York looks like home to me: John Woolman

‘One whose quiet voice has still a message for this weary world’.

Memorial to John Woolman, York. Small plain headstone with curved top.
This gravestone, in the Quaker burial ground in Bishophill, stands out from the others around it in the amount of information it carries, though it’s the same small, rather humble, curved-top stone.

7TH OF 10TH MONTH 1772

This city has many famous graves. One of the favourites is the grave of Dick Turpin. I’ve never understood why. Around his legend there’s a load of old guff about riding from London to York in about 10 minutes, on some poor old horse. Or it might be someone else’s legend. I don’t care. Anyone can drive a horse till it’s nearly dead. Many did, famous or not. More respect to John Woolman. He walked here.

Reads 'John Woolman, American Quaker and anti-slavery pioneer, died here, Oct 1772'
John Woolman died of smallpox, at the home of Thomas Priestman, a Quaker tanner. The house, Almery Garth, on the corner of Marygate and Marygate Lane, is marked with a plaque.

He wanted to visit Quakers in the north of England, particularly in Yorkshire, and had set sail on a Quaker-owned ship on 1 May 1772. One American Quaker wrote ahead to a Friend in England, of Woolman: ‘He is a Friend in good Esteem among us, of blameless Life, a good understanding, and deep in spiritual Experience, tho’ singular in his Dress & deportment.’ (Eccentric, I think he means.)

I’m not an expert on 18th century norms and values, but it seems that John Woolman was ahead of the prevailing ‘wisdom’ of his time – as eccentric/‘singular’ people often are. He is celebrated for his opposition to the slave trade. Less often mentioned is his awareness of the suffering of animals. His journey from London to York was undertaken on foot because he was distressed by the way horses were driven too hard.

Reading accounts of his life I was struck by how ‘modern’ and relevant many of his beliefs were. I guess we’d say now that he lived by his principles, in living a simple life and rejecting certain goods (such as dyed clothes) because of associations with the slave trade. This kind of principled existence is difficult to accomplish now, in an age more accepting of variation and the ‘unconventional’ singular soul. Must have been even more difficult then. Respect to John Woolman, who in his adult years tried to live his life without doing harm to man or beast.

Elsewhere on the web

The quote at the top of the page is from Amelia Mott Gummere’s preface to an edition of Woolman’s works, published in America in 1922.

It includes a nice local detail. The owner of Almery Garth – Malcolm Spence, great-great grandson of Thomas Priestman – still had in the house documents written by John Woolman, kept there since 1772. In the early 20th century Malcolm Spence took photographs of them for the editor of the book, and later shipped all the documents over, just before he died.

The title of this page is from the same book, p138, a comment attributed to John Woolman as he headed towards York. It may be that he didn’t actually say it, but I’m overlooking that. It is home to his mortal remains, as he didn’t make it back home to America.

See also:
More information on John Woolman – from quakersintheworld.org
Wikipedia: John Woolman


If you use material from this page, credit www.yorkstories.co.uk and link to this page. I’m sad that I have to say this, but I do. This carefully compiled research is offered on the web for free because I want people who don’t know about John Woolman to know about him, and his connection to York. Please respect other people’s work online, credit it and link to it. That’s how the web used to be, and how it should be. Thank you.

About Lisa @YorkStories

Lisa @YorkStories is the creator, administrator, and writer of content on www.yorkstories.co.uk. She can be contacted on this link or via Twitter, @YorkStories
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  1. Cindylou Turner-Taylor

    Thank you Ray, this is very relevant as Guildford Quakers were only discussing this last Thursday. John Woolman is still inspiring many so many years after his death.

  2. YorkStories

    Not sure who Ray is – but thank you :)


  3. karen ramsden-zahler

    Nice blog – I shared this particular piece with the Facebook Woolman Family page giving you the credit.

  4. Thanks Karen, I’m pleased it was of interest.

  5. May I have your permission to post the photo of John Woolman’s grave stone at the free web site findagrave.com where he has an online memorial? Maybe the plaque re where he died as well? The site will put in the credit line, but they have a policy against linking to external sites. I am a descendant of many New Jersey Quakers who probably knew John Woolman. Please let me know.

    • Thanks for asking about this Sue. I’m very happy for my photo(s) to be added, and tried to do this myself but it didn’t seem possible on that particular record? If you’re able to then please do, and please also include a credit back to this page/site, even if a hyperlink isn’t possible,


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