The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) was founded in 1652 by George Fox and others. There are now about 300,000 Quakers world-wide in over 80 Yearly Meetings (Yearly Meetings often cover a single country).
Britain Yearly Meeting covers England, Scotland and Wales. It has about 27,000 members and attenders, and some 500 local Meetings, of which Cirencester is one.
Quakers have been meeting for worship in Cirencester since 1655. In the early days they met in each otherís houses until in 1673, when Richard Bowly leased land and a small house on Thomas Street and gave it to the Quakers. The finely proportioned stone house, with a steeply pitched roof of Cotswold slates, which was erected is still in use as the meeting room with its original stone flag floor. Two large, high windows overlook the stone-walled garden, used as a burial ground by generations of Quakers. Many famous early Friends, including George Fox and William Penn visited here, but it was the local clothiers, yeomen, maltsters, weavers, glovers, husbandmen and their families, who were the backbone of the Meeting, withstanding severe persecution, beatings, and imprisonment for their beliefs.
In 1774 funds were raised, a tenement and land were bought to the east of the meeting house, and in 1811-1812 extensive alterations were made. Sometimes Quakers take a long time to decide on the right course of action! The size of the meeting house was doubled to accommodate an increasing membership. A second room was added with a central passage from a new front door to the burial ground. A wooden floor was installed in the meeting room and the dignified wooden columns to support the long room above. The original mullioned windows were enlarged with the Venetian style rounding at the top to match the new ones in the extension. Raised benches were made and installed. At this time men and women would be sitting apart, with the Elders, both men and women, sitting on the raised benches at one end, with the Overseers beside them. The interior of the meeting room has changed little since the early 19th century, although men and women can now sit beside each other!
For many years the Quakers were active and involved in the life and commerce of the town, building many of the town's almshouses and a Temperance Hall. Between 1870 and1923 attendances declined to the extent that the Friends considered selling the meeting house. It was out of use for fifteen years and during this time it was let to the Ministry of Labour as an Employment Exchange and Reading Room for the unemployed. In 1938 meetings resumed and grew from strength to strength until in 1949 it was in full use again. The buildings were repaired and with the help of five German prisoners of war a garden was created in the burial ground. The garden is now open on Thursday afternoons for people to come and experience this peaceful oasis in the middle of a busy town.
For a detailed history of Quakers around the world, Wikipedia has a quite comprehensive article.