Oath-takers and tax-payers in Georgian Stokenham

By Paul Luscombe

Dissenters and dissenting ministers

One of the obstacles for family historians is the difficulty of tracing ancestors belonging to dissenting congregations whose registers have not survived. Such is the case in Stokenham which was served by a dissenting chapel - now in ruins - at Ford20 just over the boundary in Chivelstone parish. The parish register has two types of reference to non-conformity. It records between 1690 and 1733 a total of 21 burials with the annotation "X at Ford", and, at the end of the register of births for 1695-1706, Fred Marker has listed nine baptisms under the heading, "A register of the names of such children as have been baptized by Mr Horsam or any other dissenting M[inis]ter by ye desire of their parents". A burial in 1712 has the extra information "x p[er] edgly at Ford" and another a few days later, "x at Ford p[er] walsh". These names are of little consequence until the connection is made with the militia assessments and the oath rolls. In the latter, a search in the pre-1723 surname index reveals "Thomas Edgley Welsh (Walsh) of Stokenham" signing the abjuration oath at Moreleigh on 29 October 1714 - along with a great multitude of the clergy and gentry from all over the South Hams. Not long afterwards, on 10 January 1715, "Thomas Welsh (Walsh) of Stokenham" appears again and signs the roll at Exeter, once more rubbing shoulders with the great and the good of the same ilk. He signs for a third time - at Kingsbridge on 29 August 1723 - as "Thomas Welsh (?Wash) of Chivelstone". It is, perhaps, telling that the 1715 roll has Welsh substituted for Edgley, both seemingly sharing the same religious conviction. Edgley is a distinctive name and a solitary one is found in the indexes to the oath rolls, signing the abjuration as "Thomas Edgley of Totnes", like Thomas Welsh, on 29 October 1714 at Moreleigh. Turning to the third name in our trio from the parish register, the militia assessment tells us that 'Mr Horsam' is, in fact, Mr Will Horsham whose assessment is £8-00. A search in the pre-1723 indexes to the oath rolls uncovers "William Horsham, dissenter" taking the abjuration oath and the declaration against transubstantiation at Exeter on 13 October 1714, while "William Horsham, clerk of Topsham" signs on 10 January 1715 and "William Horsham, trader of Topsham" on 7 August 1723.

This part of our enquiry is moving inexorably from parochial to provincial territory, and the next encounter with the three dissenters is (thanks to the search engine of the West Country Studies Library) through a series of sermons by Thomas Edgley, one of which was delivered to the Exeter Assembly in 1710.21 An influential body, founded in 1695, the Assembly was a vigorous debating-place for presbyterian and congregational ministers from all parts of the west country, meeting twice yearly and controlling the ordination of ministers. A sermon was preached at each meeting. A quotation from one of Thomas Edgely's sermons gives a feel for the genre:

Let us awaken Secure Sinners, whom the melodious Airs of Grace won't charm with the harsher Sound of the LORD'S Terrors, and ring such a Peal of Thunder in their Ears, as may make them feel they have Immortal Souls to be Sav'd or Damn'd for ever. Let us carry Celestial Fire in our Hearts and Lips, to inspire those, who are spiritually dead, with Life and Motion, and represent the Glory and Torment of the Unseen World to such Advantage, that the most Harden'd Wretches may dread to Trifle with GOD and Eternity a Moment longer.22

The Assembly itself and non-conformity in the region are well documented, ranging from a paper by Worth in 1877 to accounts by Brockett and Finberg, a readable overview by Warne23 and two useful introductions to non-conformist records - one on the Devon Heritage Centre website and the other by Hugh Peskett.24 The minutes of the Assembly show that the three names found in the oath rolls were presbyterian ministers who had a significant role in its work.25 William Horsham, ordained on 24 November 1687, was the minister at Stokenham (i.e. Ford) from April 1693 until 1700 when he moved to Topsham where he died in May 1725. He was Scribe to the Assembly in May 1694 and Moderator in September 1702. Thomas Walsh (ordained aged 21 years on 22 April 1690) succeeded him at Ford in May 1701, serving as Minister until his death in November 1729. The ordination of Thomas Edgely (born on 4 March 1675 and brought up as an Anabaptist) was contested at the Assembly meeting on 6/7 May 1700 by a dissident group from Totnes. He was Scribe in September 1705, May 1709, May 1714-15 and May 1719 and Moderator in May 1711 and September 1717. He was also a foster parent of John Huxley, the prominent Plymouth physician. The Totnes parish register records two daughters (both Elizabeth, baptised on 22 January 1708/9, died on 15 December 1711, and the other baptised on 26 August 1712) and the burial of 'Mr Thomas Edgeley' on 24 February 1721/2. These entries are reminders that, even after the 1689 Toleration Act, many presbyterians were, in Jonathon Barry's words, "half-Anglican", partial conformists, still hoping for reforms in the established church.26 Another quotation from the 1715 sermon shows that leading dissenters were anxious to demonstrate their loyalty to the monarchy:

Did we preach Purgatory and Indulgences, Doctrines calculated to cherish Clergy-Pride and Avarice: were our Sermons big with Treason and Sedition, stuft with flaunting Invectives against the happy Revolution, [in 1688] or [the] glorious Administration of our Great our Rightful QUEEN.27
The point is reinforced by the evidence in the oath rolls that two of the three ministers signed three times between 1714 and 1723, even though it was not obligatory for them to do so in 1723. Returning briefly to the Assembly, there was a minute in May 1717 of "A petition from the meeting at Ford or Stoke in Ham desiring help for their Meeting House which cost £80 the rebuilding. About £35 remains to be paid." It was recommended that money be raised among other congregations.28 This brings us back to the scruffy marginal annotation in the Stokenham register which revealed Thomas Edgely's visit to Ford in September 1712. With the help of the register, it is possible to identify 10 oath-takers in Appendix B who were undoubtedly dissenters. All but two, however, are among the more visible groups (categories (a) and (b) in Table 1), rather than among the 39 with a low profile in the parish register.

It remains to measure the scale of dissent in Stokenham. According to Worth, using information from a survey known as Dr Evans's list, there were 360 hearers at Stokenham (Ford) in 1715, a substantial number, given the chapel's rural location.29 An estimate of the proportion of dissenters in the parish has been attempted by examining the births registered between 1695 and 1706 and identifying those with no corresponding baptism. Births totalled 287 of which 56 were not followed by baptism in the parish church,30 indicating that 19.5% of the worshippers were presbyterians. The great majority of the 56 births were the children of 14 couples for whom two or more births were recorded. As long as the birth was reported to the minister, it is unlikely that the registration of a baptism would have been overlooked, for it was a requirement of the Marriage Duty Act that the prescribed records should be properly kept: clergymen who neglected to do so were liable to a £100 fine, and the penalty for parents who failed to notify births was 40s. Exemptions from the tax (2s for births, 4s for burials and 2s 6d for marriages - and more for the gentry) were limited to those in receipt of alms, but they were not exempt from registration. Consequently, there are grounds for believing the registration records to be reliable. In comparison with the estimate for Stokenham, calculations based on Dr Evans' survey suggest that almost one in five of the population of Devon was a dissenter in 1715,31 while in Tavistock the presbyterian chapel was responsible for nearly 16% of the town's baptisms in 1697-1706.32 It is not surprising that support for the dissenting ministry was strong in and around Stokenham: prominent dissenters, such as John Flavel and John Hicks33 , were active in the area after the restoration, while the sequestration of the vicarage in c 1645 and the ejection of the intruder in 1662 suggest a degree of polarity in religious allegiance in the parish. An analysis of the register reveals a marked fall in Anglican baptisms after 1689 (from an annual average of 30 in the 1670s and 1680s to about 23 in the 1690s and the following decade). Two inferences can be drawn: that the sermons of William Horsham and Thomas Walsh were actively engaging the religious, while Fred Marker struggled to maintain their attention; and that the Toleration Act allowed a recognisable proportion of parents the option of taking their newly-born children to chapel for baptism in preference to church.

It is now possible to return to the question of how many dissenters took the oath. The number would be 31 if the proportion taking the oath were the same as the 19.5% calculated above. As already noted, eight dissenters can be identified in the more visible group (categories (a) and (b) in Table 1) and two in the less visible group (categories (c), (d) and (e)), leaving, in round figures, about 20 to be found among the 39 names in the latter group of categories.

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  1. Its registers date from 1772. [Back]
  2. Thomas Edgley, A sermon, preach'd at Exon, May 10th, 1710, before an assembly of the United Ministers of Devon and Cornwall. Publish'd at the request of many of the auditory. By Tho. Edgley. ... - Exon : Printed by Jos. Bliss, and sold by the booksellers of Exon , 1710. - 22p ; 8. - *Dredge p.43 (Bibliotheca Cornubiensia),p.96 (Manchester Free Lib.); ESTC. [Back]
  3. Edgely, op cit p 12. [Back]
  4. R. N. Worth, Puritanism in Devon, and the Exeter Assembly, Trans Devonshire Assoc, vol IX, 1877, pp 250-291; A. A. Brockett, Nonconformity in Devon in the eighteenth century, Trans Devonshire Assoc, vol XC, 1958, pp 31-59; H.P.R. Finberg, West-Country Historical Studies,(Newton Abbot, 1969), pp 196-224;Arthur Warne, Church and society in eighteenth-century Devon (Newton Abbot, 1969), esp chapter VII, pp 87-105. [Back]
  5. [http://www.devon.gov.uk/contrast/index/democracycommunities/neighbourhoods-villages/record_office/family_history_3/nonconformist.htm, accessed 15 June 2007]; Hugh Peskett, A guide to the parish and non-parochial registers of Devon and Cornwall, 1538-1837, Devon & Cornwall Record Soc., extra series, vol. II (Torquay, 1979), pp xxxviii-lxxii. [Back]
  6. Allan Brockett [ed] The Exeter Assembly: the minutes of the assemblies of the United Brethren of Devon and Cornwall, 1691-1717, Devon & Cornwall Record Soc., new series, vol. 6 (Torquay, 1963). [Back]
  7. Jonathan Barry, Religion and the spread of non-conformity before 1800 in Roger Kain and William Ravenhill (eds), Historical Atlas of South-West England (Exeter, 1999), p 224. [Back]
  8. Edgely, op cit, p 20-1. [Back]
  9. Brockett (1963), op cit, p 115 and 118. [Back]
  10. Worth, op cit, pp 276-8; compared with 300 hearers recorded at Kingsbridge, 580 at Dartmouth and 280 at Totnes in Dr Evans's survey (deposited in Dr Williams Library, ref. 38.4). [Back]
  11. excluding (from both totals) still-births and baptisms recorded at Chivelstone. [Back]
  12. Warne, op cit, p 94. [Back]
  13. Finberg, op cit, p222. [Back]
  14. Jane Cranch, Troublous times: leaves from the note-book of the Rev Mr John Hicks, an ejected non-conformist minister (London, 1862). [Back]