Appleton is a very familiar name in Benfleet. Most people will know of the senior school named after the family, whose coat of arms, or something closely approximating to it, forms part of the uniform. Even so, we know surprisingly little about them, although they dominated this corner of south-east Essex for nearly two centuries before dying out in the male line in 1708.
The Appletons of South Benfleet originally came from Dartford, in Kent. We know that Roger Appleton of Dartford (1430-1491) was a Kent J.P., a customs official at Sandwich and M.P. for Dover in 1478. Sometime during the early sixteenth century the Dartford family became landowners in Benfleet. Thomas Appleton acquired the manors of South Benfleet and Jarvis Hall when he married Joyce Tyrrell. These manors were more substantial than one might think. They took in the whole of Benfleet and Canvey Island as well as Dawes Heath and woods in Thundersley and Hadleigh. In all they came to nearly 10,000 acres (9,660 acres to be precise). At first the family continued to be based at Dartford, but Roger Appleton (d.1558) lived in Benfleet so often that he became an Essex magistrate. He also represented the Essex constituency of Maldon in the Parliament of 1558. One of the reasons Roger moved to Benfleet was perhaps because he owned a 40-ton ship, the Mary of Benfleet, which he used to export farm produce. His house, Jarvis Hall, is still standing on the ridge, then known as North-Mayes or Jarvis Hill, which connects Thundersley to South Benfleet.
Perhaps the most interesting of the early South Benfleet Appletons is Roger’s grandson, Sir Roger Appleton, who was described in 1612 as being of ‘Benflete on the Hill’. Sir Roger was probably born in the early 1570s, as he entered St John’s College, Cambridge in 1583 and it would then have been normal for boys to be admitted to university at the age of 13 or 14. He became head of the family in November 1606, but he died just six years later in January 1613, when he was probably in his early forties. Despite his comparatively brief life, Sir Roger is memorable because he achieved something rather significant: in June 1611 he purchased a baronetcy from the crown, one of the first men to do so.
Baronetcies were created in May 1611 in order to provide the seriously indebted King, James I, with badly needed funds. This new status was higher than ordinary knighthood but lower than that of a barony (the lowest rung of the nobility). Unlike ordinary knighthood, it was also capable of being inherited. It could be bought by any man who enjoyed a annual income of £1,000 from land (not trade) and who could prove that his paternal grandfather was a gentleman. The purchase price was set at £1,095 and was payable in three annual instalments of £365, the equivalent of £1 a day for three years. This may not seem like very much, but it was actually a colossal sum considering that in the early seventeenth century the average labourer earned just £9 or £10 a year.
Sir Roger’s purchase of a baronetcy is interesting because it demonstrates that he was probably very wealthy. It also tells us that he felt the need to improve his local standing. There was probably a very good reason for this, as unlike his father Henry Appleton (d.1606) and his paternal grandfather Roger Appleton (d.1559), Sir Roger was never allowed to serve as a magistrate, despite being related by marriage to Essex’s lord lieutenant, Robert Radcliffe, 5th Earl of Sussex. He also seems not to have played any role in the local militia (then known as the trained bands). In fact, the only local office he ever held was that of sheriff between November 1608 and November 1609 (the appointment usually being for just one year). The most likely reason why Sir Roger played such a limited role in local government is that from about 1610 the crown considered his religious sympathies to be suspect. By law everyone was obliged to attend Protestant services. Failure to do so was an offence known as recusancy, which was punishable by fines and, in some cases, imprisonment. In about 1610 Sir Roger’s name appears on a government list of Catholic recusants who were paying fines to the Exchequer. In 1615, two years after Sir Roger’s death, his widow Anne was accused of recusancy at the Essex assizes.
Sir Roger Appleton was by no means the only wealthy Catholic gentleman who bought a baronetcy in 1611. Many other purchasers were either committed Catholics or were well-connected to Catholic families. Most were probably trying to demonstrate their loyalty to the crown, a matter of some importance in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. They may also have hoped that by buying an expensive honour the government would cut them some slack. Whether Sir Roger was motivated by such considerations is unknown. However, by buying a baronetcy, he certainly promoted his family to a higher social standing than most of his gentry neighbours. He may also have hoped to compensate for the disgrace of being excluded from the local bench of magistrates. Then, as later, honour was all-important to the landed gentry.
Probably the best known member of the Appleton family is the second baronet, Sir Henry Appleton (c.1598-1648), a notable Royalist, who raised a small force from Rochford Hundred during the short-lived second Civil War in 1648. As Robert Hallmann has observed in his ‘South Benfleet, A History’, Appleton and his men ‘were lucky to escape with their lives when they were besieged in Colchester’. Two-thirds of Appleton’s lands were subsequently sequestrated (confiscated) by Parliament; Appleton himself died a few months later.
The male line, and with it the baronetcy, died out in 1708, with the death of the last Sir Henry Appleton, who expired without issue, as did his two older brothers, William and John. Lady Dorothy and Sir Henry Appleton placed this tragic inscription to their sons on their monument in the chancel floor of St. Mary’s Church, South Benfleet:
‘Two Blooming Youths, Can you Forebeare a Groane
Inclosed, ly Beneath this Marble Stone!’