Woodbrooke building closes after 120 years

'The historic building and grounds will close by 31 October 2023 and become the responsibility of Bournville Village Trust.'

Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre

After 120 years of providing Quaker fellowship and ministry, Woodbrooke Centre is to close to the public this autumn.

The historic building and grounds will close by 31 October 2023 and become the responsibility of Bournville Village Trust (BVT). They have been the site of Woodbrooke since it was founded in 1903 by George Cadbury and John Wilhelm Rowntree.

In a long and frank statement, Woodbrooke trustees said: ‘Our intention is to allow Woodbrooke to focus on its founding purpose of fostering the vital ministry of Friends.’

Sandra Berry, director of Woodbrooke, told the Friend that the spirit of the centre will continue with a vital programme of in-person learning, in addition to its online courses. A new in-person programme called ‘Woodbrooke Places’ will soon launch, while the ‘Woodbrooke Where You Are’ events will continue. ‘Around one fifth of our participants were doing that programme in 2022,’ Jon Martin, head of communications, told the Friend. ‘We are also in conversation with other venues around the country about the possibility of hosting in-person and residential events there.’

Significant parts of Woodbrooke’s Library collections will be transferred to the University of Birmingham Special Collections on a permanent loan basis.

The statement spells out the slow, difficult process of recognising the challenges of dwindling numbers and high-maintenance costs facing the Grade 2-listed building, greatly compounded by the Covid pandemic. It would cost more than £6 million to bring the buildings up to ‘a good, environmentally-sustainable, accessible standard’. Meanwhile, expanding the site to make it profitable would cost a similar amount.

Woodbrooke has always struggled financially, says the statement, and since Covid the numbers have failed to pick up, partly due to the cost of living, fuel prices and train strikes.

‘Over the last three years staff and trustees have worked tirelessly to look for alternative solutions’, says the statement. ‘Our efforts with regard to the Centre have been limited by uncertainty over the wording of the founding document, which appears to suggest that if Woodbrooke were no longer to operate from the site then the trustees would no longer have a right to use it or dispose of it. It has taken until February this year to achieve clarity on this.

‘The Bournville Village Trust’s position is that Woodbrooke should revert to their care if it is no longer to be used as a centre for Quaker learning. Quakers are called to work collaboratively, and we are mindful of what might have been behind George Cadbury’s thinking when he included this clause in the founding document in 1903, and his desire to protect the stewardship of the Bournville Estate.’

In light of this, they have ‘focused on working constructively with the Bournville Village Trust’ which is in the best interests of the Woodbrooke charity.

The trustees told the Friend that they are confident that BVT is very keen to preserve the Quaker history. Sandra Berry said: ‘We were both formed by George Cadbury and there is something about that Quaker heritage that still stands true for BVT.’

Pete Richmond, chief executive of BVT, said: ‘The Woodbrooke Centre has been an important part of the Bournville community for 120 years and thanks to our shared Quaker values, we have had a successful and much-valued relationship… we will be actively working alongside the trustees of Woodbrooke to secure the best future for the site, recognising its importance to the Bournville and Quaker communities, its heritage, and the role it has played in the wider Quaker landscape in Birmingham.’

Trustees said there will be a programme of events celebrating Woodbrooke’s history. People have already been sharing their stories, said Sandra Berry, which has been greatly appreciated.

‘We do not know the full consequences of the transition’, says the statement, ‘but we will continue working with staff throughout to be clear about the impact.’ Formal consultations will be held if appropriate. Twenty members of staff work to support the running of the Centre.

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