23 June 2020

The many claimants to
the Cox title in Co Cork:
fact, fantasy or fiction?

Dunmanway, Co Cork … at the heart of the estates once owned by the Cox family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In recent weeks I have written about impoverished and eccentric baronets, claimants to peerages, baronets whose claims to family titles were bogus, the peculiar titles claimed by clergy, from baronet to count and Irish chieftain, and the tangled trees of the Wolseley, Fitzgibbon and Dillon families.

One of the most curious claims was made by the Revd George William Cox (1827-1902), an Anglican priest, classical scholar and historian who assumed the title of baronet first given to the Cox family of Dunmanway, Co Cork, in 1706.

Was George William Cox deceiving himself? Was he deceived by his uncle and father? Was he trying to deceive polite society? Or was he a real baronet? And why did and the many other claimants to this Irish title fail to convince the legal authorities?

The first holder of the title was Sir Richard Cox (1650-1733), an Irish lawyer and judge who was born in Bandon, Co Cork. He was a direct descendant of Richard Cox, Bishop of Ely (1559-1581) and Chancellor of Oxford (1547-1552), who died in 1581. The Cox family arrived in Ireland from Wiltshire about 1600, and they were dispossessed during the Irish Rebellion of 1641.

Richard Cox, the future judge, was orphaned by the age of three, and was raised in Co Cork by his maternal grandparents and his uncle John Bird. He went to school in Clonakilty, and then by his own account he spent ‘three years idling’ before going to England to study law.

He was apprenticed in the manorial courts of the Earl of Cork, built up a lucrative legal practice, became Recorder of Kinsale, and acquired an estate at Clonakilty ca 1687. But he lost his post in Kinsale when James II became king. He moved to Bristol, where he practiced as a barrister. There he got to know the Irish-born diplomat Sir Robert Southwell (1635-1702), kinsman of Sir Thomas Southwell of Rathkeale, Co Limerick, who introduced him to the Duke of Ormonde, who became his patron.

Cox returned to Ireland, and after the Battle of the Boyne he was knighted by William III in 1692 and became a baronet in 1706. He became Recorder of Waterford, second justice of the Court of Common Pleas, military governor of Cork, and a member of the Privy Council of Ireland.

But Cox was dismissed from the Privy Council in 1695 for denouncing the failures to honour the terms of the Treaty of Limerick and respecting offers made to the defeated Jacobites. It was a temporary setback, and in 1701 he became Chief Justice of the Common Pleas (1701-1703), he was reappointed to the Privy Council, and became Lord Chancellor of Ireland (1703-1707) and then Lord Chief Justice of the Queen’s Bench (1711-1714). He escaped impeachment when his great patron Ormonde defected to the Jacobite cause in 1715 and fled to France.

He spent his later years improving the town of Dunmanway. He obtained a royal charter to hold fairs and market days in the town, and did much to encourage the local flax industry.

He lived 20 years in retirement before his death, from apoplexy, in the Great Hall of the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, on 3 May 1733.

Sir Richard Cox died at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, in 1733 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Cox and his wife Mary Bourne had numerous children. He mentions 21, although only 15 can be identified with certainty. Some of these children died in infancy, and of those who reached adulthood, the eldest son, also Richard, predeceased his father.

A younger son, Michael Cox (1691-1779), was the Rector of Callan, Co Kilkenny, Bishop of Ossory (1743-1754) and Archbishop of Cashel (1754-1779). He is remembered for building Castletown Cox, a magnificent Palladian mansion near Carrick-on-Suir.

When Cox died in 1733, his title and his Dunmanway estates were inherited as second baronet by his grandson Sir Richard Cox (1702-1766). He was a son of Richard Cox, a former MP for Tallaght, who married Catherine Evans of Bulgaden Hall, near Kilmallock, Co Limerick, sister of George Evans, 1st Lord Carberry.

This Sir Richard Cox was educated at Oxford University, and was Sheriff of Cork City in 1742. His son and successor, the Ven Sir Michael Cox (1730-1772), was Archdeacon of Cashel (1767-1772) while his uncle was the Archbishop of Cashel.

Archdeacon Michael Cox was educated at Trinity College Dublin and married the widowed Elizabeth Arthur from Limerick, daughter of Hugh Massy, 1st Baron Massy.

The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Patrick’s Rock in Cashel … the third baronet was Archdeacon of Cashel while his uncle was Archbishop of Cashel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Archdeacon Cox was the father of Sir Richard Cox, the 4th Baronet. He married Mary O’Brien, a great-granddaughter of William O’Brien, 3rd Earl of Inchiquin. He died on 17 September 1783 when he drowned accidentally in Dunmanway. His widow remarried William Saurin, the Attorney General for Ireland, and died in 1840.

The title was eventually claimed by Archbishop Cox’s descendants. Sir Richard Cox, the eighth baronet and sheriff of Kilkenny, was a great-grandson of Archbishop Cox.

Following his death in 1838, however, the later history of this title is obscure and difficult to trace because of tangled family trees. In not one instance did the title descend to an eldest son, and in only two instances – the third and fourth baronets – did it ever descend to a son at all. In all other cases, the title passed to brothers or cousins.

The ninth baronet, Sir Francis Cox (1769-1856), was succeeded by his nephew, Sir Ralph Hawtrey Cox (1808-1872), the son of the Revd Richard Cox, said to be the Rector of Caherconlish, Co Limerick, although he is not listed in the diocesan clergy succession lists. Sir Ralph was born in Caherconlish, lived in Borrisokane, and died in Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire).

The eleventh baronet, Sir Michael Francis Hawtrey Cox (1810-1872), was young when he fell from a horse, and it was said he was ‘out of his mind’ for the rest of his life. He succeeded to the title on 12 April 1872 but died in Kilkenny two months later, on 15 June 1872.

The twelfth baronet, Sir Francis Hawtrey Cox (1816-1873), enjoyed the title for just over a year. When he died on 17 April 1873, there were questions about his brother William Saurin Cox: was he, perhaps, an elder brother rather than a younger brother? Was he still alive? Did he become the 13th baronet? Did he have a son who might inherit the title?

The Ulster Office of Arms, the Irish genealogical authority based in Dublin Castle, regarded the title as extinct from 1873. But there was another claimant to the title: Colonel Edmund Cox in Canada claimed he was the 14th baronet, while Lieutenant-General John Hamilton Cox CB, the son of Major-General William Cox, claimed he was a first cousin of Sir Francis Hawtrey Cox and the 13th baronet.

Colonel Edmund Cox, a former officer in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, was living in Canada. He claimed William Saurin Cox had survived, had succeeded to the title, and that the title then devolved on him in 1873, although he only started using it 1876, and died a year later in 1877.

When he died, his claims passed to his nephew, the Revd George William Cox, who became the most persistent of these claimants or soi-disant baronets.

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Gibraltar … George William Cox was the Anglican chaplain in Gibraltar in 1851-1853 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Revd George William Cox was born at Benares on 10 January 1827, the eldest of six children of Captain George Hamilton Cox (died 1841), of the East India Company. A younger brother, Colonel Edmund Henry Cox, fired the first shot against Sevastopol in the Crimean war.

George was sent to England at the age of nine in 1836, and was admitted to Rugby in 1842 under Archibald Tait, later Archbishop of Canterbury. He then studied classics in Trinity College Oxford, graduating BA and proceeding MA in 1859.

At first, Cox was sympathetic to the Oxford Movement, and in 1850 he was ordained by Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Oxford. He was a curate at Salcombe Regis, and in 1851 became the English chaplain in Gibraltar. However, Bishop George Tomlinson of Gibraltar did not approve of his High Church views, and Cox left for South Africa with John William Colenso, who became Bishop of Natal in 1853.

On his return to England in 1854, Cox became curate of Saint Paul’s, Exeter, then spent a year (1859-1860) as a teacher in Cheltenham (1859-1860). Meanwhile, his religious principles completely changed, largely under the influence of historical study. In January 1858, he published a paper in the Edinburgh Review on Milman’s History of Latin Christianity that illustrates the development of his views on Broad Church lines.

Cox supported Colenso’s views on biblical criticism and his struggle over his episcopal status in South Africa. He defended Colenso in a long correspondence with FD Maurice, and warmly supported Colenso when he was back in England (1863-1865).

When Colonel Edmund Cox died in 1877, Cox claimed to succeed him in the title of baronet in the Cox family of Dunmanway, and started using the titular prefix, calling himself the Revd Sir George William Cox.

Cox was appointed Vicar of Bekesbourne by Archbishop Tait of Canterbury, in 1880, and from 1881 to 1897, he was rector of the crown living of Scrayingham, Yorkshire. He was chosen as Bishop of Natal in 1886 by Colenso’s followers, but Archbishop Benson refused to consecrate him because his election was unacceptable to the High Church party.

Cox’s friendship with Colenso provided material for The Life of Bishop John William Colenso, DD, Bishop of Natal, which he published as Sir GW Cox in 1888. That year, he also published a short vindication of Colenso’s views in The Church of England and the Teaching of Bishop Colenso.

He received a civil list pension of £120 in 1896, and died at Ivy House, Walmer, on 9 February 1902. His ashes were buried after cremation at Long Cross, Chertsey. Cox married Emily Maria Stirling in 1850. They were the parents of five sons and two daughters.

Cox’s other work includes studies of mythology, and histories of the Greeks and Persians, the Crusades, British India, and a book of ‘family prayer’ based on Jeremy Taylor and other 17th century divines. But many of his works were popular in character, and the most important, the History of Greece, is now regarded as having little value.

However, his two-volume biography is the most valuable source for the life of Colenso and includes a large number of letters from the bishop. A new edition was published by the Cambridge University Press in 2011.

George William Cox published a two-volume biography of Bishop Colenso

When George William Cox died in 1902, his eldest surviving son, Edmund Charles Cox, was the district superintendent of police at Poona. He too claimed the right to the title of baronet and petitioned the committee of the Privy Council for recognition as the next Dunmanway baronet.

However, his petition was opposed by Major John Hawtrey Reginald Cox, who claimed not only that he was the rightful baronet, but that he was in fact descended from the eldest son of the first baronet’s third wife.

The petition by Edmund Charles Cox to the title was disallowed by the Privy Council on 9 November 1911, and attention now turned to the claims of Major John Hawtrey Reginald Cox, published in five volumes as Claim of JHR Cox to the Baronetcy of Cox of Dunmanway, Co Cork (London, 1912-1914).

Major John Hawtrey Reginald Cox of the 13th Middlesex Regiment was born in Co Laois, a son of General John Hamilton Cox who died in 1887. His claims to the title were examined in detail in The Weekly Irish Times on 13 March 1915 after his petition was rejected by the Privy Council on Baronetcies.

Major Cox had presented his claim in November 1912 to the Ulster King-of-Arms, who in turn passed it to the Home Secretary, asking him to place his name on the official roll of baronets. The petition was then referred to the Privy Council on 21 September 1914.

Major Cox pointed out that when the seventh baronet, Sir George Matthias Cox, died in 1838, the elder line of the first baronet died out. But, he argued, the title had ‘descended in error’ to the male descendants of Archbishop Michael Cox, Archbishop of Cashel, until the death of Francis Hawtrey Cox in 1873.

Major Cox now claimed that his great grandfather, John Cox, was a son of Richard Cox, the eldest son of Sir Richard Cox, the first baronet, and his third wife Elinor Jeffreys. He argued that the title should have descended to John Cox’s eldest son, Thomas Cox, in 1838, and then to his brother, General William Cox, in 1853, and afterwards to William’s son, Major-General John Cox CB, in 1857, instead of passing to the descendants of the Archbishop Michael Cox.

He claimed General William Cox never claimed the title, but allowed Richard Cox, of Castletown, to assume the title as the eighth baronet, as he was the son of the general’s guardian and ‘greatest friend,’ Michael Cox, who had brought him up at Castletown.

These were extraordinary claims, and the Ulster Office seems to have wondered why General John Cox made no objection to Dr Michael or Captain Francis Hawtrey, his first cousins, assuming the title.

Major Cox failed to prove the legitimacy of William Cox, and could not produce the marriage certificate of William Cox’s parents. He said they married at a date before marriage registers existed, but he could not say when or where they married.

‘In the end,’ The Weekly Irish Times reported, ‘all of the petitioner’s arguments were in vain.’ The committee of the Privy Council agreed ‘that the name of the petitioner ought not to be entered on the official roll of the baronetcies.’

The first baronet fathered 21 children, and at least 15 of them survived. Undoubtedly, he has many male descendants who are still living today. But the tangled family trees, woven by the many claimants to the title over 100 to 150 years ago, make it unlikely that any successful claimant is ever going to emerge again.

A portrait of Archbishop Michael Cox in the Bishop’s House, Kilkenny … did his descendants usurp the family’s title of baronet? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

(Updated 13 November 2023, with typographical corrections)

A photograph emerges of
a former Comerford house
in Courtown, Co Wexford

Invermore House, Courtown, Co Wexford … built for the Earls of Courtown, and once the home of Eva Mary Comerford and her daughter Máire who ran a school there (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Almost a decade has passed since I went in search of the house in Courtown, Co Wexford, where Eva Mary Comerford and her daughter, the Irish revolutionary journalist Máire Comerford, had lived in the early decades of the 20th century.

I had failed to in my attempt to add to my collection of images of Comerford family homes, and left disappointed, having found only an empty field and a pile of rubble in where Invermore House once stood.

But a comment posted early on Monday morning (22 June 2020) by an anonymous reader on that blog posting describing my fruitless search over eight years ago (27 January 2012) has helped me to find a photograph of Invermore House where these two Comerford women, mother and daughter, lived and ran a private school over 100 years ago.

For many years, a photograph in the Eason Photographic Collection in the National Library of Ireland (NLI Ref: EAS 3736) had been titled ‘Mansion near Gorey, Co Wexford.’ The photograph was taken by an unknown photographer in the first few decades of the last century.

However, a Flickr Commons user known only as B-59 was the first person online to identify the front door and this research has established that this is Invermore House or Levuka House, Courtown, Co Wexford.

The house was designed in the 19th century by Thomas Newenham Deane and built for the Scott family. At times, it was known as Levuka, and later as Invermore, and for a time it had been the north Wexford home of Eva Mary Comerford and her daughter Máire.

Eva Mary Comerford (1860-1949) was the widow of James Charles Comerford (1842-1907), of Ardavon House, Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, a miller and a friend of Charles Stewart Parnell.

Eva Comerford was three times tennis champion of Ireland. Her father, Colonel Thomas Esmonde (1829-1872), was decorated with the Victoria Cross (VC) for his part in the Battle of Sebastopol. She was a niece of Sir John Esmonde (1826-1876), 10th baronet and a Liberal MP, and a first cousin of both Sir Thomas Esmonde (1862-1935), 11th baronet, MP for North Wexford and later a Senator, and Sir Laurence Grattan Esmonde (1863-1943), 13th Baronet.

For a time after her husband’s death, Eva Mary Comerford lived with her brother, Thomas Louis Esmonde (1864-1918) of Gorey, Co Wexford. In 1913, Thomas married Mary Mansfield, and Eva’s daughter, Máire Comerford (1893-1982), returned to Ireland from London around 1915 to live in Co Wexford with her widowed mother, uncle and aunt.

Eva Comerford and her daughter Máire (born Mary Eva Comerford) then rented Invermore House in Courtown, Co Wexford, and there they set up a school for girls, where Máire was a teacher for a time. Despite her strong Republican politics, Máire Comerford was the second cousin of three baronets who were elected as Fine Gael TDs for Co Wexford: Sir Osmond Esmonde (1896-1936), the 12th baronet, Sir John Esmond (1893-1958) and Sir Anthony Charles Esmond (1899-1981).

Invermore House, standing on a ridge overlooking Courtown Harbour, was designed by the architect Sir Thomas Newenham Deane (1828-1899), and was built in 1859 as a house for M. Scott, the land agent of the Earls of Courtown. The architectural historian Frederick O’Dwyer says Dean ‘was probably Lord Courtown’s architect on other improvements in the village, including the erection of a row of four cottages … and a covered well in the middle of the main street.’

Later in the 19th century and in the early 20th century, the house was the home of the Hon George FW Stopford (1859-1933), a younger son of James GH Stopford (1823-1914), 5th Earl of Courtown, and Lady Mary Lloyd.

After Eva Mary Comerford and her daughter Máire moved out, the house was sold in 1919 behalf of George FW Stopford.

The photograph of Invermore House taken before that sale, just a short time after the Eva and Máire Comerford had lived there. A delightful detail in the photograph is the two young girls waiting at the front door. There is some discussion on social media about their identity.

Although George FW Stopford is not living there in 1911, his daughter Cynthia Mareli Mabel Stopford, who was 11 in 1911, may be one of the girls, and the other girl may be her older cousin Edith (19); or they may be Cynthia in 1916 and her younger cousin Marina Marjorie, also known as Lady Marjorie Gertrude Stopford (1904-1996).

There was another sale of household goods in the house in 1944. The lengthy list of goods being auctioned seems to include everything in the house which could be moved, including beds, cookers, china and golf clubs.

As time moved on, the house changed hands many times. It became an hotel in 1947, and was known by several names over the years, including the Oulart Hotel, the Sands Hotel and the Stopford House Hotel. However, like most hotels in Courtown, it fell on hard times in recent decades, was closed, and was demolished.

All that I could see when I visited in January 2012 was a heap of rubble and a clump of trees in a fenced-off field near two small housing estates. Nothing is left of the stepped arches over the windows, the pyramid-shaped roof, the classical porch, the Gothic entrance arch, the elaborate fretted balusters on the main and secondary staircases with their plant and animal motifs, or the courtyard at the rear with its eclectic design executed in local red brick and the outbuildings with carved bargeboards.

The once-planned apartments were never built on the site, and there are no traces of the forgotten grandeur of a house that once played a minor role in Irish architectural and political history.

The heap of rubble I found in 2012 on the site of Invermore House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)