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Registration and Early References in Husborne Crawley

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 Husborne Crawley includes the following:

  • 1706: "…[it] has in it 93 families. Of these one halfe are Dissenters, and call themselves Anabaptists [Baptists]";
  • 1709: "Souls about 400, which which [sic] 26 Anabaptists, 5 Quakers. No Papist, No Meetung";
  • 1712: "Families about 90, of which 1 of Quakers, 1 of Anabaptists".
  • 1717: "Ninety Familys [sic] or thereabouts and Ten Familys Dissenters (viz) Anabaptists. Meeting houses: No meeting-house of any sort neither Licensed nor any other Assembly of Dissenters, but those who are dissenters assemble to a Licens'd Meeting house at Ridgmont being the next Parish. Samuel Butler Wheelwright is their Teacher";
  • 1720: "I've Ninety Families. Of these five are Dissenters, and they go under the Denomination of Anabaptists. Meeting houses I've no Licensed nor other Meeting-House in my said Parish".

These numbers vary wildly. It may be that the dissenters were still secretive, fearing some sort of reprisal, or it may be that the Church of England parson did not enquire too closely. Alternatively, people may have been quite volatile in their allegiance.

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 for Husborne Crawley:

  • On 4th July 1792 a dwelling house in the occupation of Joseph Harris, glazier, was licensed by Harris himself, John Keech, a labourer, John Turney, a butcher and John Gurney, a miller [QSR1792/56; QSM10 page 12]
  • In 1801 the premises of Samuel Harris near the Swan Inn, in the occupation of John Barrel and adjoining a house in the occupation of Jeffrey Hart was registered by Harris himself and Francis Beall. If the house was near the Swan it was either in Crow Lane or that part of School Lane near the junction with Crow Lane. In the same year the Baptist chapel at Ridgmont, in co-operation with the chapel in Woburn undertook to preach in Husborne Crawley on Sundays in every other month so this may have been a Baptist meeting [ABN1/1; ABN 2/105].
  • In 1805 the house of Thomas Bennet was registered by Bennet himself, Samuel Harris and Francis Beall – clearly this was the same denomination as the house registered in 1801 [ABN1/1; ABN2/116].
  • In 1830 the house occupied by William Fossey was registered by Fossey himself, Joseph Bowler and Thomas Herbert [ABN1/2; ABN2/246; ABN 3/3 and 3/94].