Clifton 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 the parson recorded that the parish had about fifty families: "Of these 6 are of dissenters, 5 Anabaptists and 1 Quaker. There is a Quakers meeting house in the parish". No Roman Catholics lived in the parish. The numbers of nonconformists were, out of a total of fifty four families: "6 Quakers, 14 Presbyterians, and a few occasional Dissenters. The Quakers meet once a fortnight, Susannah Saunders chief speaker". By 1712 eight families were recorded as Independents and two as Quakers "These last meet once in 3 weeks". These widely varying numbers of nonconformist families and differing accounts of meeting times for the Quakers seem to portray an Anglican clergyman not interested enough to get the numbers right (Philip Oddy replaced Thomas Cooke in 1708), or that the nonconformists were secretive in their allegiance, fearing persecution - or, perhaps, both.
In 1717 the return for nonconformists gives numbers of families for 1711 and 1715 as well (two Quaker families for each year, Independent families rising from six to eight, then falling back to seven). The report states: "We have one Meetinghouse belonging to the Quakers, who assemble once in three weeks to the Number usually of about sixteen or twenty. Their Teachers are uncertain". In 1720 six families were given as being Independents and just one Quakers.
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 Clifton are as follows:
- In April 1761 the house of Edward Burridge was registered by Burridge himself, a labourer and William Parker of Bedford, grocer [ABN1/1 and 2/18];
- In 1802 "The Meeting House" was registered by Joseph Fisher, Richard Armour and William Green (inhabitants) [ABN1/1 and 2/107].
- In 1807 "The New Meeting House" was registered [ABN1/1]