Sprotbrough Hall

The following information is taken from an original article from the ‘Country Life’ magazine dated February 11th 1922. I purchased the magazine recently and wanted to share it’s contents with you. Some of the information is paraphrased and some is directly quoted. No infringement of copyright intended.

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Country Homes and Gardens Old and New.

Sprotborough Hall Doncaster – the seat of Brig. Gen. Sir A. Bewicke-Copley K.B.E., C.B.

As it approaches Doncaster the river Don flows between steep wooded banks, on the left side of which, a few miles from the town, stands Sprotborough Hall. Though the present house was built by Sir Godfrey Copley, the 2nd Baronet, between 1685 and 1690, the site has been inhabited ever since the saxon ‘Sprots’ had their home there. From the early 13th century until Tudor times the senior branch of the FitzWilliam family possessed the place, and many of them are now buried in the adjoining church. Sir John FitzWilliam of Sprotborough, who died in 1418 had a cosiderable family, and from the youngest of his six sons, John, who lived at Milton, are descended the present Earls FitzWilliam.

When Sir William FitzWilliam, the descendant of the senior branch of the family died in 1516 he had no direct heirs, and it was eventually decided in the courts that Sprotbrough should go to his aunt, Dorothy FitzWilliam, the wife of Sir William Copley of Batley, near Halifax. Here, therefore, the Copley’s have resided ever since that date. Though failures in the direct line have been frequent, relatives have always been found to succeed, and in one case the heir took the name in lieu of his own. These accidents have had the effect of bringing together a very great number of family portraits of various branches of the family and, among them, portraits of their friends.

Sir Godfrey, the first baronet, procured his title at the Restoration, although he had been a young man and his father dead at the time of the Civil Wars. Another branch of Copley’s, however, those of Wadworth, took a prominent part in that struggle, though upon the Parliamentary side, and, on the death of the second Sir Godfrey, the builder of the house, in 1709, it was to this branch that the property descended; these it is to whom we owe the remarkable series of portraits of Presbyterian worthies, which we will deal with after we have considered the interesting gentleman who built the house.

This second Sir Godfrey differed from his father in most respects. The father, though, as we said, a young man of 20 in 1644, yet took no part for King or Parliament, and seems from his later life to have been one of those mild, easy-going people who adorn rather than advance society. His son on the other hand was a man of considerable energy, as was testified by his behaviour on his fathers death in 1678, when he was High Sheriff. Sir John Reresby, a Yorkshireman, was the first to hear in London of old Sir Godfreys death; for it was the son who wrote to him, with the pressing request that he should speak to his kinsman, Lord Danby, at that time Lord Treasurer, to get the King to continue the son in that office for the remainder of the year. Says Reresby: “I was in the house when I received the letter, but went presently to Wallingford House, and found His Lordship had gone to Wimbledon. I was forced to stay to watch his return until 10 at night, and prevailed on His Lordship to go that night to the King lest others should get before us. He found the King at the end of the Long Gallery at the Duchess of Portsmouth’s, who presently granted our request, and the patents were made out for the son before it was known that the father was dead. For which trouble I had but a very indifferent return, as the sequel will show.”

Had Sir John been better acquainted with the character of Sir Godfrey, he would have been less prompt to assist him, for Sir Godfrey had all the qualities that make for success in this world. Above all he had an inflexible sense of duty, the duty to himself, which he suffered no consideration of gratitude or family connection to affect. The following year, therefore, which succeeded the confusion of the Popish plot, Copley opposed Reresby in the small borough of Aldborough, which was in the Wentworth interest. Mr Wentworth of Wolley was Copley’s brother-in-law, and thus assisted, with the addition of £200 and three lawyers, Sir Godfrey was declared elected, on a recount, by a majority of two votes.

In 1681, Sir Godfrey, M.P., married the heiress of a fellow member, Catherine, a daughter of John Purcell, M.P. for Montgomery, by Eleanor his wife, a Vaughan heiress. Thus Copley amassed a considerable fortune, and in 1685 we find him abroad, in Paris, where his eldest son was born. Sir Godfrey, at this time, conceived a taste for French things, and, returning to Sprotborough on Christmas eve, in time to celebrate his last Christmas in the old house, he forthwith demolished the previous building beyond possibility of discovery, and began the present edifice.

It is improbable that Sir Godfrey was inspired by any particular specimen of French architecture, and the tradition that the house is a copy of a wing at Versailles can not be corroborated by fact. No doubt Versaille brought home to the Yorkshireman’s mind the grandeur of that style, but when he got back to his native county, little more than vague impressions would seem to have remained with him. These, confused in the mind of the Master Mason with English Carolean tradition, combined to produce Sprotborough. We may, perhaps, attribute to Sir Godfrey’s French recollections the segmantal arched windows – which are familiar in the ground floor at Hampton Court and in scores of houses built during and after the last decade of the 17th century, but uncommon before 1690, except in isolated examples such as Honnington Hall. Again, the slightly projecting piers in which the windows are set were as yet uncommon in England, while the 2 turrets in the angles of the wings are of French suggestion. Very uncommon are the 2 large area courts between the wings and the main block. A comparison of the north front and the south front will at once show the purpose of the basement for they are built on different levels (a hill). To the north, owing to the slope of the ground, the surface level has been banked up to the horizontal, so that these courts are necessary to light the basement, which itself is necessitated at the south side to give dignity to the upper storey’s. There, however, the basement does not form, as is usual in houses of this date built on a slope, a ground floor, but is concealed by a wall and hedge, with the result that the house appears to stand higher than in reality it does from this aspect.

Except for those features, the house is mainly Jacobean. The balustered skyline and the miniature entablature formed by 2 little strapwork scrolls and a piece of masonry above the central windows is reminiscent of pre-Inigo Jones taste. The gate piers on either side of the north front, with the pinnacles that surmount them, are again Jacobean. The excellent simple ironwork of these gates are, however, of more patently French feeling, though it is doubtful whether Sir Godfrey brought back the design. Ornamental ironwork was largely under the influence, at this time, of Frenchmen working in England, such as Tijou, and it is, therefore, more probable that the design was procured in England.

The exterior seems originally, from paintings by Knyff and others, to have been Ashlar in whitish-grey limestone, which is still visible in the rusticated quoins and elsewhere. The greater part of the surface however, had been stuccoed over, probably during the 2nd quarter of the 19th century, at which time all the reception rooms on the south side were redecorated in a plain and ugly manner. The general aspect of the house is not materially altered by this complexion, and, from whatever point it is viewed, presents a stately appearance, with the grace which was the one only importation of Sir Godfrey. The great ornamental importance of the heavy barred windows may have damaged, though not ruined, the scheme by the insertion of windows with thin bars. The effect of this substitution made the building look poor and flat. The broad flight of steps on the Pontack’s in Abchurch Street, at that time the only ‘French’ ordinary in London. In a letter written in 1703, Copley thus speaks of Dr. Hooke: “Your old philosopher is gone at last to try experiments with his ancestors. He is dead and had, they say, only a poor girl with him, who, seeing him ill, went to call somebody, but he was quite gone before they came,……. I wonder why he did not choose rather to leave his £12,000 to continue what he had promoted and studied all the days of his life, by that, I mean, mathematical experiments, than to have it go to those he never saw nor cared for. It is rare that virtuosos die rich.

This is a true saying, though Copley himself was among their number, making a very fair collection of second-rate Dutch pictures and first-rate replicas, a great number of engravings, books, and instruments, such as Napier’s Bones – an early species of calculating machine. Unlike Hooke, moreover, he left a sum to the Royal Society to endow mathematical research, which after some years, produced the fund awarded with the Copley Medal, an honour that is still awarded today. Recipients include Michael Faraday and Charles Darwin.

When Sir Godfrey died of a quinsy (a form of tonsillitis) at his house in Red Lion Square off Holborn in 1709, his son was already dead, so that Sprotborough passed to Lionel Copley of Wadworth, the representative of that branch of the family who had adopted the Presbyterian side in the great rebellion. Commissary-General Lionel Copley, his grandfather, had been in times of peace, an ironmaster. His adventures in politics and war were, on the whole, distinctly unsuccessful. Having at different times suffered imprisonment, whether for embezzlement or treason, in 1649 he was finally incarcerated, after Pride’s Purge, when the Presbyterian majority in favour of a settlement with Charles were excluded from the House by the Independant majority. Forty one of the 160 members thus debarred were temporarily committed to an eating house called ‘Hell’. Copley, however, with General Richard Brown, Sir William Waller, Sir John Clotworthy and Sir William Lewis, continued in gaol for 5 years without trial. The portraits of these men were painted by the same artist before being hung in the main hall at Sprotborough. They are fellows with honest, rubicund faces, white lawn collars and black coats. In the top left hand corner of each is a sketch of the White Tower at Windsor, where for a time they were imprisoned, with the years of their languishing beneath. There s a similar series at Weald Hall, Essex, the seat of Mr Christopher Tower, though there, Lewis’s picture is missing, while that of General Massy – who escaped at the beginning of the period – is substituted. In addition to the above “imprisonment series”, are a very similar, but lacking the Windsor device, of Sir Philip Stapleton, who died at Calais in 1647, and the well known Denzel Holles. Finally there is an excellent portrait of Secretary Thurloe, Cromwell’s Chief of Intelligence, a great-grandaughter of whom married a Copley and brought his portrait with her.

The principal Copley achievement in the field was the winning by Colonel Christopher Copley, Lionel’s brother, of the small battle of Sherburn, which, however, was of great value to the Parliament, as resulting in the capture of Charles’ confidential and extremely compromising correspondance with Lord Digby in the matter of raising the Irish Catholics, and the occasion of the impeachment of Stafford in 1640 had been a phrase in a letter to Charles which was constructed to refer to raising an Irish force for service in England. We mention this in passing as there are 2 portraits of Stafford at Sprotborough – one a Van Dyck, showing the statesman caressing a greyhound, similar too, but in better condition, than the one at Wentworth; the other shows him with his secretary, an engraving of it is appended to his “Letters.”

The Lionel Copley who succeeded Sir Godfrey died at Bath without heirs in 1719, and Sprotborough went to a son of one of Sir Godfrey’s daughters – Joseph Moyle of Bake in Cornwall, who adopted the name of Copley and was created a baronet in 1778. His second son, Sir Joseph, was mixed up with the old scandal of the Earl of Abercorn at the end of that century. The Earl had married a Miss Copley for his first wife, whom, since she had poor health, he more or less ignored. On her death, having for some time been in love with his cousin, a Parson’s daughter, Cecil Hamilton, he persuaded Pitt to get the King to confer a title on her that he, the Earl, might marry her without injuring his family pride. The plan was carried out, but they were not happy, and the lady was subsequently divorced and married Sir Joseph Copley, her predecessor’s brother. The daughters resulting from this union were famous and witty young ladies in the years succeeding Waterloo, and, known as “Coppy” and Maria, corresponded with naughty old “Creevy” and were the somewhat unapproachable queens of the Radical Kingdom.

‘Coppy’, the more brilliant of the two, died unmarried in 1887, while Maria married Lord Howick, son of Lord Grey of the Reform Bill. When their brother died in 1883 the house again went to a collateral, Sir Charles Watson, who added the name of Copley to his own, and whose daughter, Lady Copley, is the present representative of the long line which most cursorily we have surveyed.

The family history is remarkably well illustrated by a mass of family portraits, though, by their copiousness many are hard to identify. In the hall, however, we see Sir Godfrey, M.P.,F.R.S., above the boldly moulded chimneypiece, painted by Kneller. This hall and the entrance hall next to it are practically the only rooms in the house that have not been redecorated. At the eastern end of the former there is a charming derivative of the mediæval and Tudor screen, in the form of an arch flanked by two flat topped doorways, which gives on to the stairs. The carving is very restrained and fine, and two diminutive spandrels, containing cupids’ heads occupy the spaces above the arch, while panels with broken corners surmount the two doors. A set of five excellent walnut-veneered chairs (two with arms), are present. They are an early example of the type of chair associated with the name of Chippendale, from which the shaped splat, and flat cross piece at the top, familiar in Queen Anne chairs, have not yet quite disappeared. At the opposite end of the hall hangs the Stafford Van Dyck, above a Nonesuch chest in excellent preservation, with the original tinned hinges and a hanging box inside.

Sir Godfrey is recorded to have paid £150 to Henry Cooke to undertake the internal decorations. All of this artist’s work, which is pointed out as such, are some rough chalk portrait sketches, but it is fairly certain that he painted the ceiling in a little boudoir, marked in the plan. Cooke was employed at Hampton Court on the Cartoons of Raphael, which he is said to have executed in turpentine, a manner of his own. This was probably a kind of ‘thin oil’ painting, and the ceiling in question is not very striking, whether for colour or design, in that the greater part is a blank, with the heads and shoulders alone of the deities who should have filled it showing as though peering over the cornice. If Cooke did any more work, and it is probable that he did, none remains, though it is possible that some of the ceilings now whitewashed were originally covered by his design. The rooms on the south front, as we mentioned above, were redecorated during the early 19th century, at a time, the only time, when the house was let and not in the occupation of the owners.

Sprotbrough Hall and estates were sold off in 161 lots at the Doncaster Guildhall in September 1925. Earlier, a number of tenants had bought their holdings by private treaty. F.S.Gowland of Ripon, bought the hall along with 115 acres of the estate for £9100. By 1926 the hall was being demolished to make way for new development. Reputedly, the hall was knocked inwards using the rubble to fill the cellars up to ground level, the excess stone was used as the foundations for the houses on Brompton Road. So, if you live on the Park Drive estate in Sprotbrough, and your spade hits something hard in the ground, you may just have found a little piece of the Copley’s grand country seat!