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Wilshamstead 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 Wilshamstead includes the following:

  • 1706: “It is about 7 miles in extent, and consists of about 60 families. Of these 14 or 15 are of Independents, and 1 Quakers. The Former have a Meeting house in the parish to which severall [sic] of the Dissenters in the neighbouring parishes do resort”.
  • 1709: “Families 80, Souls above 200. Of these 14 or 15 families are Independents. They meet every Sunday, and sometimes oftener.
  • 1712: “About 12 families Dissenters, Independents”.
  • 1717: “We have in our parish about seventy Families, of which are about seven or eight Families of dissenters, Independents I suppose … We have one Licensed meeting house in our parish of Independents, I suppose, who meet every Sunday, and sometimes on week days, but in what numbers I know not, because several of them come from the Neighbouring Parishes”.
  • 1720: “There may be in our parish fourscore Families and upwards, nine or ten of which are dissenters, and are Independents as I suppose … There is one Licensed meeting-house in our parish of Independents who meet every Sunday and on some week days”.

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 for Wilshamstead:

  • 1798: the house of Jabez Paine was registered by Paine himself and Thomas Liles [ABN1/1; ABN2/89];
  • 1807: the house of Henry Peacock [ABN1/1];
  • 1807: the house of William Armstrong [ABN1/1];
  • 1810: a meeting house [ABN1/1];
  • 1849: a house in the occupation of Thomas Bridges junior was registered by Bridges himself and Henry Goss [ABN1/2; ABN2/412].

It is interesting to note that the independent meeting house noted in the episcopal visitations of 1717 and 1720 above, has no surviving registration document.