Daniel Wheeler

1771 – 1840

He was born in London, into a comfortably off family, but his parents died when he was still young. At 12 he joined the navy. Conditions were harsh, and there were constant wars with France, but he did well. Later he joined the army and fought in the Netherlands. His evident abilities led to promotion, and he seemed set for a thriving career.

In 1795 everything changed. He was sailing with his regiment to the West Indies, when the ship was beset with illness and then a hurricane. He nearly died, and it made him rethink his whole life and its purpose. He resigned his commission and went to live with his sister Barbara in Sheffield, where he set up a small seed merchant business.

Barbara and her husband were Quakers. He began to go to Meeting with them, and felt increasingly at home, becoming a Quaker himself in 1797. He married Quaker Jane Brady, with whom he was to have six children. In 1809 the growing family moved to a farm nearby. He had no farming expertise but his determination, hard work and capacity to learn, soon resulted in a prosperous farm.

He had been unlikely to speak in meeting, but gradually this changed.  He began to minister in his own meeting and then all over the country. He felt he would soon be called to missionary work abroad, though he had no idea where. His 1817 journal records that he suddenly knew it would be St Petersburg, when he watched his small son struggling with a jigsaw puzzle depicting a map that included that city.

Meanwhile Tsar Alexander 1, who trusted Quakers, had decided to find a British Quaker expert to help him reclaim the marshes near St Petersburg. Daniel volunteered, for he knew this was something he had to do.

In June 1817 he made an exploratory visit. He presented his plan to the Tsar, impressing him greatly. He also gave Alexander a document outlining Quaker principles, and responded to the Tsar’s many questions. Their strong friendship lasted until Alexander’s death in 1825.

The following year Daniel returned, with Jane and their six children, two farm workers and their families, a tutor, and some cows, seeds and tools. They settled at Ochta, on the banks of the Neva, and began reclaiming the first 1000 acres. Alexander sent soldiers to help clear the thick waterlogged moss and dig a network of ditches.  He came several times to see for himself, and was delighted. The first harvest was in 1819, and was high quality and plentiful. Daniel’s methods were working well, and they started reclaiming a second plot, at Volkova.

The winters were long, hard, and cold, and no reclamation work could be done. When they were not ill, they taught the children, and planned the following year. They held Quaker Meetings twice a week, often joined by British visitors to St Petersburg, including William Allen and Stephen Grellet.

Daniel developed a scheme for empowering serfs, whose working conditions on the big estates nearby appalled him. He set up several small farms, and offered tenancies to former serfs, which were very successful.

From 1826 to 1832 Daniel led work on the third plot, in Shushari.  He then felt called to undertake mission work elsewhere. His sons William and Daniel took over, and Jane stayed in Russia with them and her younger children Jenny and Joshua. Not long afterward Jane and Jenny died, and were buried in a Quaker burial ground there.

Daniel’s son Charles accompanied his father on an epic voyage to Rio, Australia, Tahiti, the Sandwich islands, Hawaii, and back to Australia, where he met Quaker missionaries James Backhouse and George Walker. Everywhere he went he attended meetings and spoke about his Quakerism.

He returned to London in 1838, and travelled to Russia to see his family, and Jane and Jenny’s graves. Then he sailed alone to North America (Charles was too ill), and spent most of 1839 in Pennsylvania, Virginia, New England, Ohio and New York. Soon after he returned, Charles died.  Daniel then made one last journey across the Atlantic, but died soon after his arrival.

He was buried in the Friends burial ground in Orchard St, New York.

Further Reading and Credits

external links
further reading
  • Scott, R.G. Quakers in Russia, Michael Joseph, London, 1964