Registration and Early References in Elstow
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 Elstow includes the following:
- 1706: “The Parish is of a moderate extent, yet contains 80 families in it. Of these about 8 resort to the Meeting house at Bedford, being of a mixed kind, between Anabaptists and Independents [clearly the Bunyan Meeting]. There is besides 1 family of Quakers. But there is no Meeting house for any dissenters, except it be Occasionally, and that especially of the Quakers, who have a Buryall place here, and upon those Occasions do sometimes speak” The Quaker burial ground may have been an area just south-east of Village Farm which is marked “Gravestones” on early Ordnance Survey maps.
- 1709: “Families 73. Souls about 300. Disenters 30, all Independents, except 3 or 4 Quakers. No Meeting.
- 1712: “About 9 families, and as many single persons, Dissenters”.
- 1717: “There are seventy six families, of which there are seven dissenters … There is 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.
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 meetings for which the denomination cannot be determined for Elstow:
- 18th December 1754: the dwelling house of William Maulden, wheelwright was registered by Joseph Freelove and John Mays, both of Bedford [ABN1/1; ABN2/7].
- 17th-20th February 1836: the house in the occupation of George Smith was registered by Smith himself, William Ansell, George Goddard, Edward Thomlinson, Ann Noraway, Samuel Smith and Ann Halyer [ABN1/2; ABN2/311];
- 5th August 1850: the house and premises in the occupation of William Ansill was registered by Samuel Smith, George Smith, householder and Thomas Pointer, householder [ABN1/2; ABN2/419].