Jacob, Joshua (1801–77), quaker reformer and grocer, was born in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, second son of Samuel Watson Jacob, merchant, and Mary Jacob (née Jackson). He was educated at Newtown school, Waterford; in Leeds, Yorkshire; and finally at Ballitore, Co. Kildare. After an apprenticeship to a tea merchant in Cork city, he moved to Dublin in the early 1820s and found employment in a grocery and candlewick manufactory in Thomas St. In c.1829 he opened a grocery at 36 Nicholas St., the image of a golden teapot on the shop signboard indicating that he specialised in the sale of different varieties of tea. Adhering to the customary quaker principle of a fixed retail price (in a culture accustomed to haggling) he gained a reputation for the impartial treatment of small and large buyers, and the business flourished.
Jacob combined spontaneous and unassuming charitable endeavour with a fierce concern for the slackening discipline of domestic and communal Irish quaker faith in the period. Broad-shouldered, standing 6 ft (1.83 m) tall, with glowing eyes and a bristling beard, he looked and sounded the part of the prophetic figure he was becoming in the meeting-houses of the Liberties. As Irish quakerism shed idiosyncrasies of conduct, and congregations drifted in part towards evangelical anglicanism or into compromises with the norms of industrialised society, he soon led a group of disaffected traditionalists. Protesting against the use of newspapers, bells, clocks, and watches as insidious discouragements to the duty of pious attention to the needs of the present moment, he signalled and gave example to a growing urge to renounce material vanity, by breaking up his household mirrors on the street. A campaign of disruption and denunciation at prayer meetings on the part of his group was halted in 1838 by their expulsion from the organised quaker movement.
Together with Abigail Beale, a young, wealthy, ‘over-zealous’ quaker woman, dismissed from the Waterford meeting-houses in the early 1830s, Jacob thereupon founded a community of like-minded individuals, calling themselves ‘white Friends’, ‘shining ones’, or, officially, ‘the Universal Community’. Taking a house in William St., Dublin, the group adopted the practice of wearing plain, unbleached, loose-fitting clothes in calico and linen, frequently going barefoot. The intention of such practices as daily bathing, self-sufficiency in food and drink (unprocessed and vegetarian), restriction to coarse, deal furniture, and the use of white paint, was to facilitate a state of continuous, undistracted ‘waiting on the spirit’ among all the twenty or thirty members. Property and income was held in common. Acting as a kind of spiritual guide from his home in Nicholas St. and in his capacity as medium of divine revelation, he passed business profits over to the use of the community, insisting that he had no more control than any other member over its administration.
The hostility of the orthodox quaker body towards the experiment erupted in late 1842 when the community took ownership of an inheritance, valued at £9,000, donated by Jacob's recently widowed sister-in-law. He was made the subject of an action before the lord chancellor by the executor of the property and was confined to the city Marshalsea from 10 January 1843 after refusal to recognise the court. Selling his shop, he instructed the community from the tolerable comfort of a debtor's apartment, firing broadsides at society at large, in the shape of cantankerous pamphlets, composed with the domestic assistance of Abigail Beale, who took up residence with him in the Marshalsea. The community moved (1843) to a former hotel on Usher's Quay; then (1845) into possession of the estate of the late Arthur Wolfe (qv), Viscount Kilwarden, at Newlands, Clondalkin, Co. Dublin.
Released on 28 August 1846 on grounds of ill health, Jacob took immediate day-to-day charge of estate cultivation and community management. There were mixed reports on the practical success of the venture. After a brief visit, Robert Owen deprecated the involvement of religious enthusiasts in the establishment of such communes. An account of Jacob grandly taking a fitting for a pair of leather boots in 1845, while the rest of the community did without, suggests increasing authoritarianism and disharmony. Numbers left, but the community showed noble purpose in the provision of relief to starving poor throughout the famine. On the death of Beale (1849), Jacob moved the community to Scholarstown, Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin. Ebbing funds and his overbearing personality caused the dispersal of the community by 1853. In 1852 he had leased a shop and lands in Celbridge, Co. Kildare; by the later 1850s he ran additional shops in Leixlip and Maynooth. In 1859 he was received into the catholic church. Remnants of the ‘white quaker’ community survived in Dublin until the early 1900s, but the division was of little consequence to the development of Irish quaker observance.
Jacob married first (1829) Sarah (d. 1845), daughter of Samuel and Mary Fayle of Skinner's Row, Dublin. They had at least three sons and one daughter before separating in 1843. He married secondly (18 February 1851) Catherine Devine (née Nangle; 1826–65), a widow from Co. Cork; they had five sons and one daughter.