What the records contain
Records relating to nonconformist churches can be used by people interested in the history of a local community, genealogists looking for information on family members who went to church, and students and researchers investigating the history of religion and religious movements.
A few of the nonconformist records held at The University of Nottingham refer to the churches’ origins in the mid-17th century, but the bulk of the records date from the mid-19th century onwards. 14 of the 19 churches represented in the University of Nottingham collections were founded during the 19th century, many as daughter churches or ‘missions’ attached to an older, larger church. This was a common pattern across urban areas of England. Many of these newer churches closed during the mid- to late-twentieth century as populations moved out of city centres, and fewer people chose to worship in them.
Most of the collections held at The University of Nottingham contain some if not all of the following types of source material:
Registers of baptisms, marriages and burials
Registers are a key source for family historians, and can also be used by social and economic historians to help trace the population of a particular place over time.
Nonconformist church baptism registers can be a particularly useful source, as they often give the date of birth of the child as well as the date of his or her baptism. However, some may be fairly un-informative, as it was up to the minister to fill in the register in the way they preferred.
Extract from the earliest copy baptism register from the Old Meeting House, Mansfield, 1738-1739 (OL R 1)
Burial registers sometimes refer to interments in the church’s own burial ground, but many are a record of the burial elsewhere (for instance in a municipal cemetery) of church members.
In 1837, the civil authorities took on the task of registering every birth, marriage and death in England and Wales. As part of this task, they ordered the surrender of existing nonconformist registers. The registers were taken from the churches and are now part of the collections held by The National Archives in Kew. Digital and microform copies of most of these registers are now available online and in local record offices.
Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1753 stated that marriages were only valid if they were performed in a Church of England (Anglican) church, with exceptions for Quakers and Jews. It can therefore be difficult to find evidence of the marriages of nonconformist ancestors unless they chose to get married in their local parish church.
From 1837 it was possible to marry in a civil register office rather than a church. Additionally, nonconformist congregations could apply for a licence to have marriages performed in their churches, but these marriages were officially registered by the local civil registrar. After 1898 it was possible for nonconformist churches to appoint an 'authorised person' to register the marriage.
Marriage registers from nonconformist churches before 1898 are therefore the church's own copy record of marriages held in the church or marriages involving church members. Marriage registers after 1898 are likely to be official registers, in the same format as those used in Anglican churches and civil register offices. A second copy of the register is forwarded regularly to the local register office, and this copy is the source for the certificates that family historians can order from the General Register Office (GRO). The information given in the GRO certificate is exactly the same as that given in the church register. However, some researchers like to see the original church register because it includes details such as the signatures of the married couple and their witnesses.
The National Archives has produced a useful online leaflet about nonconformist registers.
There is also an online guide to nonconformist registers held at Nottinghamshire Archives.
Records of Sunday Schools and youth organisations
It was not until 1870 that all children had to attend school by law. Before that time, Sunday Schools run by churches were the only place where some children were able to learn the basics of reading and writing. Many 'British' and 'National' schools in the late-Victorian period had their roots in church Sunday Schools. When elementary schooling was made compulsory, church Sunday Schools were increasingly attended only by the children of adult church worshippers.
Rules of the Castle Gate Sunday School, 1836 (CU/Su 5/5/2)
Sunday School records may include admission registers, giving the names, addresses and ages of children enrolled in the Sunday School. More commonly, there are attendance registers, which provide statistics of how many children attended each class. Minutes kept by the Sunday School teaching staff can reveal details of what they planned to teach.
Extract from Sunday School admission register, Milton Street General Baptist Chapel, Nottingham, 1854-1855 (Mr S 1)
Many Sunday Schools participated in special events, pageants, entertainments, prize competitions and outings. Some of the special events were arranged within their own churches, but others were led by organisations such as the Nottingham Sunday School Union, representing Sunday Schools from a wide variety of Christian churches within the city. Older children and young people might join organisations such as Christian Endeavour (a non-denominational group), or a group fellowship within their own church such as the Presbyterian Fellowship of Youth.
Records of the Nottingham Sunday School Union are held at Nottinghamshire Archives (reference DD/SU), but the the Castle Gate Congregational Church Collection, the St Andrew's Presbyterian Church Collection, the St Andrew's-with-Castle Gate Collection and the Lawson Collection all contain material relating to NSSU activity.
Many nonconformist churches ran branches of the national Band of Hope organisation, which promoted temperance (not drinking alcohol). The organisation is now Hope UK, a national Christian charity dedicated to educating children and young people about drug and alcohol abuse. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Band of Hope organised meetings, entertainments, events and rallies. There are minute books and scrapbooks relating to the activities of the Band of Hope branches at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, St Columba’s Presbyterian Church and Castle Gate Congregational Church in the period 1883 to 1923. Members of the Band of Hope were encouraged to ‘take the pledge’: to sign a book pledging not to drink intoxicating liquor. One pledge book survives in the St Andrew’s Church collection.
Pledge book from Mansfield Road Baptist Church, n.d. (Mr S 21)
Minutes, accounts and other documents kept by church officers to help them record their decisions always form an important part of church archives. Most churches kept lists of members, which are now useful for family and local historians. Many nonconformist churches in the nineteenth century kept general ‘Record books’ which contained a wide variety of minutes, membership lists, newspaper cuttings and records of births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials of members of their congregation.
List of members of Castle Gate Church, 1837 (CU/R 2/5/1)
Title deeds, plans and estate papers
Some church collections contain a large amount of material relating to property owned by the church, and the fabric of church buildings, especially if a major building programme was carried out. The High Pavement collection contains numerous views of the old chapel and designs for the new chapel, opened in 1874.
Designs for the new High Pavement Chapel, 1873 (Hi P 14/5)
Annual reports, magazines and newsletters
Printed material produced by churches can be very informative. Many churches produced weekly or monthly newsletters giving details of church services and special events, reports of activities run by church clubs and societies, and personal news of members. The church’s own copies of early newsletters are often bound in handsome hard-backed volumes. Towards the end of the twentieth century many churches began to print their own newsletters, and they are more likely to survive as typed sheets or simple loose pages.
Annual reports are sometimes presented as part of the church magazine, and sometimes produced separately. They usually contain a balance sheet showing the church’s income and expenditure, and a number of reports from church officers describing the events of the past year.
Newsletter of the Old Meeting House, Mansfield, June 1930 (OL K 7)
Records of clubs and societies
Nonconformist church collections are full of documents and photographs relating to the wider life of the church community. Activities outside church services were not confined to religious meetings such as Bible study. The collections at The University of Nottingham include records of drama groups, debating societies, ladies’ and men’s societies, youth and senior citizens’ clubs, fellowship (friendship) groups, and even sports clubs.
Programme of the Castle Gate Literary and Debating Society, 1915-1916 (from CU/So 1/14)
Photograph of Lord Baden-Powell at a Scout camp, taken from St Ann’s Well Road Congregational Church Scout Camp log book, 1931-1933 (CU/Z1/X/2)
Records of fundraising and charity work
Most of the fundraising records in the nonconformist collections held by The University of Nottingham relate to appeals to build or renovate church property. Fundraising bazaars or fayres were popular in the late-nineteeth to mid-twentieth century, and often had a theme. Printed bazaar brochures give details of the church organisations running each stall, and also tend to include many advertisements from local businesses. Minute books of bazaar committees, and bazaar accounts, also survive in some collections.
Nonconformist churches were also concerned with raising money for missionary work and charities at home and abroad. Missionary committee minutes and accounts commonly survive in church collections. The University of Nottingham also holds a minute book of the Nottingham Auxiliary of the London Missionary Society and its successors, 1894-1972 (NLM/3).
Pages from the programme for Friary Congregational Church’s ‘Robin Hood Bazaar’, 1952 (Fy P 2/5/6)
Papers relating to ministers
The University of Nottingham holds relatively few personal papers of nonconformist ministers, probably because they were rarely given to the churches in which the minister served.
Church collections quite often hold obituaries of former ministers, published in church magazines or newsletters, and sometimes orders for memorial services commemorating deceased ministers, and service sheets for induction services on the introduction of a new minister.
Two church collections do contain personal papers, including notes for sermons: there are papers of Rev. Samuel Cox, Minister of Mansfield Road Baptist Church, c.1863-c.1865 (Mr Co); and papers of Rev. Ronald Ross, Minister of St Ann’s Well Road Congregational Church, c.1927-1980 (CU/Z1/Ro). There is also a collection of sermons and notes by James Smith, a preacher at Broad Street Baptist Church, 1811-1834 (MS 118).
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