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Registration and Early References in Houghton Conquest

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 Houghton Conquest includes the following:

  • 1706: of fifty families in the parish: “seven persons who separate from the Church of England: 2 Quakers and five Presbyterians, but they have no Meeting house in the parish”. A man who occasionally attended the parish church was "newly brought off Quakerism".
  • 1709: “Families 60, Souls 200, of which 4 Dissenters, Independents. One Papist. No Meeting”.
  • 1712: “Two families of Dissenters, one Quaker, the other Papist”.
  • 1717: “We have about sixty Families, and in the whole parish about ten persons who sometimes resort to an Anabaptist Presbyterian or Quaker’s Meeting-House”
  • 1720: “There are near Seventy Families in our Parish and about three or four women who sometimes go to the Presbyterian Meeting” there was now, however, no meeting house in the county.

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 Houghton Conquest:

  • 20 June 1774: the house of Thomas Potter, esquire, in possession of John Arms in Bedford Houghton, registered by Arms himself, Richard Whiteman and James Betts [QSP43/13]
  • 5 February 1796: the house of William Baker was registered [ABN1/1]
  • 24 October 1798: the house of Matthew Goss was registered [ABN1/1].

These last two resgistrations were almost certainly for Wesleyan Methodist meetings because both Goss and Baker were later trustees of the Wesleyan chapel.