Eaton Bray Registration and Early References
In 1672 Charles II issued a Declaration of Toleration for Protestants dissenting from the Church of England; this had the effect of some dissenting meeting houses registering with the Secretary of State. The Toleration Act of 1689 enshrined the right of protestants to dissent from the Church of England and, once again, encouraged meeting houses to register voluntarily with local quarter sessions and Anglican church. Registration provided protection against persecution, laying a duty of protection upon magistrates and so was popular with nonconformists. Most registrations were made with quarter sessions until the middle of the 18th century, presumably due to the mutual antagonism of nonconformists and established Church. However, from that point registration with the Church, via the local archdeaconry began to become the favoured method, because the archdeaconry Registrar would issue a licence at any time rather than during the days each quarter when the quarter sessions met.
Visitations by the Bishop of Lincoln to Bedfordshire in the early 18th century give some idea as to the number of nonconformists in each parish from returns made by the vicar or rector. Former County Archivist Patricia Bell has compiled returns from 1706 to 1720 for the Bedfordshire Historical Records Society (Volume 81, published 2002); information for Eaton Bray includes the following:
- 1706: “It [the parish] is about 2 miles extent, and has about 100 families in it. Of these about 6 are Quakers, all poor people. No other Dissenters of any kind. No Meeting house. No Papists, or reputed Papists in this parish”;
- 1709: “Families 100. Souls about 400. Some few Anabaptists [Baptists], besides Quakers above mentioned”;
- 1712: “3 or 4 Families of Quakers”;
- 1717: “There are 90 familys 3 of which are Dissenters called Quaquers. No Meetinghouse within the Parish”;
- 1720: “Families 93 and but one Dissenter (not one dissenting family) and that a Quaker. I have no licen’d or other Meeting House in my Parish”.
Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service has a reasonable number of registrations of nonconformist meeting houses in both the Quarter Sessions and Archdeaconry of Bedford archives. Registration continued through the 19th century even though persecution faded away - this was because registered buildings were allowed to claim exemption from parish poor rates, were exempt from control by the Charity Commission and were allowed to be licensed to carry out marriages. These things meant that registration became almost compulsory in practice for well established nonconformist meetings. This is fortunate for the local historian because sometimes the only surviving references to a nonconformist meeting occur as registrations. One drawback with the registrations are that they do not usually inform the reader of the particular type of denomination involved, though sometimes it is possible to infer it from other evidence.
Edwin Welch researched the history of registrations in Bedfordshire for Bedfordshire Historical Records Society Volume 75 Bedfordshire Chapels and Meeting Houses [published in 1996] and found the following registrations of unknown denominations for Eaton Bray:
- 8th November 1817: the house in the occupation of George Burrows was registered by John Brandon, John Gurney, Jeremiah Bird and Richard Moss [ABN2/128];
- 24th or 28th September 1825: the house in the occupation of John Brandon was registered by William Southam, Richard Moss and Henry Perton [ABN1/2; ABN2/220A; ABN3/3, 70];
- 2nd or 3rd September 1834: a barn in the occupation of John Stratford was registered by Stratford himself, Samuel Hawkins, William Bless junior, John Bless and Thomas Room – all styled “housekeepers” [ABN1/2, ABN2/294].