Social reformers come to Brixton

Viv Whittingham, a descendant of the founder of Brixton Windmill, describes the religious beliefs which formed the backbone of his life

Elizabeth Fry

  • Do you think that inequality has spawned much of the unhappiness and discord in society?
  • Are boycotts an effective way of showing up rogue businesses?
  • Are you sure that the environment should be protected? Or that wars are a poor way of resolving conflict?

If so, you have a lot in common with John Ashby, founder of Brixton Windmill and member of a movement of people who firmly held those beliefs.  

These people were Quakers, a religious group who included many famous names whose influence is still felt today:

  • Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), who transformed life for prisoners and helped set up shelters for homeless people 
  • William Dillwyn and John Lloyd, who in the late 18th century wrote the explosive pamphlet ‘The case of our fellow creatures, the oppressed Africans’, starting the first organised campaign to abolish slave labour 

  • Eric Baker (1920–76), co-founder of Amnesty International and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Formally known as the Society of Friends or the Religious Society of Friends, Quakerism is rooted in Christianity. It began in England in the 1650s, and today there are about 210,000 Quakers worldwide.

Quakers believe that that there is "something of God in every person". This has led them to campaign to end the opium trade, promote women's rights and pioneer reforms in criminal justice. They have been conscientious objectors and led boycotts of rice, sugar and cotton grown by slave labour: one well-known Quaker refused to be covered by a cotton blanket as he lay dying.

Quaker doll in plain dress

Plain dress

It wasn’t just their beliefs that set them apart. If you saw Quakers in the street you would think they looked very strange indeed.

In a major move in the history of fashion, these devout people wore what is called ‘plain dress’: practical, simple clothing made of fabrics such as calico and flannel (see the Quaker doll, right). Women’s clothing was loose-fitting; men’s coats were unstructured. Colours such as grey, brown, cream and pale green were used, with little or no ornamentation, buttons or jewellery. This was in direct contrast to the extravagant and showy fashions of the 18th century. 

'Plain dress' was also in keeping with their principles of equality, peace, simplicity and truth - equality being perhaps the most important. Quakers were in the forefront of the movement for female equality.

But their views challenged the prevailing order and they made many enemies. Because they did not accept that one person was superior to another, they refused to take oaths and to take off their hats in front of a magistrate. They continued to hold public meetings, even when they were banned. Though this led to thousands being imprisoned, it also made them stronger and more self-reliant.

An active, focused and industrious people, they valued integrity in business transactions and in workplace dealings with individuals. They abhorred debt.

You will know names from the businesses they set up – though ownership has now changed: Fry and Cadbury (chocolatiers), Huntley and Palmers (biscuits), Rowntrees (sweets), Lloyds and Barclays (banks) and Clarks (shoes). They were brewers, corn and grain merchants, textile manufacturers, printers and publishers, tea and coffee dealers. They were scientists, industrialists, engineers, educators, reformers and philanthropists.

A tightknit group, Quakers supported each other when times were hard. Known for their honesty, they gained a reputation for paying their taxes promptly and for selling goods that were reasonably priced and ‘did what they said on the tin’. All this was unheard of at the time. People felt their money was safe in Quaker banks.

When, in 1816, John and Hannah Ashby and their children moved to Brixton from Sussex to work Brixton Mill, Quakers were in the forefront of campaigns for social justice and had earned a reputation for honesty. John came from a family of millers and he was "active in circulating Friend’s literature". Subsequent generations of Ashbys remained committed Quakers.

The Ashbys of Brixton

In 1816 the mill was new and the family soon set up a busy compound on the site in Brixton Hill, with a windmill, mill house, warehouses, stables, bakery, and three cottages.

At the time London was a city in flux, growing rapidly. Uncontrolled development was spreading over Lambeth and beyond. The appalling conditions, including lack of clean water, fuelled outbreaks of disease, and one of the cholera epidemics, in 1854, claimed the life of one of John and Hannah’s sons. 

When Brixton Hill became so built up that there was not enough wind to power the mill, the family leased a watermill in Mitcham, but continued to live in Cornwall Road (now Blenheim Gardens).

John and Hannah had nine children - five daughters (two of whom died in infancy) and four sons who all became millers. In true Quaker style, one grandson became an educator, and in his 20s was appointed headteacher of a famous Quaker boarding school. Another was an entrepreneur and innovator in milling processes.

John himself was a prolific writer on religious and social matters, finding time to oversee their publication in the last 20 years of his long life. 

The Ashbys of Brixton were in close contact with other Quakers in the area and beyond, helping each other and airing ideas about business, religion and social affairs. Ashby’s Mill, as it was called, was worked until the 1930s, and today the mill remains a tangible reminder of this industrious Quaker family.  

Quakers have long campaigned against slavery

Living adventurously

Today the Quakers continue to campaign for restorative justice and non-violent resolution to conflict, and against modern-day slavery and environmental destruction. Their injunctions "to live adventurously" and "seek to understand the causes of social injustice, unrest and fear" set the pattern for their lives.

You don’t see them walking down the street in ‘plain dress’ but they are there amongst us, and many of their values and ideas have exercised an influence out of all proportion to their numbers. 

If you take a trip down Brixton Hill and look for the windmill, you can imagine the industrious Ashbys, Quakers of old, engaging in some of those discussions that changed the world.