Society Life – The Spencer Stanhope Family

In the second in a series of blogs, Nicola Walker explores a collection of letters and diaries from Barnsley Archives and reveals how the family spent their leisure time in Barnsley and further afield


The Spencer and Spencer Stanhope family lived at Cannon Hall near Barnsley from the mid seventeenth century. A treasure trove of documents related to their lives is housed at Barnsley Archives and Local Studies located in Barnsley Town Hall. The family’s letters and diaries from the eighteenth century are crammed with the events of family and estate life, from management decisions, servant misbehaviour, and litigation suits to shopping requests, travel plans and news from life-long friends.  They record the personal, social connections of the family, who they interacted with and the ebb and flow of the annual calendar of events. . These documents highlight  the importance of sociability, both at Cannon Hall and elsewhere, for upholding the family’s social networks and political and business allegiances.

A postcard of Cannon Hall (North Side)

By the late seventeenth until early eighteenth century the Spencer family were well established as leading figures in the region’s iron trade. Whilst this industry was economically turbulent, they were comfortably situated within the local gentry and could afford ample leisure time, socialising and pursuing polite entertainments in London, spa towns, and around their country estate. For John Spencer (1719-1775),  a lawyer by training and Walter Spencer Stanhope (John’s nephew and heir)  a Member of Parliament, their year was governed not only by the seasonal demands of a country estate but by an annual cycle of events that took them to London for the season from October/November to May, the period in which parliament was in session, before returning to Cannon Hall for the summer, the season of the hunt.

Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens by Charles Grignion the younger

As young men both John and Walter frequently attended all manner of popular entertainments in the capital including the opera, gambling houses, bagnio’s (Turkish bath houses),  masquerade’s and walks in one of the many parks, including the exciting and often notorious Vauxhall and Ranelagh pleasure gardens.  John also frequently socialised in his rented chambers &  those of his friends, drinking tea or playing cards and chess. On occasion, John’s frivolous behaviour was a cause for concern for his father. After John had recovered from a bout of illness in 1739 his father, William, wrote that he was glad he was feeling better but that ‘too much Indulgence in Bed in a morning, and frequent visiting the Playhouse at night’ was not the way to maintain good health and it was also costing him far too much money! In January 1765 John took Walter, then aged 14, to visit London. On the journey down they stopped at Cambridge and saw the sights including the ‘publick Library, Trinity College & Chappel’. In London they attended plays and visited Westminster Hall, ‘drank chocolat’ and viewed a friend’s collection of ‘curiosities’. Compared to rural Yorkshire and the provincial northern towns London was a riot of attractions and interest.

Walter Spencer Stanhope’s diary June 1786, note his visit to the opera, Ranelagh and Kensington Gardens. Ref SpSt 60635/7]

Club and tavern culture was an integral part of male friendships. Living in the city, meeting to eat and drink with others, provided companionship but also acted as a way of asserting identity and status through association with other lone men. Throughout his life John Spencer rarely ever ate alone, instead preferring to meet other bachelors or men living alone in London at the chop house, coffee house or most commonly, the tavern. Walter was a frequent attendee at many of London’s clubs and societies including the Society of Dilettanti (an exclusive club for men who had been on the Grand Tour) and paid subscriptions to Almack’s and Brookes club, and other  private gambling houses, the majority of which were in the homes of and run by women, including the wives of politicians. In each location they would meet with different groups of men. The members of these groups rarely overlapped and consisted of other men from Yorkshire, men they went to school with,  did business with and extended kin.  John Spencer met with one group of men so regularly in The Mitre tavern he nicknamed them ‘the usual lot’ as short hand in his daily diary entries. Other groups were named after their profession, such as the ‘Northern Circuiteers’, a group of lawyers who worked the courts of northern England and with whom John socialised with when they were in London. The men’s social networks had an undeniable influence on their lives, from their architectural decisions, sociable habits and careers.

Caricature mocking the Society of Dilettanti. Walter Spencer Stanhope was a member of the society. Horace Walpole famously remarked that, ‘The nominal qualification [of membership] is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk’

Domestic sociability was an opportunity to express wealth and social status through the décor of the home and the hospitality offered to invited, and uninvited guests. In a world where so much depended on reputation, as an individual and family group, the quality of the hospitality offered counted for a lot. When residing at Cannon Hall the family socialised frequently with extended kin and whole families, and women feature more heavily at these occasions.  Contents of the extensive wine cellar at Cannon Hall was consumed and John Spencer’s renowned pack of hounds and horses was frequently called upon. The quality and reputation of the hunt was so important for expressing John Spencer’s social status, masculinity and personal values that his outgoings for specialist seasonal workers overseeing the hunt was almost double that which he spent on all other domestic servants. From their marriage in 1783, Mary Winifred and Walter Spencer Stanhope had guests daily, with groups of as many as twelve visitors enjoying dinner at Cannon Hall. The social spaces of the ground floor of the house and the extensive gardens were all used for socialising. John enjoyed games of cards with friends in the pleasure grounds and Mary Winifred had a tent erected in the summer of 1783, recording in her diary that she ‘sat in the tent playd at card’, and ‘drank tea in the tent’ as visitors called by on their social rounds. 

SpSt 60671 20, Appraisement of the wine in the cellar at Cannon Hall on the death of John Spencer in 1775. Note the 62 dozen bottles of Red Port and 63 dozen bottles of Madeira

Cannon Hall dining room

The annual calendar of events and visits kept people connected and friendships  alive.

The letters and diaries featured in this blogged can be be viewed by visiting Barnsley Archives: https://www.experience-barnsley.com/our-archives

Read more about Cannon Hall and the Spencer Stanhope family in these blogs:

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