FOCUS ON: NONCONFORMISTS
How to track down elusive forebears who followed a faith outside the Church of England
While some people would not risk keeping lists of members, others would go to great lengths to track them down
Not everyone’s ancestors belonged to or interacted voluntarily with the Anglican Church. Many followed nonconformist faiths – Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, Huguenots and Moravians among them. In fact, the 1851 Census of Religious Worship showed that more people attended nonconformist chapels than the established church, causing great consternation.
The growth of alternative forms of worship was often a reaction against the established order for some reason. Henry VIII’s determination to take a new wife is a well-known example.
The ebb and flow of cultural acceptability for being nonconformist has resulted in patchy record survival – many were not kept for fear of reprisals.
However, while some breakaway religions would not risk keeping lists of members or details of their activities, other people would go to great lengths to track down the perceived wrong-doers, creating detailed records in order to persecute and punish them.
The community-based nature of some nonconformists resulted in records being kept in members’ homes, and, in the case of a group’s closure, these may have been retained by the last caretaker.
Such was the case for Stanningley Congregational Church, Pudsey, West Yorkshire, where architects’ plans, deeds, membership books and church magazines have now been deposited with a local archive.
Besides the external forces that affected the lives of nonconformists, there could also be internal conflicts that threatened the survival of the denomination. These frictions often generated further divisions, which, in turn, resulted in an even greater diversity of religious groups.
For example, a quick look in any county archive’s guide to nonconformists will not only include useful information on Methodists, but also Methodist New Connexion members, Primitive Methodists, United Methodists, the United Methodist Free Church, Wesleyan Methodists and maybe more.
With reduced numbers of communicants, income and,
in some cases, ministers, many in smaller breakaway groups were reunited in the original fold or combined with similar groups to allow their survival.
Some collection guides, such as the one provided by West Yorkshire Archive Service at
bitly/1f8axW3, include a potted denominational history and a list of relevant dates, as well as information on the archive’s holdings, which may include details of the churches or circuits (a group of local churches under the care of one or more ministers); records of baptisms, marriages and burials; and sometimes other related records such as grave registers and pew rents.
A guide on the Cheshire Archives & Local Studies website ( archives.cheshire.gov.uk/ family-history/nonconformistsrecords.aspx) provides information regarding its collections of Quaker and Roman Catholic registers, which have been digitised and made available on Findmypast at bit.ly/1K4Jc3Y. Several key dates had an impact on nonconformist records. In particular, the 1689 Toleration Act gave nonconformists the right to have their own places of worship, subject to the swearing of oaths and declarations.
Catholics were excluded from this and were unable to register their own chapels and schools with the local Clerk of the Peace until the Catholic Relief Act of 1791. Such applications would go to the Quarter Sessions, which many county record offices include within their searchable online catalogues.
All marriages, other than for Quakers and Jews, had to be in the Church of England under the terms of Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, which became effective on 25 March 1754.
This was a tightening up of legal requirements beyond celebration by an Anglican clergyman, and also ensured that either banns were called or a licence obtained. Licences were popular with nonconformists as they avoided having to be present for the reading of the banns. In both cases, the marriage may not have taken place, yet the declaration of intent should survive, providing a record for researchers.
Substantial collections of Marriage Bonds and Allegations have been indexed, such as those issued by the Archbishops of York from 1613 to 1839. This dataset is available online at bit.ly/1MtxkWE.
Another important date is 1836, which saw the passing of the Marriage Act. This meant that a marriage could take place in any registered place of worship. Registration for solemnizing of marriages would be announced in the London Gazette ( www. thegazette.co.uk).
The District Registrar had to travel from chapel to chapel to record these events – something that often causes confusion for researchers when matching civil registration indexes to parish register entries. However, consulting a local Registrar’s indexes may confirm an early register office wedding, suggesting that the couple were nonconformists. To check, see ukbmd.org.uk/local_bmd.
Finally, from 1898, a member of the congregation could be authorised by the Registrar General to act as Registrar of Marriages, making returns to the Local Superintendent Registrar. Methodists, for example, quickly sought this independence.
You might come across nonconformists in your family tree through church records, online searches, family history
society transcriptions or by the fact that they are buried in a denominational graveyard.
However, the possibility of nonconformity may also arise by an inability to find ancestors recorded in the Church of England parish registers, which means you must search for other likely alternatives.
Nonconformist churches were initially invited to deposit their own baptism, marriage and burial registers by a Royal Commission shortly after the introduction of civil registration in 1837, and
An illustration of Surrey Chapel, an independent Methodist and Congregational church that stood in Southwark, London
The wedding of early Quaker William Penn and Hannah Callowhill, in Bristol, 1696