Argus title : A free spirit who deserves honour
On the edge of the Lanes, at the centre of Brighton, stands Brighton’s Friends Meeting House. Since 1805 it has been the place of worship for the city’s Quaker Community.
Set back from the street, fronted by a tranquil garden, it is an oasis of peace in one of the busiest parts of Brighton. While all around it, local businesses pursue wealth and profit, luring well-heeled passers-by to part with their money, the Meeting House welcomes everyone, perhaps especially those who are penniless.
Many thousands of people have entered its doors, to worship and to take advantage of the adult education classes which, for over 60 years, have taken place here. Others have come to the Meeting House because it is warm and welcoming or because they are homeless, troubled or alone.
The Friend’s Centre, the city’s foremost centre for adult education, was until recently based at the Meeting House. It has now moved its operation elsewhere in Brighton, but still works to the peace-loving ethos of the Quakers or ‘Friends’ who set it up in 1945.
Quakers in Brighton have a long history of social reform. The most famous was Elizabeth Fry, who visited in 1824.
Nowadays, Elizabeth Fry is probably best known for having her picture on five pound notes, but at that time she was known throughout Europe as a prison reformer. Fry rose to fame in 1813 after campaigning to improve conditions for female prisoners in London’s notoriously filthy and abusive Newgate prison.
Fry campaigned against the death penalty and for the education and training of prisoners. At a time when the concept of rehabilitation was almost unknown and capital punishment commonplace, she said “Punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal.”
Despite the horrors she had seen in London, Elizabeth Fry was shocked by the poverty she found in fashionable Brighton and the large number of beggars on the streets. She founded the Brighton District Visiting Society to provide help and comfort to poor people. The scheme succeeded and soon there were District Visiting Societies in towns all over Britain.
Fry was a remarkable woman, every aspect of her work being informed by her Quaker belief in the capacity of all human beings for redemption and their right to decent conditions of life.
Another extra-ordinary woman, in the same tradition of Quaker belief, is Patricia Norman. She was for many years Principal of the Friends Centre and Chair of Brighton Housing Trust, a charity devoted to work with homeless and insecurely housed people. She was also, for 27 years, a governor of Patcham Infant School.
Like Fry she was appalled by the poverty and deprivation she saw in Brighton and devoted her adult life to reform. She recalls being invited to become involved in the fight to retain the West Pier. She said at the time that she wanted to save the Pier, but couldn’t help being more concerned about the people who slept under it.
Pat was born in Hove almost 83 years ago, to progressive and free-thinking parents, both of whom were teachers. The family moved many times, first to Buckingham Place in Brighton and then to Woodingdean. It was long before roads were built there. There was no electricity and no running water, just goats, ducks and chickens and beautiful views over the sea.
There was also easy access to the Downs and Pat regularly wandered there. Her mother would worry, but Pat, though not yet 5, was very confident. She said “I knew I wasn’t lost, whatever my mother thought”. In a sense, she has lived her life like that – always quietly sure where she is going and why she has undertaken the journey.
The family moved to Moulsecoomb and for 2 years Pat attended school there. Even then Pat challenged conventional educational practices. She refused to be hit and remembers chastising a schools inspector she thought was ridiculing children. She told her “You’re paid to teach us, not to laugh at us”. Her parents removed her and she never attended school again.
These experiences formed the bedrock of a career dedicated both to the lifelong education of adults and to the enlightened schooling of children.
At the age of 12 Pat’s family moved to Park Crescent and at 14 she began work in a local shop. When the war came her parents moved her and her sister to the countryside at Blackboys. Two years later Pat returned to Brighton and began work with a doctor based in Park Crescent, a Medical Officer for a First Aid post. Pat became a First Aider and would go out at night to help when there’d been an attack. She was there when the Crescent was bombed.
German aircraft frequently jettisoned bombs over Brighton and because it was very close to airbases in France, the town was vulnerable to surprise attack, sometimes by machinegun fire. Some 198 local people died. The carnage heightened Pat’s hatred of war and all armed conflict.
Thereafter she trained as a Youth and Community Worker, moving between Brighton, Glasgow and Wolverhampton. Pat said “I saw so much of the needs people had over and above medicine, the poverty, abuse and neglect.” These were formative years.
Pat returned to Brighton and, through a music society, discovered the Friends Centre. This brought her into contact with practicing Quakers, inspirational people like Geoffrey and Margery Sedgwick, the first Wardens of the Centre.
Like her, they were committed to peace and to the use of education to promote human understanding – especially in the international arena. She started attending Quaker meetings in 1954.
In 1956 she was offered the post of Secretary at the Centre. She said “It was a wonderful to work with such a remarkable team who shared the same vision.”
When Geoffrey Sedgwick left the Centre, Margery and Pat worked together, developing a broad and rich curriculum – including the well-known “Tuesdays at Friends”, a drop-in session for retired people, which, after 40 years, still goes strong.
In 1963 Pat met her husband Frank at a Quaker Meeting. It was a marriage of equals. He was widowed with 3 daughters and told her they couldn’t marry if his daughters didn’t accept her (they did). She warned him that if he married her he’d be “marrying the Friends Centre”, and so he was.
Unusually, for fathers in those times, he was very involved in the care of his 3 daughters and a fourth they had together. Pat recalls working 14-hour days, but says that Frank was always available to help. Their relationship was almost telepathic. Often she was just about to contact him, when he’d telephone her and say “Do you need me?”.
Frank had been Conscientious Objector during the war and spent 6 months in Wormwood Scrubs Prison. This deep commitment to peace was one of the things that attracted Pat to him. He died in 1986, still a dedicated pacifist.
Pat carried on, committed as always to the original purposes of the Centre as a place of peace and justice. She said: “The aim after the war was that the meeting house should be used for the whole community to promote ideas that would hopefully prevent conflict. It hasn’t succeeded in preventing war, but it has made a difference.”
Pat never lost her loyalty to those who had been let down by educational systems. In 1976, the Friends Centre developed the first major adult literacy scheme in Brighton, a field of education in which it still excels.
Pat retired in 1996, but continues work as an educator. She organises the Tuesday Drop in and is active in Quaker life. She volunteers twice a week at Patcham Infant School, helping children read. She is Life President of Brighton Housing Trust.
She says of her life: “I’ve never had much money, but despite sad events, I’ve had fun and love and friendship. In the Centre we’ve been able to achieve things as part of a network that would not have been possible alone. I think people’s lives have been turned around as a result.”
The Quakers worship in silence in the simplest of surroundings, speaking rarely and only when they feel they genuinely have something of value to say.
Pat, now 83, exudes a sense of tranquility, as does her beloved Meeting House.
She is not as well-known as Elizabeth Fry and her face will certainly never appear on a banknote. However, if anyone deserves to be awarded the freedom of this city, it is she.
Not that she needs it. She is already – in spirit – as free as a bird.