The 1689 Toleration Act gave Quakers, among other nonconformists, dispensation from attending church, and from Anglican baptism, church marriage and burial in parish churchyards. Thorncombe Quaker Robert French appears to have taken advantage of the new legislation as he registered his house as a protestant dissenting meeting place in the same year.18 No other meeting houses are recorded as having been registered in Thorncombe up to 1763. Other evidence of Thorncombe's Society of Friends is hidden away in the parish burials in woollen affadavits book. It lists 66 individuals buried in wool but not listed in the burial register. 19
The law required all corpses to be wrapped in wool. Quakers excepted, there was no religious objection among other nonconformist sects to burial in consecrated ground. Names found in the burials in woollen affidavits but missing from Thorncombe parish's burial register are therefore assumed to be those of Quakers. The book spans 1680-1745. Entries for 1723-1727 are missing from the original document but survive as entries in Noble's transcription of the parish registers. Analysis has tentatively identified 12 missing marriers from the 1674-1723 cohort, who may have been Quakers (see Appendix 5).
By 1723 there was a Quaker meeting house and burial ground in Thorncombe, the only documented nonconformist place of worship in the parish. Details of the 99 year lease acquired in 1701 for the meeting house were recorded by the Plymouth Quarterly Meeting of that year.20 Records for rent start in 1704. Rent paid by Joseph French to Richard Hillary for 'our meeting house and ground at Ven' suggests its possible location. 21 In his 1737 will, Richard Hillary left 'the meeting house' to his grandson of the same name.22
Dating back to 1816, Venn Chapel, which sits at the junction of Causeway Lane and Venn Hill was used variously by Anglicans and Baptists until 1972, and is now a private house.23 However, no building is recorded on this site on the 1806 and 1809 Ordnance Survey maps.24 The 1809 OS map locates Venn on the opposite side of the road to Venn Chapel, to the south east of the junction. A building in its own grounds is marked, abutting Venn Hill, and directly opposite the entrance to Chaffeigh, may have been the Quaker meeting house.
Thorncombe's earliest recorded Quaker discovered so far, is Hannah Limbry who married Peter Loman from Honiton in 1672. The first mention of the Thorncombe Meeting is in the minutes of the first Devon Quarterly Meeting is June 1676, putting Thorncombe's Society of Friends among George Fox's west country converts. The joint minute books of Thorncombe and Membury Monthly Meeting covering the period from 1678-1727 have survived and show that Membury and Thorncombe held alternate meetings from 1696.
While the Plymouth Quarterly Meeting sanctioned their amalgamation in 1707, it would appear that Thorncombe and Membury meetings still kept separate births, marriages and burials registers. A transcription of Membury's register has survived but Thorncombe's register has yet to be traced.25 A record of four marriages taking place at Thorncombe Meeting House between 1701 and 1725 has been recently discovered suggesting a separate register was kept.26 However, it is not possible at the time of writing, to establish the size of Thorncombe's Quaker Meeting nor to ascertain whether those listed in the affidavits for each year is a complete record of Thorncombe burials.
Quakers had legal dispensation from swearing under the Affirmation Act (1696). Their religious objection to swearing oaths was and still is, derived by the following biblical text: 'Swear not at all; neither by heaven, for it is God's throne, nor by earth for it is his footstool', (Matthew 5: 34-5). In Devon, some Quakers signed an alternative affirmation. Even though at least two of Thorncombe's Quakers, Samuel and Joseph French, met the property qualification, they did not sign the 1723 Devon oath, unlike 21 of their Membury brothers and sisters.27 All but two Membury signatories can be verified from the monthly minutes books individually or through shared surnames. Their signatures or marks appear among 113 Devon men and women, thought to be Quakers, who signed the alternative affirmation.
An inquiry into loyalty of Membury and Thorncombe Quakers to King George I was confirmed and recorded in the monthly minutes for February 1717, but there is no record of the matter having been discussed again during monthly meetings immediately leading up to the oath taking in 1723. Given some Quakers during this period regarded even affirmation as tantamount to an oath, the absence of those thought to be Thorncombe Quakers from the 1723 oath roll, with the exception of Henry Parker who has been cautiously identified as a Quaker and signed for whatever reason, suggests that as a group, members may have been more scrupulous than those from Membury Meeting whose names are recorded on the roll.