Steppingley Registration and Early References
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 Steppingley includes the following:
- 1706: the parish contained about 32 families: “Of these 4 are Anabaptists but they have no Meeting House within the parish. Nor does any Papist or reputed papist live in it, nor has any such any concern at all with it”. Anabaptists is the term generally used at that date for those we call Baptists today.
- 1709: “Souls 146. No Papists. Dissenters, Anabaptists 30. No Meeting”.
- 1712: two families of Anabaptists.
- 1717: three families were dissenters “and of a sect of the Anabaptists”. There was no meeting house.
- 1720: two families of Anabaptists and no meeting house.
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 forSteppingley:
- 19th June 1756: the dwelling of James Lyne, husbandman, was registered by Lyne himself and Ampthill miller Samuel Everitt [ABN1/1; ABN2/6];
- 15th January 1794: the dwelling of Mrs Judith Cook was registered [QSM19, 17];
- March-April 1798: a building in occupation of Ann Burridge (with a house occupied by Thomas Phillips one side and a house in occupation of William Bunker on the other) was registered by Ann herself along with Thomas Cooke, Robert Makeham and James Oliver [ABN1/1; ABN2/88];
- 15th January 1823: the house of John Squires was registered by Squires himself [ABN1/2];
- April 1827: a meeting house was registered by Richard Cook [ABN1/2; ABN2/230; ABN3/3, 79].