The Quaker Margaret Heale
Central Bristol in 1673
Very little can be discovered of the early life of Margaret Heale, in fact nothing is known of her, including her maiden name, before her marriage to John Heale, presumably in Bristol, around 1651/2. The marriage itself is not recorded – it may have taken place at St Peters, where the registers have been destroyed, or possibly in the nonconformist Church of Christ, which later became the Broadmead Baptist Chapel. What is certain is that at some point in the 1650s the Heales became members of the Society of Friends, otherwise known as the Quakers. It is possible they were among the score or so Independents who followed Dennis Hollister from the Broadmead congregation to the newly established Quaker group which had been established soon after the first preachers, John Audland and Thomas Airey arrived in the City on July 12, 1654.
An early Quaker register records the birth of John, son of John and Margaret Heale on 16th of the 9th month (November) 1653, the parents residing in “Peters parish”. A daughter named Susannah followed in 1655, but she must have died early, as another Susannah arrived on 24th October 1658. Sadly she too died young, being buried in the burial ground known as the Orchard near Broadmead, where the Society’s first meetings took place, in 1664. The birth of their final child, Mary had been recorded in the register of the Society two years previously: “Mary daughter of John Heale by Margaret his wife was borne at their dwelling house in Wine Street the Two and Twentieth day of the 11th mo. 1661”. In modern terms that is January 22, 1662.
Birth of Mary Heale 1662
John Heale (sometimes spelt Heal, Hale or Hele) was a baker by trade, having served his apprenticeship under another John Hele (his father perhaps) and become a Burgess of Bristol in 1652. This probably points to him being born around 1622 – Margaret was probably about the same age. Both John and Margaret were active in the Quaker community, John being employed on occasion on disciplinary activities and a regular member of the Men’s Meeting; Margaret, however seems to have been a major figure in the women’s congregation. In November 1671 the Men’s Meeting, being the main organisational body of the Society, questioned why “Margaret Hale and Jone Hily publisht a womens monthely meeting & likewise to know how & on what account that …meeting was sett up; & to give an account to this next meeting”. Four members were deputed to attend the women’s fortnightly meeting and report back. At the next Mens’ Meeting on December 11th, they recorded “That Margret Heale of her selfe, and not by order of any meeting, published the weomens monthely meeting in the publique meeting house.” It appears that the Men had intended to send a paper to the Women “against vanity and excess”, but in error had forwarded a letter from George Fox, the founder of Quakerism which dealt with the setting up of monthly meetings. This is what the Women had discussed and attempted to implement. Margaret and Joan were obviously the prime movers in this as it is recorded that the “weomen friends…. not agreeing amonge them selves… apoynted a meeting…to waite upon the lord if peradventure they might come to unity amongst them selves”. The Men’s Meeting advised them not to proceed with a Monthly Meeting and matters thus lapsed, but two weeks later, a “paper given forth” by Margaret was read out at the Men’s Meeting and she proposed for it to be more widely distributed. Again the advice from the Meeting was that “shee should further waite to bee directed in the wisdome & power of God to publish it” – another put-down. She agreed to to recieve the “councell of freinds & so left the paper with us”.
It is unfortunate that the minutes of the Women’s Meeting for this period do not survive, but further evidence of her standing in it is shown in a letter held in the Bristol Record Office archives. It dates to about 1672 and shows the women at odds with the Men’s Meeting again. It concerns help being given to a widow living in want of “necessarys required in a famaly which were not fitt for men to loke into” and the letter rebukes the men for concerning themselves with almsgiving, which was normally the preserve of the Women’s Meeting. The list of signatures subscribed is headed by Jone Hely and Margarit Hale, although noticeably the handwriting is the same – almost certainly that of Joan Hely, as Margaret when witnessing marriages usual made a mark of MH.
Margaret Heale in letter to the Men’s Meeting
The Quakers in Bristol suffered two intense bouts of persecution, although harrasment and hostility were a continual feature of theirs lives; the first was in 1663-4 when John was imprisoned, but the most serious was that of 1681-3, instigated by the sheriff of Bristol, John Knight. John Heale had already been imprisoned for a second time in 1679, as punishment for opening his shop on January 30th – the anniversary of the execution of Charles I, which had been ordered to be a day of “fasting and humiliacion” by Charles II, but these final years of trial were to see both John and Margaret suffer imprisonment, John fined £220 for failing to attend Anglican worship (it is not known if the fine was ever collected) and finally, in January 1683, the death of Margaret in Newgate Gaol. Joseph Besse’s Sufferings of the Quakers records that, following ill-treatment by the gaolers, she was taken ill on the 23rd, and by the 26th she was near to death. A request to visit her by some of her fellow prisoners was denied by the Tapster of Newgate, although one member of the Society was present and recorded her final words (see here). Asked as to her condition she replied with a beautiful metaphor for dying: “Aye, said she, we are full fraught, ready to set sail the first fair wind” and the author adds “as she and some others did, into the ocean of eternity not long after ….finishing her testimony for God, and his truth, the 28th of the 11th month, being faithful unto death, and now enjoy the crown of life”.
Margaret was buried the following day, 29th of the 11th month, 1682 (29th January 1683 New Style) in the Quaker burial ground and the entry in the Register records the fact: “Margarett, wife of John Hale Baker buried” and added in another hand, “An Ancient friend of good memory, she dyed prisoner in Newgate” A remarkable woman whose faith sustained her and whose strong personality shines down through the centuries.
Burial of Margaret Heale 1683
Postscript. Following Margaret’s death John Helae continued to live in Wine Street until c1691. Their daughter Mary married John Horwood at the Quaker Meeting House in the Friars in 1687 (these are my 6x great grandparents), but by 1691 John Heale had moved to Chew Magna where he had acquired a property and some land. He ceases to appear in the Bristol Quaker records but often attended the Chew Meeting, sometimes representing it at the Somerset Monthly Meeting. He married again in 1697, his bride being Hannah Fyler. To obtain the Meeting’s approval he was required to present a “Cetificate of his clearnesse from the widdow Hickinbotome, with whom he had been formally concerned”! It seems he continued his baking business in Bristol (he was paid £39 by Thomas Goldney when the Duke and Duchess were fitted out before their famous voyage of 1708-11) although he sometimes described himself as a yeoman. He made a will in 1708 in which he left the bulk of his estate to his Horwood granddaughters, with an interest for life to his wife Hannah, of his dwelling house and goods. One detail that delights is that he bequeathed to his granddaughters Mary and Elizabeth “one wring and stone for making Cider”. John died at Chew but his body was brought back to the Quaker burial ground at Redcliffe, where he was laid to rest at 4.00pm on July 22nd 1710.
Records of the Society of Friends (Quakers)
Joseph Besse: A Collection of the Sufferings of the People called Quakers 1753
John Whiting: Persecution Exposed 1791
Anon: A Narrative of the Cruelties & abuses acted by Isaac Dennis, Keeper, his wife and servants in the Prison of Newgate…. 1683
Anon: The distressed case of the people called Quakers in the City of Bristol…. 1682
Minute Book of the Men’s Meeting of the Society of Friends in Bristol 1667-86 BRS XXVI 1971
This article was first published in the Journal of the Bristol & Avon Family History Society (No 162 December 2015)