The Baslow Register of Seats 1789

(or “Where did your Ancestors sit in Church?”)

By Rodney Marples, © Copyright 1999, 2004

Editor's Note: This most interesting account features a little-known ‘seating plan’ preserved in the Baslow ‘Parish Chest’, and illustrates the amount of family background which may be gained from its study.

“It amounts to something like a census of the male heads of households who attended the church in 1789. In very fine copperplate handwriting it lists the occupant of all 380 seats in the church.”

Fellow Marples researchers may wish to consult Rodney's Marples Family History web site for his study of Marple(s) families in Baslow from 1565 to the present day worldwide.

It all started when I received an e-mail from Ellis MARPLES of New Jersey, USA asking me to help trace his ancestry. Although I have not registered with the GOONS, for over 20 years I have effectively been conducting a one name study on the MARPLE(S) families, so I was delighted to be able to help. It did not take us to long to work out that he was descended from Robert MARPLE & Jane GOODWIN of Baslow. This was good news for my ancestral village is Baslow and so it seemed that there would be a good chance that Ellis & I were related.

Robert & Jane married in Baslow on 19th June 1782, but the bad news was that, for years, I had not been able to identify just who this Robert MARPLE was. Robert was a very popular Christian name in the MARPLES families particularly in the 16th to 18th centuries; to the extent that more than 90% of all Robert MARPLES born in that time feature in my family tree. To give you an idea of how popular the name Robert was, there are no less than six marriages in Baslow between 1757 and 1787 involving a Robert Marples! To make matters worse, the six wives included 2 Elizabeths, 2 Marys and 2 Janes! Between 1665 and 1799, a span of 134 years, there are 58 baptisms children whose father is a Robert MARPLE. This rate of baptism works out at an average of just over one every two years and four months; with a maximum gap between baptisms of six years.

Whilst I am fortunate that the Baslow registers go back a long way (to around 1580 or so), they aren't the most chatty, and supplementary information is rare. So sorting out all the baptisms where Robert was the father into their respective families has proved something of a nightmare. My own line has some of these Roberts and I had quite a lot of difficulty with one of them. The only way in which I could make sense of the data was to assume that this Robert married twice. Assuming that was one thing, proving it quite another. For some years my own line had stalled at this point and it wasn't until I found a will in the Lichfield DRO that I found the proof I needed.

However, this wasn't helping Ellis with Robert MARPLE & Jane GOODWIN. Furthermore, I had already trawled through the Lichfield DRO for helpful wills and knew that there wasn't any more to discover there.

When I started out to research my ancestry, the spur was an obituary notice, dated 1931, for my grandfather, Theophilus MARPLES. He was a leading dog judge of his day and was the Editor of the weekly newspaper “Our Dogs”. The obituary covered a double page spread and was mainly devoted to his career in dogs. However the first two paragraphs covered something of his ancestry; most of which, I'm sorry to say, seemed to me to be the product of a vivid imagination, rather than factual research (e.g. the Marples family came over from Europe with the Huguenots and gave our name to the village of Marple on the Cheshire/Derbyshire border!). The one bit of uncontentious ancestry was the statement that Theophilus' grandfather was William MARPLES, who had been sexton at St. Anne's church, Baslow for 30 years. So off to Baslow my wife and I went one sunny Saturday morning nearly 30 years ago.

Seeing us poking about round the gravestones in that delightful churchyard by the banks of the River Derwent, we were accosted by the vicar, Rev. Jack WALSER, a lovely man. We introduced ourselves and explained what we were doing. Before we knew quite what was happening, Rev. WALSER had invited us into the vestry and was busy showing us the Baslow registers. To my delight MARPLES entries abounded in them, but it soon became clear that, because of the sheer volume of entries, an organized approach to extracting the data was going to be needed. In exchange for a suitable donation to the church funds, Rev. WALSER soon agreed to the suggestion that I should put together a small family team and blitz the registers. The next two weekends saw my wife and I, together with my parents, Brian & Edna MARPLES descend on the vestry armed with forms I had drawn up.

The job done, I settled down at home to try and make sense of it all. Whilst I was in the vestry I took the opportunity to see what else the vestry safe might have to offer; under Rev. Jack's watchful eye of course! Churchwardens' Accounts and Overseers' of the Poor Accounts were noted and looked at.

But all that was, as I say, nearly 30 years ago, when I knew nothing of family history research or how to go about it, or what pitfalls and mistakes might lie in wait for me.

Thinking about the problem of Robert & Jane, I wondered, not for the first time, whether I had missed a vital clue in the parish registers. Were there any other documents now in the CRO at Matlock that might shed some light on the problem? Clearly another visit to Matlock had to be planned and organized.

The difficulty with Robert & Jane was just one of several puzzles with the Baslow data that still remain unresolved. Working with the same set of data for 30 years makes one very familiar with it all. Why, for instance, did John MARPLES of Unstone, who died in 1808, decide to be buried in Baslow? Fellow DFHS member, Eileen DORR (whose mother was a MARPLES, descended from this John) and I have puzzled over this for years. John married in Chesterfield and seems to have spent all his adult life in and around Apperknowle and Unstone. So why be buried in Baslow? The only answer, it seemed to us, was that he had been born there and that's where his family came from. To be sure, there was a baptism of a John at about the right time, and about whom nothing else was known. But how to prove the connection?

Suitably installed in the CRO, I started checking off my extracts against the microfilm copy. But to no avail. The extracts were correct and there was nothing of further use or interest to note. I wondered what else the microfilm contained, so I wound on to the end of the registers, past the Churchwardens' Accounts, past the Overseers of the Poor Accounts and then I struck pure gold! Right at the end of the Baslow section was the Register of Seats of 1789. As I looked at the picture of the cover on the microfilm, I vaguely remembered lifting this very slim volume, bound in smooth maroon leather with title blocked in gold, from the vestry safe. But nearly 30 years ago what did I care who sat where in the church? So after a brief glance inside it was onto other far more interesting things. Oh the innocence of youth!

Now I studied the little book with riveted fascination. It amounts to something like a census of the male heads of households who attended the church in 1789. In very fine copperplate handwriting it lists the occupant of all 380 seats in the church. The list is arranged by pew and sets out who occupied it, who owned it, and by what right the occupant held it. By far the biggest number of seats were owned by the Duke of Rutland, and the occupants were allocated their seats because of their tenure of various properties in Baslow; about which very little detail was given.

And there in seat 5 of pew 41 was John MARPLES of Unstone, who held it as heir at law to Robert DOBB. Next to him was William DOBB, successor to Robert DOBB. I was already familiar with the name DOBB as it cropped up in the will of Thomas MARPLE of Cliff, who was buried in Baslow on 13th April 1756. In it Thomas referred to his “loving uncle Robert DOBBE”. What's more, Thomas had a brother, John. A bit more research at Lichfield, and I found the will of John DOBB, Robert's brother. That will referred to John & Thomas MARPLE, sons of George MARPLE “and my sister Margaret DOBB”. Thus was one puzzle solved and Eileen's ancestry taken back 2 more generations and another 200 or so cousins added to her family tree.

Most of the Marples in the Register seemed to have more than 1 seat, but always spread over more than one pew. It must have been very odd on Sundays to attend the services with one's family scattered all over the place. In this day and age, it must also seem odd that parishioners had rights over particular seats in the church; but my mother remembers being taken as a young girl to church by her mother. They were required to wait at the back of the church until the great and the good were seated, before the vergers would show my mother and grandmother to vacant seats.

But what of Robert & Jane? The Register of Seats didn't shed that much light, but enough. There was Robert MARPLES of Cock Hill (where the Peacock Hotel is situated today). He had 5 seats in pews 1, 5, 10, & 77. Then there was Robert MARPLES of Gate Row (a Baslow district I have not been able to identify). He also had 5 seats in pews 5, 52, 65 & 77. Then there was plain Robert MARPLES who had 1 seat in pew 79, by virtue of a tenancy in Gate Row. This one looked like my man.

Armed with this information, and using the Sherlock Holmes' axiom that “once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I eventually established that Ellis and I were 6th cousins. What a gem the Register of Seats turned out to be. So if you are stuck with your researches see what else the CRO has to offer on your ancestral parish. You may well get a very pleasant surprise!

This article was first published in ‘Branch News’, the Journal of the Derbyshire Family History Society in December 1999.

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