Quakers is the popular name for the members of the Religious Society of Friends. The Society owes its origins to the political and religious turmoil experienced in England in the middle of the 1600s. In 1642, England was engulfed in Civil War which resulted in the execution of Charles I in 1649.

As a result of the breakdown of authority, radical ideas found fertile ground at all levels of society. It was a period of great religious fervour when men sought to redefine their religion and society.

Among the radical groups that emerged were the Quakers. The movement was founded by George Fox around 1647. The word 'Quaker' was originally coined as an insult to George Fox, who told an English judge to 'tremble at the word of the Lord.' The judge retaliated by calling Fox a 'Quaker.'

In the 1650s it gained numerous converts among farmers and craftsmen in both rural and urban areas. It has been estimated that by 1660 the movement had between 30,000 and 40,000 members in England. The first record of Quakers in county Laois dates from about 1654.

Around that year, William Edmundson visited two Quaker families in Rosenallis. The two families appear to have been the Cantrills of Tineil and the Chanders of Ballyhide. In 1659, Edmundson, with a group of other Quakers, settled in the vicinity of Mountmellick. William Edmundson is believed to have been the first Quaker in Ireland. He was not a Friend when he first arrived in Ireland. While on a trip to England, William became 'convinced' of the truth of Quakerism by James Naylor. Edmundson had a charismatic personality. He converted numerous people to Quakerism and was totally convinced of the righteousness of his convictions.

Although the Quakers held their first meeting in Mountmellick in 1659, it was not until 1709 that the first official Quaker Meeting House was built. Their first school was opened in January 1786. John Pim, John Heiton, Jack Gatchell and Mungo Bewley built the boarding school to provide education to poor Quaker families. In 1824 three privately owned Quaker schools were recorded in Mountmellick and these were the only private schools in County Laois. Below is a list of some of the early Quaker settlers in the area:

  • William Edmundson (1627 - 1712)
  • Thomas Stalker
  • Thomas Beale
  • Robert Wardel
  • Rodger Boswel (died, 1666)
  • William Archer
  • John Savage
  • Thomas Stevenson
  • Godfrey Cantrel (died, 1686)
  • William Walpole (died, 1691)
  • William Barcrof (c. 1612 - 1696)
  • John Hug
  • John Pim (1641 - 1718)
  • John Goodbody
  • John Edmundson
  • William Neale
  • William Capton (died, 1672)
  • Richard Jackson (1643 - 1697)
  • William Parker
  • Evan Bevan
  • Tobias Pladwell
  • John Chandler
  • John Thompson (died, 1695)
  • John Gee
  • Richard Scot (1625 - 1707)
  • William Moon (died, 1659)
  • Nicholas Gribbell (c.1641 - 1728)

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