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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Non-Anglican Church Records by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
General Civil Records
Quarter Sessions and Assizes
The Quarter Sessions are important records, especially for early dissenters, and are at county archives and most are filmed. There are several items of interest in the context of religious conformity.
Places of Worship
From 1689 until 1852 any individual or group who wished to open a Nonconformist chapel or hold such religious services in a house or other premises needed to obtain a licence from the Quarter Sessions or register with the appropriate bishop or archdeacon. The premises and its owner(s) and their denomination were described in a dated certificate signed by one or several members of the congregation. The county clerks of the peace and every bishop’s and archdeacon’s registrar also had to compile a list of all meeting places, and this now acts as a handy index to the certifications. Both of these series of registrations are now at County Record Offices. The law regarding registration of chapels, including Catholic chapels registered under the 1791 Roman Catholic Chapels Act, changed in 1852 and now certification was by the Registrar General, lists being sent to him from each County and Borough Quarter Sessions.
Indexes of Meeting House Certificate and Registrations have been compiled for some counties such as Wiltshire. Lists are also available such as that for Leicestershire shown in Chart 9, and the following from the Essex Quarter Sessions on FHL film 1702790:
- Register of Protestant dissenters certifications 1761-1852.
- Returns of certified places of worship 1825-1851.
- Register of places for religious worship of Roman Catholics with names of priests, also schools and names of schoolmasters 1791-1810, 1837
Trust Deeds from 1735
An Act of 1735 required charities to enroll (copy onto rolls) trust deeds in Chancery, which ensured that the congregations had good legal title to their properties (Shorney’s Protestant Nonconformity and Roman Catholicism. A Guide to Sources in the Public Record Office. PRO Publications and Herber’s Ancestral Trails. Society of Genealogists, 2000). These inalienable transfers of land for charitable purposes, the great majority of which involved the establishment of Nonconformist chapels, schools, burial grounds and charities were enrolled in the Close Rolls (Bevan).
From 1736-1870 over 35,000 deeds were enrolled and they are volume-indexed by place; from 1870-1904 there are card indexes by place. There are also annual indexes to their whole contents.
None of these indexes are published so need to be accessed at the PRO. The enrollments are in PRO series C 54 to 1902, and J 18 after that year, and contain:
- Descriptions of the locations and dimensions of their buildings.
- Information on the denomination’s doctrine.
- Names of trustees.
They can thus be valuable sources for finding out how individual Nonconformists established their chapels and other social and educational facilities.
Not Attending Church
Those refusing to attend the Anglican Church were reported in the annual Churchwardens’ Presentments. Prior to 1642 they comprised Catholics and those too busy working, drinking or playing games. From 1642 to 1660 one still had to attend the (now Presbyterian) church but this rule was not effectively enforced. After the Restoration, however, the Anglicans were very conscientious about presenting long lists of individuals not at church on Sunday, and these now included Anabaptists, Sectaries and Quakers as well as Papists. The denominational affiliation may not be given in the Quarter Sessions but can be deduced from the name of either the minister or meeting house owner quoted.
In awkward cases where there was insufficient clear evidence, or when a Nonconformist wanted to argue his case, then magistrates could request that they take the Oath of Supremacy. Nonconformists would not take this oath and this was a crime so they would be sent to prison, often for long periods. Happily, the Act of Toleration became effective in 1689 and henceforth Nonconformists cease to appear in Quarter Sessions for these ‘criminal offences’. Quakers appear in Quarter Sessions for another reason of conscience, namely the refusal to serve in the militia or pay for substitutes to bear arms in their stead. The 18th century is the most likely time to find them so quoted.
Records of Aliens
Many records concerned with the arrival and life of foreign-born aliens can be found scattered throughout thePRO classes. Examples include Chancery, Exchequer, State Papers, Oath Rolls of Naturalization, Denizations, and Treasury In-Letters and details can be found in the PRO leaflets on Immigrants, and Refugees and Minorities.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Non-Anglican Church Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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