In 2009 the Friends Meeting House, in Darlington, faced closure. More than seven years later, the building is no longer for sale, the Quakers are still there and the meeting house is undergoing a renaissance. John Dean explains how

IN late 2009 a story appeared in The Northern Echo which suggested that an integral part of the town’s history was coming to an end. More than three centuries after moving into Skinnergate, the town’s Quakers were preparing to sell up and leave the town centre site.

It was true that the group had put the Friends Meeting House and several other buildings up for sale but they had done so only reluctantly.

More than seven years later, the building is no longer for sale, the Quakers are still there and the meeting house is undergoing a renaissance, having doubled its room hire in just two years.

The problem for the Quakers in 2009 was that they owned a building that was important historically but was increasingly expensive to run and difficult to maintain. All this at a time when numbers of worshippers were dwindling – down from 300 per Meeting for Worship at the movement’s height to an average of just 20.

Underlying the decision was the way the Quakers view bricks and mortar. Robyn Drummond, the Facilities Manager who was appointed in 2015 after the decision to take the building off the market, said: “The Quakers are unlike other religious groups in that they do not attach sacred status to buildings. They will hold Meetings for Worship anywhere but they did, however, realise that it was a privilege to own such a historic building.”

Historic indeed. Not only is it Grade II Listed but it is one of just five per cent of listed buildings to have been awarded a star because of its importance, a designation placed on it in 1952.

Darlington Quakers have been based at their current site on Skinnergate since 1678 when it was bought for £35. In 1839-40, the old Skinnergate buildings were demolished and the present frontage built.

Various alterations and extensions were made over the years to accommodate growing numbers of worshippers and pupils at Quaker schools but by the 1960s numbers had dwindled and some of the buildings were either demolished or let out to local businesses.

The Meeting House survived but heritage comes at a price. Robyn said: “The issue in 2009 was that the building was not energy efficient and cost a lot to maintain so the decision was taken to put the building ln the market.

“It was more a case of dipping a foot in the water. The situation was far from settled and it was certainly not a firm decision to sell.

“The Friends wanted to find out if anyone was interested but knew that it would be a challenging building for whoever took it over. There is not a lot you are allowed to do to change a Grade II* listed building.

“However, it was a difficult time to sell. The worldwide financial crisis was under way and the bottom had fallen out of the property market.

“There was another reason it was taken off the market. When people found out that the building was for sale we were approached by groups and individuals from within the community expressing concern at what might happen to it. The decision was taken to consider other options.”

That meant bringing in more income by increasing the amount of room hire and today the building is buzzing with life, everything from yoga and tai chi to play groups and lectures, art workshops to dance classes. The building will also host a couple of events during the five-week Darlington Arts Festival starting in late April.

Robyn said: “When I was appointed as Facilities Manager my brief was to keep the lights on and we have doubled the amount of room hire since 2015 and continue to grow.

“I would say that just about every new user we have attracted has come to us through word of mouth. People go to events here, see what a wonderful place it is and tell their friends.”

However, the strong ethos underpinning the Quakers movement is not forgotten. Quaker Cathy Trent said: “We are fairly open-minded about what happens in the building but there are some things that are prohibited as part of our beliefs and we do consider each request very carefully.

“For example, we will not permit anything potentially addictive so we do not allow gambling, and that extends to raffles and tombolas, and we will not permit alcohol to be consumed on the premises.

“However, we do allow a wide range of activities and we are enjoying seeing so many more people using and appreciating the building.

“There are benefits for the Quakers as well because we have had cases of people attending events here and deciding to find out more about worshipping as a Quaker so our numbers are starting to increase again.”

Six years on from that article in The Northern Echo, the future looks much brighter for one of Darlington’s most important historic buildings.

Robyn said: “We still have work to do to. A lot of people still walk past the building and do not even realise what it is but we are getting there and as long as we have people using the building it has a future.”