Registration and Early References in Cople
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 the Established Church. However, from that point onward, 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.
Volume 81 published by the Bedfordshire Historical Records Society (2002) is devoted to returns made during episcopal visitations to the county by the Bishop of Lincoln in the early 18th century, edited by former County Archivist Patricia Bell. One of the questions asked was the number of nonconformist families in the parish; the various responses were as follows:
- 1706: "There is but One Dissenter, an Anabaptist. Neither Papist or reputed Papist lives in this parish";
- 1709: "...6 are Dissenters, Independents. No Meeting";
- 1717: "...3 [families] are Dissenters, but whether Presbyterians or Independents is not certain, themselves scarcely know, for they all go to the same Meeting House at Bedford, where the Assembly is a Composition of both those sects...We have no Meeting House in this Parish";
- 1720: ..."3 [families] of which are Dissenters of the Presbyterian sect. We have no Meeting House".
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 Cople are as follows:
- The house of John March was registered in 1791 [ABN1/1];
- in 1814 the dwelling house of William Jordan was registered by John Dean of Bedford, minister [ABN1/1 and ABN2/165]. It seems likely that this was a Wesleyan Methodist meeting;
- the house of Thomas Jordan was registered in 1818 by Richard Gower and others [ABN1/2 and ABN3/3, 7];
- The house of William Rutland was registered in1820 by Rutland himself ‘and others’ [ABN1/2 and ABN3/3, 19]