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Registration and Early References in Little Staughton

This page has been written by Jeanette Atkinson and Brenda Foster

By 1603, the Roman Catholic Church had little following in Bedfordshire and most of the population (clergy and laymen) were loyal Anglicans (Godber, History of Bedfordshire page 225). However, by 1659 the situation was more confused (page 233) with:

  • latent Anglicanism;
  • slender Presbytenariasm;
  • flourishing Independency;
  • numerous Quakers;
  • no Roman Catholics!

Before ‘toleration’ (1672 to 1689) no buildings could be established for worship. 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 the 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 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.

The religious census of 1676 indicated that Little Staughton had 15 nonconformists over the age of 16 years (HG Tibbut, 1951, page 5). Visitations by the Bishop of Lincoln to Bedfordshire 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 Little Staughton shows there were no meeting but some dissenters:

  • 1706 - five independents and one Quaker
  • 1709 - six families and two Quakers
  • 1717 - four nonconformist families and one Quaker family.

The congregation of Little Staughton were constituted into a church on June 14th 1757 in conjunction with the congregation of Hail Weston and with William Joyce as their pastor (Tibbutt HG, 1951, page 5). However, after three years this shared arrangement ceased and all the registrations for meeting houses after this are in Little Staughton.

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 throughout 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.

Registrations for the Little Staughton Meeting (designated as Baptist from 1766)  were as follows:

  • 21st April 1766 for the house of William Pearson (husbandsman) in Little Staughton to be a Meeting Place (ABN1/1); this was certified with John Hawkins of Wilden
  • A newly erected building was licensed on the 26th April 1786 by the Bedford Quarter Session (QSM 16, p56)