Registration and Early References in Keysoe
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 Keysoe includes the following:
- 1706: the parish contained about fifty families: “Of these 20 are of Independents who wholly dissent from the Church, and go constantly to a Meeting house within the Parish. 19 go only to Church. The rest Occasionally to both”.
- 1709: Families 72 … of these 28 families of dissenters, Independents, Lewis Norman their Teacher. They meet constantly on Sundays, sometime on others”.
- 1712: “Families 67, about 26 of which are of Independents”.
- 1717: “We have 70 Families in the Parish about 30 of which are Dissenters; and (if They be any Thing) are Independents … There is one Licenced Meeting-House in the Parish. How often They Asemble I Know not, nor in what Numbers. One Lewis Norman a Layman Teaches in it”.
- 1720: “Eighty three Familys, Forty four of them Dissenters. They are all Independents … We have an Independent Meeting House in our Parish. They meet in it twice every Lords Day in great Numbers. Att present They are without a Teacher settled amongst them, but perform the Duty as I am Informed by themselves”.
Bedfordshire Archives and 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 that on 21st December 1838 the house of Mr Samuel Whitmee in Keysoe Row was registered by Whitmee himself, Eli Shelford and William Packwood [ABN1/2; ABN2/334]. Keysoe Row Baptist Meeting was already in existence, so perhaps this was a meeting for some other form on nonconformist sect.