Citing financial straits, the trustees of Woodbrooke, an international Quaker learning and research organization based in Britain, have decided to cease holding classes at the Woodbrooke Centre estate in Birmingham, UK, as of October 31, 2023, according to a statement and minute from the board. The trustees will transfer stewardship of the historic manor house and grounds to the Bournville Village Trust. The 120-year-old Friends study organization will continue to offer virtual courses.
The study center has always had to balance offering classes that attendees considered affordable with the cost of maintaining and administering the building. Attendees’ limited time and money meant registration for in-person classes had declined even before the pandemic shutdown. In addition, nearby establishments with which Woodbrooke partnered to accommodate individuals attending large Quaker gatherings closed, causing the center to lose even more in-person business. Pandemic-related closures of the hospitality industry—which resulted in layoffs for Woodbrooke workers who accommodated guests—cemented the shift away from in-person gatherings. Woodbrooke’s education and research staff have not been working from the building for the past three years, said Jon Martin, head of communications for Woodbrooke.
Trustees estimated that required upgrades to the Woodbrooke building would cost £6 million, or approximately $6.9 million. The building, which Quaker chocolate manufacturer George Cadbury and his second wife, Elizabeth, gifted to the Religious Society of Friends in 1903, needs renovations to make it accessible to people with disabilities and to improve its environmental sustainability. The building is a grade 2 structure of historic interest included in the National Heritage List for England.
The decision seems sudden to the public, but the Woodbrooke trustees had long privately discussed the center’s future, according to Sarah Donaldson, assistant clerk of the board of trustees. Donaldson pointed out that when George Cadbury arranged to donate the house, he stipulated that if Quakers no longer intended to use it as a study center, ownership would transfer to the Bournville Village Trust (BVT), which Cadbury founded in 1900. BVT offers affordable homes to rent and own, including furnished dwellings for young people leaving the care of foster parents or local authorities. Woodbrooke trustees do not know how BVT will use the building.
“I think they’re keen to preserve the Quaker heritage,” said Ingrid Greenhow, clerk of Woodrooke’s board of trustees.
In a statement, Pete Richmond, chief executive of the Bournville Village Trust, highlighted BVT’s Quaker values and pledged to partner with Woodbrooke trustees to plan for the building’s future.
George Cadbury and his brother, Richard, moved the headquarters of the family’s chocolate factory from the heart of Birmingham in 1878. Before Richard’s death in 1899, the Cadbury brothers developed Bournville, a model village that included comfortable workers’ cottages with yards, vegetable gardens, and fruit trees. Workers could take advantage of adult education classes and there were fields for sports such as cricket and soccer.
Although the building will change hands, Woodbrooke will continue to offer virtual learning options and staff will seek venues for occasional in-person classes. The University of Birmingham Special Collections will house much of Woodbrooke’s library holdings.
“We still have a very rich online program,” Martin said. Martin noted that the “Woodbrooke Where You Are” program involves staff collaborating with other Quaker entities, such as Canadian Yearly Meeting, to develop study opportunities that address the needs of specific Friends groups.
Britain Yearly Meeting recently gave Woodbrooke a grant of £800,000 to spend over five years for educational programs tailored to young people and diverse learners.
“Our learning can be much more widely available,” said Sandra Berry, director of Woodbrooke.
Updated 3/10/23: A sentence was added to this story that addresses the fate of Woodbrooke’s library holdings.