Memorial Plaque to a Muslim convert and Liverpool lawyer who opened the first mosque in England
William Quilliam was born on 10 April 1856 into a wealthy local family, prominent Methodists and established watchmakers in the city of Liverpool. Qualifying as a solicitor, he began a successful legal practice in the city in 1878 and developed a stout reputation as someone who fought for the rights of the city’s poor.
He had become interested in Muslim teachings while in Morocco, convalescing from an illness. In 1887, at the age of 31, he became the first Christian to convert to Islam in Victorian England.
On Christmas Day 1889, he opened England’s first mosque at 8, Brougham Terrace, later adding the surrounding buildings which became a boarding school, lecture rooms and orphanage. In 1893, he began a weekly magazine, The Crescent, and then subsequently a monthly publication, Islamic World, which was distributed in over 20 countries. The copies which survive today provide a valuable record of British Muslims’ life in Liverpool and beyond at the time. As well as welcoming visiting wealthy Muslims, Quilliam also promoted the welfare of Asian and Arab Muslims who served as deckhands on the many steamships to arrive at this, the Empire’s second most important port.
He also wrote prolifically, including the book ‘The Faith of Islam’, which was translated into 13 languages and is said to have been read by Queen Victoria herself, who also ordered additional copies for her grandchildren. His promotion of the faith led to around 600 people, some ordinary citizens, some learned and prominent scholars, to embrace Islam.
Inevitably, a certain amount of controversy and hostility from wider society tinged an otherwise successful career; and Quilliam eventually left the country abruptly in 1908 on hearing that he was about to be struck off as a solicitor, apparently for presenting facts in a divorce case that he knew to be wrong in court. Without his leadership and financial investment, Liverpool’s Muslim community dispersed, many moving to England’s first purpose-built mosque in Woking, Surrey.
He returned to the UK in around 1914 under an assumed name. On his death, he was buried in Brockwood Cemetery in Woking alongside fellow Anglo-Muslims, many famous, as he had been, for spreading the faith throughout England.
The buildings which constituted England’s first mosque were for a time used as a register office by the Council, then fell into disuse. In recent years, the Abdullah Quilliam Society has successfully reopened the mosque and continues to fund-raise for the restoration of the remainder of the buildings.
Louise McTigue is a freelance writer and researcher, writing on behalf of Sarsfield Memorials.