Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

John Bellers

1654 – 1725

John was born in London to Quakers Mary Read and Francis Bellers, a wealthy merchant and trader originally from Warwickshire. He was apprenticed as a cloth merchant.

He soon became very involved in Quaker work with the poor and disadvantaged. In 1680 he was appointed treasurer of the Box Fund, an employment fund established by Six Weeks Meeting (the most important of the regular London Quaker committee meetings).  He served as correspondent for Yorkshire under the auspices of the Meeting for Sufferings.

In 1685 Bellers contributed to the purchase of 10,000 acres of land in Pennsylvania for the resettlement of French Huguenots displaced by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.  A year later  he married Frances Fettiplace.

In 1695 he published 'Proposals for Raising a Colledge of Industry of All Usefull Trades and Husbandry'.  In this pamphlet he described the college as a mixed agricultural and manufacturing settlement where about three hundred people who depended on their work or charity for their livliehood could live and work.  Children would be educated and the elderly and ill cared for.  Bellers described it as an "Epitome of the World" and put forward the argument that it was in the interest of the rich to take care of the poor and their education.   This work influenced Karl Marx who refers to it in 'Das Kapital'.  The first edition of the Proposals was addressed to the Society of Friends, but the second edition published in 1696 was addressed to parliament.  In 1698 the yearly meeting in London recommended Bellers' scheme to monthly and quarterly meetings around the country.  Following an unsuccessful attempt to obtain a private act of parliament, Six Weeks Meeting raised £1888 and a lease was taken on a building in Clerkenwell, which became the Quaker workhouse in 1702.  Although the workhouse was not as radical as Bellers' scheme,  it did house, clothe and employ poor Quaker children and adults for the rest of the 18th Century.  It also provided for elderly fee-paying Quakers and educated the children of wealthier Quakers, thus serving the entire Quaker community and undoubtedly had a significant practical impact on the development of social policy. The Quaker workhouse at Clerkenwell gradually evolved into the Friends School at Saffron Walden. Throughout his life Bellers was active in the administration of the house.

Many of Bellers' other writings were significant.  He considered education, employment, trade and the treatment of criminals in his 'Essays about the Poor, Manufactures, Trade, Plantations, & Immorality' published in 1699.  In this pamphlet he set out an argument for the absolute abolition of capital punishment and was the first in Europe to do this.  He also advocated the establishment of an annual "Congress, Senate, Dyet or Parliament" to settle disputes and the creation of a "General Council or Convocation of all the different Religious Perswasions in Christiondom, (not to dispute what they differ about, but) to settle the general principles they agree in".  In some ways this was an extension of the ideas of his friend William Penn.

In his work 'An Essay towards the Improvement of Physick' published in 1714 Bellers suggests the creation of a comprehensive national health service.  Doctors were to be appointed and a series of specialist and regional hospitals set up to care for the health of the poor.  He also suggests a thorough reform of medicine itself.  His hospitals were to provide education and a natural laboratory for the furthering of medical science.  Administration was to be centralized in order to facilitate the dissemination of knowledge that would flow from the new institutions.  In 1718 he became a member of the Royal Society.

He also became involved in visiting prisons and championed the improvement of prison conditions. He distributed a broadside entitled 'To the Criminals in Prison' to inmates during his visits as well as writing 'An Epistle to Friends of the Yearly, Quarterly, and Monthly Meeting, concerning the Prisons, and Sick, in the Prisons and Hospitals of Great Britain'.  He also produced pamphlets on education and the conduct of elections.

John Bellers was a radical and innovative thinker and was well respected in a community concerned with the social problems of an increasingly urban and industrial society.  He died in London in 1728 and is buried at Bunhill Fields.

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