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Registration and Early References in Bolnhurst

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 Bolnhurst includes the following:

  • 1706: 6 out of 26 families in the parish were: “Dissenters from the Church of England, Independents, and have a meeting house in the Parish. But there are no Papists or reputed Papists in it”.
  • 1709: “Families 26 … Of these 6 or 7 Independents. Their meeting is not settled. One Rawlins comes now and then out of Huntingdonshire and preaches and preaches at Sam Gurrey’s house. The number very small”.
  • 1712: “Families 28, of these about 10 Dissenters”. The reason for so high a percentage may have been because: “The Rector lives at Northampton”.
  • 1717: “Meeting Houses: There is one Samuel Gurry a farmer who now and then holds a Meeting in his house, which ‘tis said is Licensed. But of that I am not certain”.
  • 1720: “Meeting Houses: We had one Gurry a farmer who used to hold meetings sometime in his own house, which they say was licensed, but since his death it is seldom or never any meeting held in it, that I learn of”.

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 the following for Bolnhurst:

  • 10 June 1672: the house of Simon Haynes licensed for use by Independents;
  • 28 December 1765: the dwelling house of John Emery of Bolnhurst, husbandman registered by John Emery and William Bond of Pavenham [ABN1/1; ABN2/21];
  • 19 December 1818: the house of Joseph Edrop registered by William Green and others [ABN1/2; ABN3/3, 9];
  • 19 December 1818: the house of Samuel White registered by R F Horne and others [ABN1/2; ABN3/3, 9];
  • 2 May 1838: the dwelling house of James Wiles of Bolnhurst registered by Wiles himself [ABN1/2; ABN2/325].