In the final in a series of blogs, Nicola Walker explores a collection of letters from Barnsley Archives that were written following the death of John Spencer
On 9th November 1775 John Spencer died. As a lifelong bachelor John produced no legitimate heir so his home, the Cannon Hall estate near Barnsley, was instead passed to his nephew, Walter Stanhope, who also took the name Spencer as a condition of the inheritance. In the weeks following John’s death Walter was kept busy with estate matters, socialising with gentry neighbours and family friends to establish himself as the new heir. As Walter settled into the house he sorted through the contents of John’s writing table and organised John’s correspondence, replying to those he found unanswered with news of his uncle’s death. Amongst the letters he found was a bundle from a woman, Mary, who wrote to John with news of their son, John (or Jack as both father and son were nicknamed). Mary wrote that John ‘begs his Duty to his Papa and wants to see you’. Unaware of John’s mistress or son, Walter set about uncovering his uncle’s secret relationships and sought counsel to help him make his response. The events that followed give us a revealing and valuable glimpse into the private life of John Spencer and generosity of the Spencer Stanhope family.
Walter wrote to Mary with news of the death of ‘your Friend & mine, our common Benefactor’ enclosing a mourning ring – a popular way to both commemorate the deceased as well as to remind the wearer of their own mortality. Walter disclosed that he was ‘surprised’ that there was no provision for Mary or her son in John’s will, but that the discovery of a bond for £2000 worth of stock in trust for her son had settled any uncertainty, vowing that ‘like him [John] you shall always find me ready to assist you & to protect your son’. Walter corresponded with John’s closest friends and executors, John Cholwell and William Smith, both of whom were equally unaware. Nonetheless, Cholwell urged Walter to ‘be their father and protector’ and to ‘consult your own heart in the affair, & do nothing, I am sure, but what is kind & generous’. William Smith disclosed that following a request from John he had ‘stood god father to her son about 7 or 8 years ago’ but was unaware of John’s paternal connection. William was most concerned about Mary’s distress at John’s death and urged Walter to speak with her in ‘the most tender manner’. As the new heir, Walter did take over paternal responsibilities, honouring both his uncle’s wishes but also social expectations that he should provide support and protection to needy kin and dependants.
The relationship between John Smith (1766-1826) and the Spencer Stanhope family continued throughout Smith’s life and a bond of affection is evident in the correspondence between them. Walter’s financial support and connections enabled John to attend Westminster school followed by Cambridge University, later securing a role as a clergyman and junior master at Westminster. Smith’s good reputation at Westminster, alongside Walter’s patronage and the familial connections of Walter’s wife Mary Winifred with influential northern families, including the Collingwood’s and Roddam’s, allowed Smith to secure the position as Vicar of Newcastle upon Tyne. As an illegitimate child, Smith was entirely dependent on Walter for financial support and opportunities. Whilst at Trinity College, Cambridge, John was delayed in replying to a letter from Walter who had taken issue this. Smith replied to Walter pleading, ‘it is impossible for me to explain what motive excited this fatality in my conduct, as it was not the mere advancement in the future stages of my life, but even my present existence which depended on a continuance of your favour.’ John’s words express his fear over the risk of losing Walter’s favour and support and the implications that would have across his life course.
The relationship between John Smith and the Spencer Stanhopes was not completely one sided, there were benefits for the Spencer Stanhopes. Smith acted as guardian to Walter’s children at school, he arranged their travel, oversaw their care and school fees. Later, he acted as an agent to the family, standing in place of Walter at formal gatherings, negotiations and led the design of a burial monument concerning the Collingwoods. It was an unequal, yet mutually beneficial relationship and John Smith occupied a similar position and followed a similar life trajectory as younger, non-inheriting sons who frequently entered the clergy Historian Kate Gibson’s work on illegitimacy informs us that it was not uncommon, for the illegitimate children of upper class people in eighteenth-century England to receive such care or to occupy such positions within the family. The Spencer Stanhopes were wealthy enough to provide for John without it impacting on their wellbeing, whilst being guided in their behaviour by notions of duty towards dependants.
 This is discussed at length by Kate Gibson, Illegitimacy, Family, and Stigma in England, 1660-1834 (2022) and also Katie Barclay, ‘Love, Care and the Illegitimate Child in Eighteenth-Century Scotland’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (2019), pp. 105-125.
John Smith visited Cannon Hall, the Spencer Stanhopes’ home in Grosvenor Square in London and corresponded frequently with Walter and his children, particularly John. When Smith was a student Walter would recommend books and encourage him in his education, in adulthood they shared religious interests, would seek and share advice and news of the events of northern county politics and of each other’s lives. The cousins wrote to celebrate their successes and of sad and tender moments such as Walter’s distress at the illness and death of his son Henry. Upon John’s death in 1826 Mary Winifred wrote that ‘in every possible way [John] proved his gratitude to Mr Stanhope for all he had done for him, & I always considered him as an attached & sincere a Friend to us all’. A relationship founded on duty and obligation developed into a lifelong bond of reciprocal affection, appreciation and care.
The fascinating letters used here, along with thousands of other documents relating to the Spencer and Spencer Stanhope family are housed in Barnsley Archives and Local Studies.
This is part of a trio of blogs written by Nicola Walker linked to the When Spencer Met Stanhope exhibition at Cannon Hall. Read the previous two here: