvin as a further confirmation thereof did then & there to these presents sett their hands and wee whose names are hereunto subscribed being present among many others att the Solemnizing of their said marriage & subscription in manner aforesaid as wittnesses thereunto allso to these presents subscribed our names the day and yeare above written.”

John Linfield
Mary Wolvin

Thomas Wolvin Tho: Wollvin Jane Humphrey
William Linfield Francis Richardson Hannah Burton
Mary Linfield John Richardson Eliz: Milles
Will: Linfield Jun. Geo: Edwards Margaret Ested
Mary Linfield John Humphery Hannah Shaw
William Greenfield John Shaw Mary Newman
Francis Hogge Richard Shaw Mary James
Ann Hogge John Ested Mary Rowland
Tho: Wright Tho: Parsons
Geo: Booke Samuell Tully
Jos: Garton John Parson
Tho: Rowland Tho: Quinly
Jo: Deane John Millet
Tho: Snashall John Older
Rich: Richardson John Humphery
Michael Burton John Blank
Nathan: Shaw James Robinson
Isaac Parson Tho: Humphery
Tho: South John Pryor
Hugh Parson Ben: Hayler
Hen: Mills Dan: Hayler
Jer: Pryor
John Ashford

Although the relatives in this document do not appear on a separate list as such, they are the first people to sign. In fact, it is quite easy to identify them: THOMAS WOLVIN is the father of the bride; WILLIAM AND MARY LINFIELD are the parents of the groom; WILLIAM LINFIELD, junior and MARY LINFIELD are the brother and sister-in-law of the groom; WILLIAM GREENFIELD is the brother-in-law of the groom. Some of the people who follow may, of course, be relatives of the bride but further research is necessary to provide such information. Despite the apparent absence of any members of the Penn family, it is, nevertheless, well worth trying to find out more about some of the others who attended. For instance, there are two people who played a leading role with Penn in establishing the Thakeham Meeting House: (1) JOHN SHAW, who owned the house known as “Little Slatter” which he sold to the Meeting for conversion to a permanent place of worship; and (2) BENJAMIN HAYLER, who was asked with William Penn in 1682 to look for such a place. Hayler’s Farm exists to this day and adjoins to the Meeting house.

The Wolvin family remained Quakers for several generations, and EDWARD WOOLVEN, who died in 1923 at the age of 88 was warden of the ‘Blue Idol’ from 1869 to his death. In fact, Edward’s parents had lived there before him and he was born there. This Sussex farm labourer and his wife Jane were inseparable from the Thakeham Meeting House; hardworking and thrifty, he earned money by helping wherever his services might be needed. He also kept a cow, some pigs, bees and ducks on the two acres of land surrounding the Meeting House. Edward very rarely left his home except to go to the occasional Quaker gatherings at Dorking, Reigate and Brighton. He had always shown a great interest in William Penn, and one day some Friends took him to Jordans in Buckinghamshire to see the graves of Penn and his children. It was the longest journey he had ever made!

Apart from William of Nuthurst, his younger brother PETER (1641-1715), yeoman of Snow’s Farm, may also have had Quaker sympathies. He certainly attended the meeting at Ifield in 1674 in which they discussed the building of a new Meeting Hou
e. He was also a witness at the Quaker marriage of his niece MARY in 1681 (to WILLIAM GREENFIELD). He married his wife Mary sometime before 1677, but it is strange how some of their children were baptised in the local parish church whereas others were not. Did their beliefs waver during this time, or was it a simple expedient for avoiding trouble? Although there is proof enough to show that three of William’s children were Quakers, we do not know about the others. Another son, WILLIAM (c1656-1710), who was a yeoman in the parish of Horsham, may well have been a Quaker although we lack the evidence to prove it. Certainly his eldest son WILLIAM (1685-1738) was a Quaker as well as a blacksmith, which is an interesting coincidence! A family tree of these Nuthurst Linfields should help to clarify these connections (all known Quakers are underlined):

Family Tree of Nuthurst Linfields

JOHN LINFIELD, the blacksmith of Ifield, lost his wife MARY in 1706. He married his second wife, SUSANNA BROWN, in 1708 and they had a daughter, SUSANNA who was born in 1710. Susanna married the Quaker WILLIAM PARSONS at Ifield in 1732.

Another member of the family with strong Quaker connections was JOHN LINFIELD of Southover, near Lewes (1660 – 1709). John was the son of GEORGE LINFIELD and MARY EDE who were married at Cuckfield in 1659. A husbandman in the parish of Cuckfield, John married SARAH GATES, daughter of HENRY GATES, at Thomas Parson’s house at Cowfold in 1686. Soon after their marriage, they moved to the parish of Shipley where they lived for some 15 years. No doubt they would have worshipped at the local Meeting House near Coolham, which was purchased around 1691 and became known as the ‘Blue Idol’. During such visits they would have met William Penn on many occasions since he often worshipped and ministered there during the 1690s. Sometime after 1702, John and Sarah, now with several young children, moved to Southover, near Lewes. We have no idea why they should have moved there, although the very strong Quaker community in the town may have had some bearing on their decision. Incidentally, there is documentary proof that this particular John Linfield knew William Penn – they both witnessed the marriage of JOHN SNASHALL of Hurstpierpoint and ELIZABETH BRADFORD of Worthing, which took place at the Lewes Meeting in September 1706 – but whether this was actually the famous Quaker or his son I have not been ableto determine. John died in 1709 and was buried with his infant son, William.

John’s eldest son, yet another John, married MARY ROBERTS at Twineham in 1713 and eventually became a substantial landowner in the parish of Nuthurst. In fact, a large map of his estate, drawn up in 1795, and now kept at the West Sussex Record Office, shows the full extent of the property he owned in the parish. He was not a Quaker like his father and some of his sisters, who contracted Quaker marriages, perhaps because he chose to marry a non-Quaker and was therefore disowned. This was among several disownable offences, which included habitual absence from worship, excessive drinking, bankruptcy, having illegitimate children, paying tithes, joining the army, marriage before a priest, or attending such a marriage. It is a bit of a mystery how he accumulated such a large estate but he may have obtained it through his wife’s family who were fairly wealthy members of the landed gentry. The family tree below should help to clarify this branch (again, known Quakers are underlined).

Family Tree


I have attempted in this article to introduce the Quaker side of the family history of the Linfields. I must stress that it is really no more than an introduction, but I hope I have managed to stimulate enough interest in what promises to be a very fruitful source of information. DEREK LINDFIELD posed an intriguing question in an earlier article (“The Quaker Connection” Longshot Vol. 1 No. 2 – November 1992): why did Quakerism and the Linfields part company sometime in the eighteenth century? We will never know the precise reason, but it must have something to do with the general decline in Quaker numbers during that century. This decline had much to do with a change in the political scene. No longer persecuted for their religious beliefs, their zeal to change the World was diluted. Their industrious nature – centred upon thrift and honesty – created prosperous businesses. Yet, ironically, this increased affluence destroyed the religious fervour that had so much appeal in the previous century, and the universal goals disappeared. No longer willing to court controversy or offend, the eighteenth century Quakers became more circumspect. The pursuit of private ends became more important to them, and hundreds must have drifted away as the beliefs of a previous generation lost their relevance.


  • C. Thomas-Stanford, Sussex in the Great Civil War and the Interregnum 1642-1660, London 1910
  • Various Authors, William Penn, Praxis Books (for the Thakeham Meeting of the Society of Friends), 1993
  • M. Mullett, Sources for the History of English Nonconformity 1660-1830, British Records Association, 1991
  • E.H. Milligan and M.J. Thomas, My Ancestors were Quakers, Society of Genealogists, 1983
  • D.J. Steel, Sources for Nonconformist Genealogy and Family History, Phillimore 1973
  • W.F. Sweatman, ‘A Sussex Quaker: Edward Woolven’, Sussex County Magazine, Volume XIII (1939) 790-791.

One thought on “William Penn and the Quaker Linfields of Sussex”

  1. I have Quakers on a female line and the names Barber, Coggan and Skuse. On three marriages that I have (one of them in Thomas Parsons house) the name appear of Linfield, Hayller, Parsons, Snashall, Killingbeck, Moreton etc. In some cases on a marriage in 1689 some of the names have asterisks beside them – would you know the reason for this. My marriages are Barber = Coggan 1678 Allen = Skuse 1689 Skuse = Coggan 1702. Coggan came from Somerset and Skuse from Wilts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.