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George Copley

Early death and family devotion





When you enter St. Margaret’s church in Fletton you cannot fail to notice the stained-glass window at the east end of the church, above the altar. The window depicts Christ’s crucifixion. It is dedicated to George Copley, City of Peterborough Bank Manager, by his friends and associates.


The window has been gazed upon by hundreds, if not thousands, of worshippers on Sundays and special celebrations over the last 140 years. Yet few will know the story of tragedy, loss and family devotion of the Copley family.


George Copley was born in Longthorpe, Peterborough. He was baptised on 8 January 1832 and was the second child of John and Lydia Copley. His elder sister was Sarah. John spent a lot of time away from home in his employment as a stud groom for the Earl Fitzwilliam at the Milton Estate in Peterborough. It was his responsibility to take the stud horse to the stables of the mare he was expected to cover. John’s name appears on the advertisements, placed on behalf of the estate, as a point of contact. The advertisements also detail the quality of the stud, its lineage, appearance, and fee.


In 1847, when George was just 15, his mother Lydia died. Instead of following his father’s profession, George began his professional life as a banker’s clerk in Spalding, Lincolnshire. He boarded on the Market Square, close to his place of employment, in the home of draper John Willimot.


On the death of his wife, John had three children to care for, Emma, Robert and Eliza. Like many men in this situation, so that he could continue to work, John had to remarry. John’s new wife was Sarah King and they married in 1849. The only census that John appears on with his family is the 1861 census. It was at this time that George had returned to the family home, the Groom’s House, on the Milton Estate.


George married Emily Althorp, on 9 August 1866, in St. Botolph’s church, Helpston. Emily was the daughter of James and Elizabeth. James had been a magistrate, alderman and chemist in Stamford, Lincolnshire.


George and Emily settled into married life in London Road, Fletton. They were a young successful professional family. They had a comfortable family home, and the running of the household was aided by three servants.


Emily certainly needed support in the house. The young couple had had seven children in quick succession, between 1868 and 1879. All except the eldest, William, were baptised at St. Margaret’s: George 17 July 1868, Edwin 27 October 1870, Charles 29 December 1872, Mildred 3 August 1874, Margaret Emily 20 October 1876 and Dora Elizabeth 24 July 1879.


Despite the joy that the arrival of children brought, George and Emily were not spared the grief of the loss of a child. Charles died in 1874 at the age of 2 and was buried at St. Margaret’s on 1 August 1874. Just three days later George and Emily returned to the church as Mildred was baptised.


George and Emily were ambitious. In 1871 George was recorded as a bank cashier but by 1881 he had risen to bank manager of the Stamford, Spalding and Boston Bank in Peterborough. George was also active in the Fletton parish. He was for many years the Rector’s, Reverend Upton’s, churchwarden at St. Margaret’s. Coincidentally the Earl Fitzwilliam was the churches patron.


The young parents also had aspirations for their young family. William and George were sent to boarding school at the private Laxton House in Oundle, Northamptonshire, and they also planned for their daughters to receive an appropriate education.


But the family’s happiness was not long lived. Emily died young, just 40, on the 25 May 1881. She suffered from pymeia or as we would now say sepsis. A common form of pymeia was childbed fever and it may have been that Emily suffered a stillbirth, although no birth or death was recorded in the registers. George was affected deeply by Emily’s death, and he left the family home. He died just seven years later on 8 March 1888, aged 56.


George was remembered by his colleagues for his ‘eulogistic’ turn of phrase. It was suggested that ‘in commemoration of the late Mr Copley a memorial window should be placed in Fletton church’. A committee, led by Reverend Dowman, was established for the purpose and the result of the generous donations can be seen in the wonderful window we still enjoy today.





At a heritage event held in the church, an expert in stained glass commented that the likeness of George Copley may have been captured in the window itself. This was apparently quite a common practice. The figure in question is the Roman centurion who stands to the right of Christ and sports a rather fetching Victorian handlebar moustache.





Following the death of both parents the young family were cared for by their maternal aunt, Emily’s sister, Mary. Mary was to act as a parent and guardian until they either married or reached the age of twenty five. It is of course entirely possible that Mary moved into the family home after her sister died, 7 years earlier.


George’s will was thorough and detailed and the carrying out of his wishes were to be overseen by William Henry Sharpe and George Edward Abbott. The will contained information about George’s personal estate, property, and how his children, in particular his daughters were to be cared for. His personal estate totalled £13, 493 9s 10d, approximately £808,000.00 in today’s terms. There was also property in Nottinghamshire and Northamptonshire and stocks and shares whose dividends and interest were to be used for the welfare of his children.


Mary was bequeathed a legacy of £5,000 to enable her to care for the children providing that she remained unmarried. She also had the use of the family home, together with any furniture, plate and linen it contained. If for some reason Mary was unable to care for the children, then her sister Charlotte would take on this responsibility.


George was an astute father and ensured that his daughters were financially independent. He made provision that on their marriage they would each receive a share of his estate, but this would remain independent to their husband’s finances. If, however, they reached twenty five and remained unmarried, then they would receive £150.


Mary cared for the children until 1911 when they were all independent adults. She then went to live with her brother Henry and sister Charlotte in Tunbridge Wells. Henry, Charlotte and another sister Fanny all remained single and lived together in various family groupings. This seemed to be a devoted family caring for one another at a time of immense grief and loss.


George and Emily’s children gradually made their own way in the world.


Their eldest son William has been quite difficult to trace. It would appear that he was either employed overseas, or was travelling, as his death was recorded in South Africa sometime during 1893, aged 25.


By 1891 Edwin had moved away from Peterborough and was lodging in Dudley, Staffordshire. He had followed in his father’s footsteps and was employed as a bank clerk. By the time Edwin married Victoria Saunders on 6 March 1899 he had moved and changed occupation. He was living in Brixton, and he was a manufacturer. They were married in St. Stephen’s, Hammersmith. Both fathers were deceased, and Victoria’s father was recorded on the marriage certificate as a gentleman. The newly married couple made their home in North Wimbledon and Edwin returned to being a bank cashier. By 1911 the family, which now included Victoria and Nelson, had moved to Basildon, Essex. Unfortunately, Edwin also died young, aged 53, in 1923.


George and Emily’s two youngest daughters, Margaret Emily and Dora Elizabeth, remained in Fletton in the family home, with their aunt Mary. Dora attended the Bedford High School for Girls, which had been founded through a legacy from Sir William Harpur. It may be possible that Margaret also attended the same school.


By 1901 Margaret, Dora and their aunt, Mary, were all living in Eastbourne, Sussex.


Margaret settled in Eastbourne. In 1903 she married bank clerk Percy Poulton, and they had a son Wilfred. Mildred was cremated on 29 December 1942.


Dora never married and died in 1963.


George and Emily’s eldest daughter Mildred was a pupil at Great Harrowden Hall, a girl’s school. One of her peers there was Princess Victoria Ka'iulani, heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Hawai'i. Princess Victoria was being groomed for a royal future, one which she was never able to enjoy as she died aged 23.


After leaving Great Harrowden Mildred trained as a midwife. In 1911 she was working in Wingrave, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire where she assisted at births in the community. Mildred also died very young, on 30 April 1913, aged 38. She was buried on the 3 May 1913 in Aston Abbotts, Aylesbury.


It was only George who remained in Peterborough and continued his father’s aspirations of being prominent in city life.


In 1891, after finishing school, George was finding some independence and was lodging, just a short distance from the family home, at 8 Elm Street, Fletton. He was employed as a bank clerk with the Stamford and Spalding Bank.


In 1901 George was the hotel proprietor of the Saracens Head Hotel, Peterborough. The Saracen’s Head, stood opposite what, is now Rivergate. It was an important place in the local business community. Not only was it a hotel and public bar but it was also where auctions were held, for all manner of goods and property.


By 1911 George had moved on and was the proprietor of another impressive and important establishment in Peterborough, the Bull Hotel.


George married Jane Elizabeth Woodward on 17 October 1904. They had no children.


George excelled in sport whilst he was at school and was one of Peterborough’s most popular sportsmen. His interests included athletics, rugby, swimming, rowing, and cricket. It was in cricket that George played for the South Ward and the Town Cricket Club. He was known for his ‘vigorous and forceful tactics as a batsman’. He often delighted the crowd by hitting the ball into the ‘Recreation Ground’ and what was known as ‘Goodman’s Garden’.


But illness took its toll and George suffered from muscular rheumatism which rendered him an invalid for prolonged periods of time. He died suddenly and unexpectedly on 18 September 1911, aged 43, of a heart attack.


His death was mourned deeply by his many friends and relatives, not to mention his widow, Jane. Running two of Peterborough’s most prized establishments George’s funeral was well attended. The funeral cortege travelled from Westgate, Peterborough to St. Margaret’s, Fletton and all along the route blinds were drawn as a mark of respect. At the conclusion of the funeral service, taken by Reverend Dowman, Mr. Stallebrass played the ‘Death March’.


George was interred in a brick lined grave, which had been built by Mr. G. R. Dickens, beside his mother and father and close to his young brother, Charles.









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