Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)


The Friends' School, 1910 (AOT, PH30/1/2440)

The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), a worldwide movement founded by George Fox in seventeenth-century England, is known primarily for its commitment to peace and social justice, based on the belief that there is 'that of God' in everyone. The concept that God is accessible to each person, without needing priest or sacrament, has led to the distinctive Quaker worship based on silence. Rejecting written creeds, Friends aim to live their beliefs to 'Let [their] lives speak'.

Two English Quakers, James Backhouse and George Washington Walker, played a key role in the establishment of the Society of Friends in Tasmania. They visited Van Diemen's Land in 183237 with a mission to investigate contemporary Quaker concerns: the treatment of convicts and Aborigines, promoting temperance, and preaching the Gospel to settlers, bond or free. They held the first Quaker Meeting for Worship in Australia in Hobart on 12 February 1832. Land for a meeting house was bought in Murray Street and a burial ground in Providence Valley (now Friends Park in Mellifont Street). The Quaker Meeting House was not completed until 1880 and was replaced by the present Meeting House in Argyle Street in 1960.

After struggling to maintain numbers in the mid-nineteenth century, the Quaker community in Hobart was strengthened by the successful establishment in 1887 of The Friends' School, which has become one of the best-known Quaker institutions in Australia. Education has always been a major concern of the Friends. The choice of Hobart was largely due to the continuing influence of Backhouse and Walker, who had built up considerable local confidence in the Society of Friends. Other Tasmanian institutions with Quaker connections include the Hobart Savings Bank, Cadbury chocolate factory and St Ann's rest home. Tasmanian Quakers have contributed a number of officers to the Australia Yearly Meeting and also to worldwide Quakerism, notably Richard Meredith who was general secretary of Friends World Committee for Consultation from 1981 to 1985.

Today, Quakers continue to be active in the peace movement, in working for refugees, to improve rehabilitation services for prisoners, and for reconciliation with Indigenous Australians. Hobart Friends have counselled conscientious objectors, and helped establish the Tasmanian Peace Trust and the Hobart Mediation Centre. Quaker Service Australia, with its office in Hobart, was chosen by the Australian government to provide the first 'unofficial' Australian aid towards rebuilding Cambodia through their project for English language training in Phnom Penh.

Further reading: W Oats, Backhouse and Walker, Hobart, 1981; A question of survival, Brisbane, 1985; and I Could Cry For These People: An Australian Quaker response to the plight of the people of Cambodia, Hobart, 1994; S Given. 'Friendly contributors: Pioneering Tasmanian Quakers', in 40 Degrees South 23, 2001; N Hewitt, Friends in Tasmania 18321982 [Hobart, 1982]. Further reading: W Oats, Backhouse and Walker, Hobart, 198].

Stephanie Farrall