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William Chapple was born in Witheridge on 14 January 1718, and was baptised four days later in the church at Witheridge. His parents, William Chapple and Mary Sowden, had been married in the same church on 5 February 1717. The name Sowden (or Souden) appears in the parish registers as far back as 1595. The Chapples (or Chaples)), were more recent arrivals, the first mention of them being on 3 August 1657, when Edward Chapple came to Witheridge, married Ann Hopkins, and stayed. It seems very likely that he was Williams grandfather.

At the time of William's birth, the Chapples were tenants of a small farm, which William later referred to as "Stukleys Lower West Yeo, alias New House". In 1840, it was called Stuckleys and had 47 acres of meadow and arable land plus a house and buildings. The foundations of these can still be seen in the field immediately south of the southern boundary of West Yeo. Across the Little Dart valley with Witheridge on its ridge, is the three tier church tower. The Chapple's would have been able to see a two tier tower with a wooden spire, weather vane, and cross, as their son would remember in the sketch he did for the Milles enquiry.

Williams father was Parish Clerk, but he fell on hard times and the family was reduced to poverty. In spite of this, he made every effort to teach his son all he could, and as he could not pay for an education. After his fathers death, William paid tribute to him in verse, including these lines:

"His labouring hand procured his daily bread,

His pious care his children taught and fed,

Earnest to guide their step's by virtue's rules,

Plain sense supplied the learning of the schools".

William was quick to learn and at a young age, he was appointed secretary to the Vicar of Witheridge, John Shebbeare. He was determined to improve his knowledge, so when he was sent to Exeter on the vicar's business, he spent his savings on a Latin grammar book, a dictionary, and other books. His dictionary served him well, for he began to contribute riddles and word puzzles to a publication called The Lady's Diary. These attracted the attention of Revd Bligh, the Silverton parson, and they became acquainted. Before long Mr Bligh recommended him to his wife's uncle, an Exeter surveyor named John Richards, who in 1738 took him on as his clerk. This was an important step, for John Richards was about to play a prominent part in the building of the Devon and Exeter Hospital in Southernhay, Exeter, and William's life was to change.

In 1741 Dr Alured Clark, Dean of Exeter, decided to found a public hospital in the city. Subscribers were sought and found; they included Sir William Courtenay, who would come to play an important part in William's career. On 23 July 1741, Dean Clarke called an inaugural meeting to discuss trustees, a site, specification, management and finance. A site in Southernhay was provided, and, on the morning of 27 August 1741, plans for the new hospital were approved and the same afternoon the foundation stone was laid.

In his book "A History of the Exeter Hospitals", P M G. Russell tells us that Mr John Richards, a prominent builder and subscriber, proposed plans for the hospital and offered the services of a clerk of the Works without fee. His generous offer was accepted and Russell adds:

"A further word should be said about the architect of the hospital, John Richards. He was born in the remote village of Mariansleigh in North Devon and educated at a grammar school. He then became apprenticed to a joiner, Abraham Voysey, in the parish of St Thomas near Exeter, whose widow he later married. As Professor Hoskins points out, builders designed all the Georgian buildings up to this date, and the hospital was no exception. It is an astonishing thought that the original hospital with its handsome frontage and elegant boardroom was a creation of a builder with no formal training in architecture, and working against time because of the atmosphere of enthusiasm and urgency surrounding the project."

The hospital was completed 16 months after work was started, and was opened on 1 January 1743.

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John Richards delegated the task of Clerk of the Works to William Chapple, who about that time married John's niece. In the building accounts for the 1741-43, there are a number of references to 'William Chapple the clerk' and 'the clerk Chapple'. Various sums of money are mentioned: On 26 October 1742 'Mr Richards and Chapple' were reimbursed to the tune of £193.16s.

The hospital trustees were so satisfied with his work that they appointed him secretary to the hospital, a post he held for 38 years. We have no record of the date of his appointment, but on 1 September 1748 records reveal him as 'the Secretary', receiving his half years wages of £5. There are a few mentions of him in J D Harris History of Devon and Exeter Hospital. For example, in October 1771 'Mr William Chapple was voted £2.12s.6d for compiling the Register of Presidents and Vice-Presidents and others from 1741 to 1772'. In April 1775, 'The General Court of Governors added £10 to the secretary's salary, making £25 a year.' Near the end of his life, he became an honorary governor.

In 1755, his father died and William put up a tablet in Witheridge church with 16 lines of verse on it in tribute to him. Four lines have already been quoted, and a further six lines now follow:

"His steady honesty still kept its ground,

Unshaken, whether fortune smil'd or frown'd

Lover of peace, sincere, religious, just,

Guiltless of fraud and faithful to his trust.

This much his son with modesty may say;

This tribute to a father's memory pay."

Sir William Courtenay Bart had been associated with the hospital from the start and was, for the year 1743, chairman of the court of governors. He would therefore have been aware of William Chapple's abilities, and so it is perhaps not surprising that, at some date after William became hospital secretary he was appointed to undertake the stewardship of the Courtenay's Devon estates. He is said to have filled this post for twenty years with 'an integrity equal to his abilities'. His responsibilities were considerable. At that time the Courtenay estates were spread throughout Devon. It is unclear exactly when William took up these duties, but as the top part of a servants list shows, he was in the post by 1749.

When the First Viscount Courtenay died on 16 May 1762, his heir was a minor, and the Court of Chancery and his late father's executors had a major task to perform. William Chapple was appointed receiver by the court, and agent by the executors. Separate accounts had to be kept until July 1764, when the Court of Chancery ordered that the accounts be amalgamated. William's duties in this matter continued until the summer of 1767, when the accounts were approved and handed over to the Second Viscount on his coming of age. The final totals of these accounts show that £74,008.10s.2d had been received, and £70,510.3.9d had been paid out. The estate still owed £4,123.17s.8d and was owed by 'arrears from the Irish Tenants' £12,862.3s.10d. William had a clerk to help him, Charles Scott, but it is worth remembering that in these years (1762-1767) this work was performed in addition to his work for the Devon properties. William was involved from time to time in the personal supervision of building work. In the spring of 1761, he was reimbursed for the money he had to spend while staying at Mary Bussell's house at Starcross 'during the erection of the Quay and other buildings.'

It is clear from an account book entry of 6 December 1761 that Williams annual salary was £26.5s, but in addition to this a range of expenses incurred by him were met, as the following example from 31 December 1761 shows. Extra expenses at the time of Lady Frances Courtenay's death were claimed by William and met: "preparations for the Funeral obliging me to be the greatest part of the time in Exeter and to have people almost continually at my house to consult and transact Business relating thereto." The 'extra' included:" Meat, Drinke, Firing and Candle expended according to the last Account my Wife and I can make from our Memorandum therefore over and above our common expenses."

He set the figure at £2.12s.6d, which he said was 'much less than it would be had the necessary transactions in Town on this occasion been at any Public House'.

Eventually serious illness forced his resignation, but the Courtenay family thought highly enough of him to settle on him: "a handsome Annuity with Survivorship to his wife and daughter, as a Recompense for his Fidelity and Attention, and a Mark of Esteem for so long and faithful Service".

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In addition to his hospital work and activities for the Courtenay family, William took a great interest in antiquarian matters, as well as Hebrew, Latin and other languages. In 1746, he published his Exmoor Vocabulary under the name 'Devoniensis' in The Gentleman's Magazine. In 1750's, he completed the Witheridge return in the Milles Inquiry, probably because the vicar of Witheridge had failed to do so. It gives a useful picture of the parish, although he had been away from it for many years and his knowledge was incomplete.

The first history of Devon to appear in print was by Tristram Risdon, whose Chorographical description or survey of the County of Devon, compiled between 1605 and 1630, appeared in a much altered version in 1714 when the London publisher Edmund Curll issued a selection of passages. John Prince prevailed upon Curll to produce a complete version and this he did by printing a second volume entitled A Continuation of the Survey of Devonshire, made up of all the passages omitted in the first. Nevertheless there must have been a demand for a history of Devon as even this slipshod edition was reissued once by Curll in 1723 and twice by Mere in 1725 and 1733.

In 1772 William Chapple of Exeter attempted to resolve the situation by proposing to publish by subscription "a correct edition of Risdon's Survey of Devon". The list of subscribers to this work included the Vicar, the Revd Thomas Melhuish, Henry Stevens, William Spry, John Chapple and John Partridge, all of Witheridge.

In 1778, the Exeter Flying Post carried an advertisement for an octavo volume with six engraved plates, costing 4s, entitled Sciatherica Antiqua Restaurata by 'William Chapple of Exeter'. This contained the results of his study of a cromlech on Shilstone Farm near Drewsteignton, Dartmoor. His text covered aspects such as possible 'Astronomic Construction', links with 'the Druids, the Romanized Britons and 'Pagan Saxona', with Topographical, Etymological and other observations. The incomplete work was published in Exeter in 1785 with the title 'A Review of part of Risdon's Survey of Devon'. It was not until 1811 that a complete edition of Risdon's work was published by Rees in Plymouth.

Chapple soon realised that extensive revision was going to be needed, and was to die in 1781 after a long and painful illness before the work was completed.

After a long and painful illness William Chapple died at Exeter on 1 September 1781.

In its next issue the Exeter Flying Post published this obituary:

"On Saturday last died at Exeter after a long illness in the 63rd year of his age, Mr Wm Chapple, who for upwards of 40 years had been Secretary to the Devon and Exeter Hospital, and from its foundation had discharged the duties of his office with that regularity and precision which in great measure contributed to the acknowledged excellence of its present establishment, to which institutions therefore he may be considered as having been a most considerable benefactor, and in which light he was considered by the Governors, who lately unanimously voted him an honorary Governor and standing committee-man, as the most honourable mark of their esteem for his long and faithful services and unwearied assiduity. He possessed the strongest natural abilities which, by the most unremitted attention from his youth enabled him to overcome all obstacles in the attainment of that depth of knowledge in mathematics, chronology, antiquity, history and the dead languages, as well as learning in general, in which he had few equals, so that his death may be esteemed a public and irretrievable loss. His knowledge in the sacred text, and criticism on the most ancient versions of it, established his faith on the most solid basis, and he died, as he had always professed and lived a sincere and pious Christian".

In a late addition to his will, signed and dated on 22nd July 1781, he left to Witheridge Church a prayer book that had previously belonged to the Royal Chapel at Windsor. The book had passed to Dr Keppel, Bishop of Exeter, from whose executors he had purchased it. It was to be "some token of my regard for the place where I drew my first breath". It is sad to record that a later Vicar gave the prayer book away to one of his churchwardens, and that there is now no trace of William Chapple's memorial to his father.

On 15th November the Exeter Flying Post printed a notice of the sale of more than 300 volumes of the library "of the late Mr William Chapple". As a lad he had spent his savings on books and his love of books had lasted him a lifetime.

William Chapple is commemorated in Witheridge today by a road named after him. I hope that these notes will help Witheridge to remember him, not only for his inclusion in the Dictionary of National Biography, but also for being a man who, with the help of his father and by his own efforts, made his mark in Devon but did not forget the place where he was born.

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