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Oakley Registrations 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. FormerCounty Archivist Patricia Bell has compiled returns from 1706 to 1720 for the Bedfordshire Historical Records Society (Volume 81, published 2002); information for Oakley includes the following:

  • 1706: The parish “contains about 60 families. Of these severall [sic] are dissenters, cheifly [sic] Independents. They have a House licensed [see below], but little frequented”.
  • 1709: “Families 54 … The Master of 10 of those families Independents”.
  • 1712: “About 12 of the families Independents. They meet Occasionally”.
  • 1717: “About sixty Families; of these fifteen are Dissenters …  most of ‘em are Independents. Meeting houses: One Licensed house, where most of the Dissenters in the neighbourhood (tho’ of different denominations) and many of our own parish, who call themselves Church of England, do assemble. Their meeting together is uncertain. About Michaelmas and the Spring-season they meet once a month or oftener, at other times very seldom, the preacher is sometimes of one County, sometimes of another. I believe the same man rarely holds forth twice together”. Clearly the church in Oakley was in some trouble if many of its flock attended the Independents’ meeting. About this time Oakley the early moves which officially united Oakley with Bromham in 1818 were beginning to take place and it may be that the vicar devoted more of his time to the latter, leaving Oakley somewhat neglected. Certainly the number of nonconformist families roughly doubled between 1706 and 1720. Independents were a mixture of Baptists and Congregationalists. There were later both Baptist (1805) and Congregational (1860) meetings in Oakley.
  • 1720: “About 60 Families, of these about 18 are Dissenters, commonly called Anabaptists. Meeting houses: One Licenc’d Meeting-House, where the People assemble in great numbers about once a month, but there is no settled Teacher. Is great and frequent resort of men and women unto five other houses in the Parish for prayer, as they call it”.

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 by unnamed denominations for Oakley:

  • 1798: the house of William Sperry [ABN1/1].
  • 1807: the house of John Darnel [ABN1/1].
  • 1814: the house of William Hackett [ABN1/1].

It seems likely, given the history of nonconformity in Oakley, that these registrations will have been either by Baptists or Congregationalists or by Methodists, either Primitive or Wesleyan.