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The Metting at Sunnibank

This article originally appeared in the Cumbria Family History Society Newsletter, No.45, November 1987, pp.9-11.

The Metting at Sunnibank 
by Peter Park 

Some years ago, at the suggestion of Margaret Russell, one of our members wrote to me asking if I could help in her search for the antecedents of her ancestor, Leonard Parke. The earliest reference that she had was his marriage to Rachel Russell at Hawkshead in 1693, (1) followed by three entries in the baptismal registers of Torver – William in 1699, Amy in 1701 and Damaris in 1704. (2) It would seem that Leonard came from Torver, but the problem lies in distinguishing him from at least one (possibly three) other Leonards, all born in the last quarter of the­ 17th century.

The member had also noted a connection with the neighbouring chapelry of Coniston, where Emma, daughter of Leonard Parke, and a Damaris were christened in 1722 and 1723 respectively. (3) Checking through my card index I noticed that the Damaris christened in 1723 was described as ‘spinster’. She was buried the following year, so it is unlikely that this was a burial accidentally entered with the christenings – it must have been an adult christening. Checking on Damaris’ entry at Torver in 1704 I found that it says born, not baptised. Similarly the entries for William in 1699 and Amy in 1701 are for births not christenings. It is probable that Emma christened at Coniston in 1722 was, in fact the Amy born in Torver in 1701. Emma was married to William Tyson at Coniston in 1723, perhaps this was the reason for her christening the year before.

This started to ring bells: a Baptist Meeting had been established at Torver by Roger Sawrey shortly after he bought nearby Broughton Tower in 1653; (4) and I recalled an entry in the marriage registers involving a ‘nonconformist priest’. Checking through Torver registers, I found the ‘births’ of no fewer than twenty-four children, from eight families, had been registered from 1699 to 1724. This compared with ninety-seven ‘baptisms’ of children from fifty families over the same period.

Tax legislation in 1695 required that all births, including those of dissenters, be reported to the local Anglican priest who was meant to make a record of them either in the parish registers or in a separate book. (5) Unfortunately the instructions were not always carried out, but it seems that five successive curates at Torver were conscientious enough to make the required entries in the registers. (6) 

I had long been aware of the Baptist presence in Torver, indeed I had often ‘blamed’ it for my inability to extend my own direct line beyond Thomas Parke who had a number of children ‘born’ in Torver, starting with Joel in 1707. He seems to have lost faith in the Baptists, as in 1719 all his children to date were christened together at the Anglican chapel; the exercise was repeated in 1721 when his next child was born. Thomas lived at Oxenhouse just to the south of Torver and close to the house of Richard Parke at Sunnybank where the Baptist meetings were held. The marriage ‘with a nonconformist priest’ was that of Edward Parke of Stableharvey and Eleanor Wilson of Brocklebank Ground. Stableharvey is also near Sunnybank and I had assumed that the Baptist Meeting had been used mainly by people living in the south ­of Torver chapelry, almost as a sort of ‘sub-chapel of convenience’ – especially as Richard Parke served as Torver Chapelwarden in 1717.

Having identified the Baptist families from the registers, I plotted their homes on a map of the chapelry. I was somewhat surprised to find that instead of living close to Sunnybank, they came from a all over Torver. Moreover, families living at Oxenhouse and Stableharvey were having their children baptised at the Anglican chapel.

Sadly the Sunnybank registers were not deposited with the Register General in 1837 and so are not in The National Archives. The reason may be that the independence shown by the Baptists at nearby Tottlebank, (7) was more deeply rooted at Torver. On the other hand it might have been apathy, as the Meeting was losing strength by the beginning of the nineteenth century – the ‘Return of Sectaries’ for Lancashire North of the Sands records a membership of only seven adults in 1829. (8) 

Despite the lack of records for the Sunnybank meeting itself, it is evident that a great deal of information can gleaned from the Anglican registers, but the registers are not the only source of information. In the will of Thomas Woodale, a mariner of Whitehaven, dated 9 April 1729, we find that ‘I leave to Richard ­Parke and John Atkinson the sum fifteen pounds for the use of Sunnibank Metting to dispose of as they shall see good to do so …’. (9) 

The adult population of Torver was about 150 at the start of the eighteenth century. The adult membership of the Baptist meeting would have been between twenty and twenty-five and there is evidence to suggest that this little group was causing some concern to the established church. An entry in the Chapel records for 1717 is a note that says ‘although John Stope is a careful and diligent minister, who administered the Lord’s Supper twice yearly, there are in the Chapelry … Anabaptists’. (10) (11) 

Among the verdicts and surrenders for the manor of Torver at the Record office at Barrow is the record of a land transfer in 1735: ‘Richard Parke of Sunneybank … surrendered all that his house or ediffies called White Hall Scituate at Sunneybank together with the front piece or parcel of ground to the lane adjoyning containing ten square yards or thereabouts … yearly rent of twopence or thereabouts To the use of William Wilson of High Steel William Atkinson of Greenrigg and Ephriam Gardner of Holles all in Torver’. (12) William Wilson and William Atkinson both had children registered as ‘born’ in the earlier registers. I am sure that this refers to the land on which the chapel was built at Sunnybank. The building, along with the baptismal pond on the fellside is still there, although services were discontinued in the 1940s.

Leonard's ancestry? Well it has not been solved yet, but at least our member knows that her ancestor was strong enough in his convictions to break away from the established church. His independence does mean that his family historian descendant is presented with a lot of problems as a result, but I hope this article helps to show that even when records are ‘lost’, reading between the lines of what is left can fill some of the gaps.

Notes and references
  1. Hawkshead Parish Registers, Cumbria Archives, Kendal, WPR 83. 
  2. Torver Parish Registers, Cumbria Archives, Kendal, WPR 52. 
  3. Coniston Parish Registers, Cumbria Archives, Kendal, WPR 51. 
  4. Burgess, J (1984). The Lake Counties and Christianity: the religious history of Cumbria, Carlisle, p.108. 
  5. 7 & 8 William III (1695) Taxation on births marriages and deaths. 
  6. Edward Walker (1688-1707), Andrew Naughley (1707-1709), John Stoup (1709-1716), Thomas Poole (1716-1718) and John Hall (1718-1734). From: Elwood, T. (1888) Leaves from the annals of a mountain parish in Lakeland: a sketch of the history of the church and benefice of Torver, Ulverston, Atkinson. 
  7. Tottlebank Chapel Register, The National Archives RG 4/3587. Only part of the register was handed in as some entries were mixed with ‘Chapel Matters’. 
  8. Lancashire Archives, QDV 9/1-245. 
  9. Torver Parish Records Archives, Kendal, WPR 52. 
  10. Torver Parish Records, quoted in Dawson, J. (1985) Torver: the story of a Lakeland community, Chichester, Phillimore, p.47. 
  11. As found in the records of the established church the expression ‘Anabaptist’ was used loosely as a derogatory term for any form of religious dissenter, but particularly for Quakers and Baptists. 
  12. Torver Manorial Records: Cumbria Archives, Barrow, BDX 167/172.