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Saturday, 8 October 2011


Austin Cooper, Austin the Settler, my 8x great grandfather who came to Ireland in 1661, laid out the parkland of Blessington House for the Archbishop of Dublin, Michael Boyle. Perhaps he passed on skills of landscape management to his youngest son Joseph: Joseph returned to England and found a position as Keeper of New Park – better known today as Richmond Park – west of London. There he lived up on Sawyer’s Hill, in a building which became known as Cooper’s Lodge. It still stands, a listed building these days more prosaically called Bog Lodge but still the headquarters of the park superintendent.

Map of Richmond Park, after one by Edward John Eyre drawn in 1754
Cooper Lodge is shown near the top in the centre

(Somewhere along the way, Joseph married Elizabeth Slade, who had been before her marriage Lord Rochester’s dairy maid. Lord Rochester’s wife was Henrietta Boyle, great great granddaughter of a certain Roger Boyle, one of whose great grandsons was Michael Boyle of Blessington, for whom Joseph's father had laid out the park. It’s a small world.)

Joseph was appointed to the New Park post in around 1705, and his appointment is likely to have come directly from the Park Ranger, the monarch of the day. Only in 1727 did the rangership pass from royal control. In that year, as an act of royal patronage presumably designed to ensure the loyalty of his prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, new king George II conferred the role on Sir Robert's son. The park became a playground for the king and the prime minister. They hunted together there; Walpole often chose to work in the peace of the Old Lodge in the park; and the New Lodge (now called White Lodge, built near the old one in 1727) was a favourite home of the king’s consort Queen Caroline.

To preserve their privacy Walpole removed ladder stiles from the perimeter of the park and installed gatekeepers to limit access to “respectable persons.” This was unpopular enough, but when Princess Amelia, the hedonistic daughter of George II,  was appointed Ranger in 1749, she closed the park completely to all but a few special friends.

HRH the Princess Amelia (1711-1786)
c1738 by Jean-Baptiste van Loo

Going the long way round when you were used to cutting through the park was a great inconvenience. After polite requests, direct action and other avenues failed, a group of gentlemen took the deputy ranger to court over the exclusion in 1754. It was a chaotic trial, with a total of 64 witnesses called for prosecution and defence, all stating categorically that in their experience there had either always or never been a right of way through the park.

27 people spoke for the prosecution, including someone who, at the age of 71 and having lived in the park for 50 years, could be expected to know a thing or two about the matter. Elizabeth Slade Cooper, Joseph’s widow and Rochester's old dairy maid, was amongst those who remembered free rights of passage across the land going back to their father’s and grandfather’s time. The defence however produced 37 witnesses, including Lord Palmerston and someone, Mary Cooper, who was presumably not the daughter of Joseph and Elizabeth Cooper of the same name.

They carried the day by sheer strength of numbers and the case was dismissed. But four years later, a local brewer called John Lewis mounted another legal attack (based on his having being refused admission in 1755), and this time won the day. The ladder stiles were reinstated, and eventually in 1761 HRH the Princess Amelia gave up the rangership in disgust. 

So, losing the battle but winning the war, Lord Rochester’s former milk maid Elizabeth Slade played her part in establishing the principles of rights of way for ordinary people in England.

The 1754 trial is recorded in great detail in a book (author unknown) published only a year later by M. Cooper, W. Reeve and C. Sympson, called Merlin’s Life and Prophecies. The book uses the trial to prove the accuracy of the fifth century wizard’s prognostications in dubious verse about “all the Kings and Queens who have fat on the Britifh Throne … with some other events relating [to the Richmond Park Trial] which have not yet come to pafs, but no lefs wonderful than thofe which have already happened.” It makes for spell-binding reading.

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