By Gordon Smith*
The following article is extracted (word for word) from Gordon Smith’s book which was first published in 1984 – by kind permission of the author.
Picture Gallery at end of article ↓
An Account of the Proposed Siting of a Coal Mine between Cusworth and Sprotbrough.
I have often heard it mentioned that, during the early part of [the 20th century], a social rift was created between the residents of Cusworth and Sprotbrough. Here we have two villages within the same parish but, in the early 1900s, they were owned and controlled by individual landlords of each country estate. These being the families of Bewicke-Copley of Sprotbrough Hall and Battie-Wrightson of Cusworth.
Now, having mentioned a rift, perhaps I had better explain more fully about what exactly took place and what prompted me to verse such facts. It was upon hearing about the recently published works concerning the life of the late William Mortlock of Sprotbrough that brought to mind an interesting story. William Mortlock, I hasten to add, was the leading authority of any history of Sprotbrough. He was an expert engraver, my guide and mentor during the early days of my local history research in the 1960s, and indeed a gentleman in every proper meaning of the word. He often spoke to me about an altercation which had taken place between the landlords of Cusworth and Sprotbrough and said it was all to do with the siting of a coal mine. Evidently it was said that Major Bewicke-Copley of Sprotbrough Hall wanted to sink a shaft for the mining of coal on the boundary of his land which overlooked the magnificent hill upon which stands Cusworth Hall. Naturally enough, William Henry Battie-Wrightson strongly opposed this. Until recently, to gain any further knowledge or recorded facts of the exact incidents of that time has been impossible, and stories of what I have just said were merely passed from one person to another on the basis of hearsay. This can be a dangerous practice for exacting historians because it is well known that such verbal accounts, particularly if conveyed by an excited local populace, can often become exaggerated and uncontrollably distorted. Well, I am pleased to say that proper evidence is now available. During a sorting-out period of the Battie-Wrightson family estate papers, I came across a bundle of notes, plans, and handwritten letters between William Henry Battie-Wrightson and Major Bewicke-Copley’s steward on the land exchange and coal problem at Cusworth and Sprotbrough. These are a fascinating account of how two respectable and notable landlords disagreed about selling to each other land on the boundaries of their estates in order to make each boundary more regular in its appearance and, no doubt, much better for individual estate control and management. These negotiations first became strained when William Henry Battie-Wrightson realised that Major Bewicke-Copley had begun terms of agreement with a private coal mining company to sink a shaft in the Anchorage Lane and Newton Farm area’s of Sprotbrough. These sites were a long way from the picturesque views from the windows of sprotbrough Hall, but directly in line with the south-facing hilltop vistas of Cusworth Hall.
Before I go into more depths, one point to bear in mind in this account is that Mr. Battie-Wrightson and Major Bewicke-Copley disagreed on negotiations which were initially agreed by the predecessors of both parties. My meaning to this is that William Henry Battie-Wrightson, succeeded to the Cusworth estate on the death of his uncle, Richard Heber Wrightson in 1891. Previous to this, it is apparent that Richard Heber Wrightson had entered into favourable negotiations with Sir Charles Watson Copley about an exchange of lands. After the death of Richard Heber Wrightson, his nephew, William Henry Battie-Wrightson attempted to revive such negotiations with Major Bewicke-Copley who had succeeded to the Sprotbrough estate at the death of Sir Charles Watson Copley. By the time these negotiations had reopened a contemporary interest in the profits of coal had occurred and the result had an adverse effect so far as land deals were concerned. The irony of it all is that no deal between the Battie-Wrightson and Bewicke-Copley families took place nor did the private capitalisation of a coal mine materialise!
It would appear that the Bewicke-Copley’s did, in fact, backtrack on the gentleman’s agreement in favour of personal financial gain. Mr. Battie-Wrightson made it clear that his financial interest in the value of mineral rights involved in the issue was of no consequence to him whatsoever. The eventual result, or proof in time with regards the survival of the two estates, is the present existence of Cusworth Hall, and the sudden disappearance of Sprotbrough Hall in 1926.
Before matters came to an argumentative head, William Henry Battie-Wrightson was firstly notified that a fresh valuation was to be made. In a letter dated 26th August, 1896, Mr. Battie-Wrightson write:-
- “I am surprised that a fresh valuation of the Copley fields should be thought necessary, particularly as the minerals are of no object to us. It is no use objecting to their valuer, but I wish they would not employ such a lying scoundrel as Banks. He told nothing but lies when South Yorkshire Junction Railway Bill was before the House of Lords, and concluded by saying that ‘Cusworth was not a residential property at all in his opinion’.”
Even at this early stage Mr. Battie-Wrightson seemed prepared to be amiable about the situation though perhaps a little suspicious because, in the same letter he said:-
- “Major Copley is due at Sprotbrough on Sunday next and I have sent a haunch of venison to greet him. Mrs. Copley seems disposed to be friendly just now.”
At this time Mr. Battie-Wrightson was making arrangements with Messrs. Coutts & Co., his London bankers, to release securities in his account for the conveyance deal.
The new valuation which was ordered by Major Bewicke-Copley really did create the famous rift. The final communication from Mr. Battie-Wrightson to Captain Savile, Major Copley’s Steward, really sums it all up concisely, and here is a copy in its entirety.
- 12th February, 1897. Cusworth Park Doncaster.
- Dear Sir,
- I certainly do wish Major and Mrs. Copley to know that they have treated me in a very unneighbourly manner with regard to the land transaction of last October. I presume that they are thoroughly aware of the previous transactions in my Uncle’s time – but I should like to put the case before them from my point of view. In 1887 my Uncle was anxious to purchase, and Sir Charles and Lady Copley were willing to sell, about 70 acres of land adjoining Cusworth. The price was eventually fixed at £5000, and a contract entered into for the sale but, on Sir Charles Copley’s death in March ’88, the Copley family repudiated the contract! Notwithstanding that, Sir Charles had, before going abroad, signed an authority for Messrs. Cole and Jackson to at for him in the matter in his absence. Shortly afterwards, Lady Copley leased the coal on the Sprotbrough estate, and it would have been only neighbourly if restrictions had been made to prevent a shaft being sunk within a reasonable distance of the Cusworth windows, and an arrangements made with us to act in a similar manner on the Warmsworth side. Finding the danger that Cusworth was in, owing to this oversight, of chimneys arising on the Newton or Anchorage Farms, I asked to be allowed to re-open the negotiations of purchasing the lands in the previous contract, for which my trustees were prepared to pay more than the £5000 originally agreed upon. After a long delay, I received, through Messrs. Cole and Jackson, a letter dictated by Major Copley, which really amounted to an impertinence – fixing £12,000 for the same land that his predecessor had agreed to sell for £5000, coupled with a rider from Messrs. Cole “that the sale must be subject to a clause in the mining lease, giving the lessees surface rights over any of these lands and no compensation until the end of their lease.” In addition to this, Major Copley presumed to dictate to me that, not content with asking this exorbitant price for the land, I am to be obliged to sell any fields that he and Mrs. Copley may select on the Warmsworth Ings at agricultural value! He must be well aware that no trustees in the world would consent to such an arrangement. Consequently the offer amounted to nothing and Cusworth is to be left to its fate. I have now planted scores of trees along my boundary and shall make no further attempt to extend it. I only regret that this matter, begun in perfect good faith on my part, should have been met in what I consider as a thoroughly unneighbourly spirit. – Yours Faithfully, W. H. B-Wrightson.
The “unneighbourly” altercation became so well-known, that it even caused embarrassment within the local country house circle. Bearing in mind that William Henry Battie-Wrightson was a Justice of the Peace for the West Riding of Yorkshire and later served as High Sheriff of the County, many landowners did their best to attempt a reconciliation of the affair. One in particular was George Bryan Cooke-Yarborough of Campsmount near Askern. Mostly, during the year 1898, such correspondence was prominent. In one letter, dated 3rd November, 1898, Mr Battie-Wrightson writes:-
- Dear Yarborough,
- I think that it is extremely kind of you to try and make peace between me and Major Copley. I should be very glad to make friends if he would only show some disposition to shield Cusworth from the disastrous effects of the Sprotbrough Coal Lease – but he won’t even say that he is sorry for the position we are put in through it (viz, the risk of being completely smoked out). My only object in applying to renew the negotiations of 1888, was to be able to plant out the coming pit. The land itself was otherwise of no object to me, and I certainly was not to have been run up in the way I was, considering what had gone before. Major Copley is quite wrongly informed if he still thinks that the negotiations of 1888 went off through disagreements as to price. Lady Copley made the first overture through Fisher in 1888 – the Contract was completed and broken by the family in the plea of Sir Charles’ death. In ’89 she applied again to my Uncle to re-open it. He then offered £5000 instead of the contract sum (this time without minerals) and they asked £600 more when he declined to give. Now they ask £12000 and impose conditions. Would it be too much to ask you to look through the two (or rather three) transactions, which I am sending you in another cover? They will explain the matter far better than I can and if you think it advisable, Major Copley is most welcome to see them. The completed Contract of 1888 is, I believe, in the Solicitor’s Office in London, but I am assured all the red ink alterations were mutually arranged. I am afraid I am trespassing very much on your very good nature – but your opinion on the subject will be most valuable. – Believe me yours very truly, W. H. B-Wrightson.”
William Henry Battie-Wrightson of Cusworth Park was the son of the Reverend Charles Edward Thomas, Rector of Warmsworth and later Hemsworth. William was born at Warmsworth in 1855 by the surname of Thomas. In 1884 he married Lady Isabella Georgiana Catherine Cecil, who was the eldest daughter of the Third Marquis of Exeter. Educated at Eton, he qualified as a Barrister and became a Justice of the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant for the West Riding of Yorkshire and High Sheriff in 1901, though he had previously served as Captain in the Third Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment. Upon the death of his uncle, Richard Heber Wrightson in 1891, William Henry Thomas inherited the lands and vast fortune of the Cusworth Estate on condition that he assumed the surname “Battie-Wrightson”. In January 1903, William Henry Battie-Wrightson became ill and died during the April of that year.
It would appear that even as far back as 1894, Mr. Battie-Wrightson was inclined to question anything that his neighbour lay before him or indeed anything at all which he could regard as Sprotbrough orientated. It was all looked upon with extreme caution. An example appears in letters requesting Mr. Battie-Wrightson to contribute £10 a year towards the upkeep of the Sprotbrough schools.
In the early 1900s. local villages, because of their sparse juvenile population, often grouped together to provide one educational establishment in an agreed village. In the case of the Cusworth children, they were driven daily by horse and carriage across parkland and along country roads to Sprotbrough village to receive their teachings. Education was provided by subscription and support from the local landowners. Here we have a request that the contribution from the Cusworth Squire should be increased. Mr. Battie-Wrightson’s hand-written notes and copy letter show that he did continue to contribute for the sake of his tenants’ children. On 5th December, 1894, he wrote and said:-
- Dear Sir, I shall be glad to subscribe £10 a year to the Sprotbrough Schools but I think that considering only four children from Cusworth attend the school I think I could not be expected to do more.
However, his original draft had a somewhat naughty tone, and should he have gone ahead and sent that, then Major Copley’s Steward would have received quite a different text in communication to be read on the lines of:-
- “I think the Sprotbrough Schools must be managed in a very extravagant manner…….”.
To come back to the land negotiations, the result of all this “unneighbourly activity” was negative. This incident took place some [119 years ago] and a coal mine did not appear between Cusworth and Sprotbrough. William Battie-Wrightson did, however, go ahead and plant his scores of trees.
So why did the company who leased the coal mineral rights from the Copley family not go ahead and sink a shaft? Could it have been the pressure of local opposition from the Battie-Wrightson family which meant that they could not extend their mining northwards under the Cusworth Estate? Or, to be more feasible, was it because it was not practical, owing to the low-lying area of Anchorage Lane and Newton farms which, being in close proximity to the River Don, were liable to flooding? Consequently it may have been considered a risky venture and not economically viable in its geological siting. Had Major Copley’s plans gone ahead then try to imagine what drastic effects would have taken place to the landscape. The barn which is now St. Edmunds Church Hall in Anchorage Lane would have been demolished, and all the fields between there and the Gamekeeper’s Cottage by the Lower Pond at Cusworth would have been the colliery site. Huge brick buildings, winding gear and chimneys would indeed have been the view from Cusworth Hall. To the east, the land along Cusworth Lane to the Greyhound Stadium (now Newlands Drive) was owned by the Sprotbrough Estate. Because it is mainly flat it would have provided an ideal tipping site being in close proximity to the colliery. The approach from Sprotbrough to Cusworth would not be as we know and enjoy it today. What a dirty trick it would have been to sink a colliery next to someone else’s house when the proposer’s house was miles away. Without any consultation or warning, it certainly was an “unneighbourly” scheme. Although Major Copley had become the target for Mr. Battie-Wrightson over the land transactions, there are undertones that his widowed mother, Lady Copley, was much involved in her dealings with leasing the Sprotbrough Estate lands. One interesting point that does come to light was that William Henry Battie-Wrightson wrote personally to Major Bewicke-Copley’s Steward and to others quite openly about issues and aspects in relation to this matter. There is not a scrap of personally written correspondence directly from Major Bewicke-Copley to Mr. Battie-Wrightson to commit his views or convictions to paper. All his communication was done via his Steward, Captain Savile. However, to introduce an element if fairness, this may have had something to do with the status and rank situation that existed at that time. Mr. Battie-Wrightson was a retired Captain whereas Bewicke-Copley was a serving Major. On the other hand Mr. Battie-Wrightson may have offered more time and interest to his estate affairs and preferred to deal with such matters personally. He was certainly precise in his method of conveying facts but this probably was a reflection of his profession as a qualified Barrister.
On 28th April, 1903, at Cusworth, William Henry Battie-Wrightson passed away at the early age of 48, having been ill for a few weeks previous following a cerebral haemorrhage. At his funeral, all the local country landowners were present, but Major Copley (who by that time had obtained the rank of Colonel) did not attend. Again, he was personally represented, and on this occasion it was a “Mr. T. East.”
The funeral was a flamboyant affair, at least as funerals go, and must have been one of the last sombre grand occasions that were so commonly attributed to, and indeed expected by, the wealthy aristocracy and gentry of the late Victorian era. It was a sad but memorably enormous ceremony and fully recorded by the local press who gave in detail the full list of guests – or mourners. The coffin was “a very handsome one of Wainscote Oak, with solid brass mountings, the body enclosed in a patent air-tight metallic shell”. The open space in the Old Warmsworth cemetery, into which the coffin was lowered, was lined with moss, lilly’s of the valley, arums, tulips, iris. lilac, and narcissi.
In 1909, Harrods of London were commissioned to present an extravagant celebration which took place in August of that year, at Cusworth Park. This was arranged by Lady Isabella for the 21st birthday of her only son, Robert Cecil. Again, Cusworth Hall and grounds were full of local landowners and high ranking members of the aristocracy, including Lady Isabella’s nephew who was, by that time, the Fifth Marquis of Exeter. Colonel and Mrs. Bewicke-Copley acknowledged the invitation, but wrote to say that they could not attend because they had “arranged to go to York Races”.
The only surviving member of the Battie-Wrightson family is Mrs. M. L. Pearse who is the daughter of William Henry and Lady Isabella (now deceased). Mrs Pearse was born at Warmsworth Hall in 1890 and resides in London although she still retains property at Cusworth. Her memory is perfect and she recalls the present subject quite well. When asked about the coal mine issue at Cusworth between her father and Major Bewicke-Copley, Mrs. Pearse said:-
- Oh yes, I remember something about that. They were always having rows with the neighbours. I remember my father having quite a row with the Copley’s at Sprotbrough. Mrs. Copley didn’t have many friends. The two rows I remember were with the Copley’s and Halifax of Hickleton. Then there was a row with the Cooke-Yarborough’s. They all loved having rows. Her Ladyship didn’t think much of our neighbours. I kept out of it and used to get on my bicycle and go and visit the Canon at Sprotbrough for long chats. Her Ladyship knew nothing about it. I was always alright with them, but then I wasn’t there all that long anyway. One thing I do remember is that all our neighbours, and us included, were “not at home” at 3 0’clock in the afternoons if anyone called. It was all so boring.”
Mrs. Pearse also said that apart from the possibilities of colliery chimneys there had already been a disturbance to the landscape. This was because of the erection of a large chimney to the Doncaster Workhouse and it had become visible from the Cusworth windows.
The Bewicke-Copley family gave up Sprotbrough in 1925 owing to financial difficulties. These were imposed by death duties and a large amount of money spent in legal fees to establish proof of the titles “Baron Cromwell”. As a result of all this, the Sprotbrough Estate had to be sold, and the Hall became the fate of demolition. The Battie-Wrightson Trustees still hold land in Cusworth to this day and Cusworth Hall stands as though its honour is still intact. I am sure it will remain as such for a long time.
*Gordon Smith was the Steward and Trustee of the old Cusworth Hall estate.