Registration and Early References in Harrold
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 Harrold includes the following:
1706: "…there are about fourteen persons who Dissent from the Church of England, all Independents, but they have no Meeting house in the parish. Nor are there any Papists, or reputed Papists in it";
1709: "Souls 600, of which about 16 Independents";
1712: "Families 113 of which 10 of Dissenters, Presbyterians";
1717: "…122 families 15 whereof are Dissenters the major part of them Anabaptists…No meeting house licensed or unlicensed in our said parish";
1720: "There are one hundred and ten families whereof sixteen are Dissenters, Anabaptists, Independents and Presbyterians. There is an Independent meeting house licensed in our parish. No assembly. No Teacher".
Essentially, Independents meant Congregationalists and Anabaptists meant Baptists. These returns suggest that an Independent, or Congregationalist meeting was in use between 1717 and 1720. It was not necessarily a chapel in the modern sense but may well have been someone's house or barn.
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.
Volume 110 published by the Bedfordshire Historical Records Society in 1996 and edited by Edwin Welch contains registrations of Bedfordshire nonconformist meetings drawn from a number of sources. Given the strength of the Congregational Church in Harrold in the last two hundred years it may be that these are Congregational meetings. One that was clearly not was the dwelling of Knightley Smith, registered with the Archdeaconry [ABN1/1] on 23rd January 1812, over three years after the Congregationalist chapel had been built.