Quaker Businesses

In its early days almost all the breadwinners in The Religious Society of Friends were small farmers, shopkeepers, employees of the state and suchlike. Gradually from the late 1600s many business enterprises, of a wide variety of types, were developed by Quaker families. These were often very successful.

Quaker Businesses in Ulster

In Ulster the land settlement programme at the time of the plantation brought many from Britain as tenants of small farms, as tradesmen and shopkeepers. It was mainly from this group that Friends in Ulster drew its members. As the Linen industry grew Friends became involved and are credited for developing the chemical bleaching of linen using vitriol manufactured at Lisburn and Moyallon. The modified power loom, allowing more complex patterns to be woven into damask linen was designed and constructd by Henry Barcroft  of Bessbrook.

Quaker Businesses in Ireland – 18th and 19th Centuries

The enormous growth in the size of companies in the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s, and the management and financial resources required, made it increasingly difficult for traditional family businesses to survive. Nowadays any of the well known Quaker firms that did survive are part of larger groups no longer connected with Friends. The typical Quaker breadwinner is now an employee or self-employed, not unlike 350 years ago.

The SS William Penn, ready for launch, Waterford
The SS William Penn, ready for launch, Waterford

Types of Quaker Business in Ireland

The types of business, and the names of some of the Irish Quaker families that owned and ran them, make interesting reading.

  • Banking – Hoare, Pike, Newenham, Pim
  • Milling – Shackleton, Grubb, Goodbody, Davis
  • Engineering – Jacob, Grubb, Edmundson, Wigham
  • Shipping, building and owning – White, Malcomson, Beale, Pim, Pike, Lecky, Richardson. Walpole, Bewley
  • Linen, Cotton, and Jute spinning and manufacturing – Malcomson, Richardson, Sinton, Uprichard, Hancock, Greer, Greeves, Bell, Goodbody, Douglas, Allen, Walpole
  • Cut glass – Penrose, Gatchell, White
  • Jam manufacturing – Lamb, Peile
  • Structural steel – Pearson
  • Railways – Pim, Haughton
  • Tobacco – Goodbody
  • Brewing – Strangman
  • Cafes – Roberts, Bewley,Goodbody
  • Biscuits – Jacob, Marsh

    The Goodbody Factory, Clara, Co. Offaly
    The Goodbody Factory, Clara, Co. Offaly

Quaker Success in Business

Why were Friends successful in this way? Modern business has become so competitive, and the profit motive so pervasive, that it is hard to imagine the strong influence their religious convictions exerted on them. They simply believed it was right to offer a good product for a fixed, and reasonable, price. They believed in honesty and integrity in all their dealings. A simple life-style, and not over-extending themselves financially, allowed them to build up their resources. Strict rules governing business methods for members meant that they were increasingly trusted with money, and some became bankers. Various laws, including those related to swearing oaths, prevented Friends from attending university and joining the professions for a couple of centuries, so they put their energies into business instead. Friends were good employers, and this led to a loyal workforce.

Bessbrook Damask Linen piece, commemorating Penns Treaty with Native Americans
Bessbrook Damask Linen piece, commemorating Penn's Treaty with Native Americans

Also, and importantly, the structure of The Society of Friends from its earliest days, with a system of representatives from Meetings regularly visiting other Meetings, often in other parts of the country, created a network of relationships between like minded individuals and families. It was natural, therefore, that they would hear about, support, participate in and emulate each other’s ventures.

See also Notable Irish Quaker Firms and Books.

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