Registration and Early References in Whipsnade
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 Whipsnade includes the following:
- 1706: "It is but a small parish of about 14 Families. Among which is but one single Dissenter, an Anabaptist [Baptist]. No Meeting-house. No Papist or reputed Papist".
- 1709: "Families 15, Souls about 70, of which 1 a Quaker; about 3 Anabaptists".
- 1717: "Fifteen Families, two dissenting Anabaptists. Meeting houses Not any".
- 1720: "I am informd there are but fifteen Familyes in Whipsnade Parish and but one Dissenting from the Church of England … No Meeting house in Whipsnade Parish".
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 Whipsnade just one registration of a nonconformist meeting in Whipsnade - at the dwelling house of John Searle in 1835, the person registering being Thomas Rogerson of Luton. Almost certainly this was a forerunner of the later Wesleyan chapel, since Rogerson is known to have also registered Wesleyan chapels at Barton-le-Cley, Houghton Regis, Leagrave, Luton, Tebworth and Toddington on the same day.