Bletsoe 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). In 1706 it was recorded that of forty six families in Bletsoe, three were Anabaptists [Baptists] "but there is no Meeting house within the parish. No Papists, or reputed Papists live in it". In the return for 1709 thirty inhabitants (out of three hundred) were recorded as Independents. In 1712, interestingly, the return reads: "Dissenters 4 or 5 [families] Women, Independents" suggesting that only the female members of these families were nonconformist. In 1717 the return read: "There are about threescore Families in Thomas Parish of Bletsoe; three of these dissenters, one Presbyterian, the other, I think, Anabaptists". Finally, in 1720: "We have in our Parish about Five and Forty Families, and of these are three Dissenters. And of what sort they are I know not well what to call them. I think, Independents".
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.
Volume 110 published by the Bedfordshire Historical Records Society in 1996 and edited by Edwin Welch contains registrations of Bedfordshire nonconformist meetings drawn from a number of sources. Those for Bletsoe are as follows:
- Charles Partridge's house was registered by Partridge himself on 8th December 1832 [ABN1/2, 2/274 and 3/3];
- Thomas Brown's dwelling house was registered by Brown himself on 29th March 1843 [ABN1/2 and 2/372].