‘Without parallel in the Kingdom’ – The Hillsborough Wedding Reception of the Earl of Hillsborough and Caroline Frances Stapleton Cotton

In a previous Virtual Museum post we looked at the 1837 wedding of Arthur Wills Hill and Caroline Frances Stapleton Cotton. The wedding, the joining of two prominent landed families, took place in Cheshire in August of that year. Several weeks later the couple were again afforded the opportunity to publicly celebrate their union. This time, however, the revelry took place at the groom’s home estate of Hillsborough. This follow up post looks at that Hillsborough celebration and asks if the rumoured deaths of thirteen guests from alcohol poisoning actually happened. 

Arthur Wills Blundell Sandys Trumbull Windsor Hill (1812-1868) ILC&M Collection.

The lavish and widespread street celebrations throughout Wrenbury which paid tribute to the newly-married Wills Hill and Caroline Stapelton Cotton demonstrated the high esteem in which the bride’s family were held in.  However, the Hill family were not to be outdone. Weeks later, on the 4th October 1837 on ‘the Green of the Fort’ at the Hillsborough estate, the newlyweds were afforded the opportunity to once again celebrate their union. This time it was in front of an estimated 4,000 guests drawn from the surrounding area in a celebration which was ‘without parallel in the Kingdom’.

Many local Irish newspapers were on hand to record the extravagant scenes. The Belfast News-Letter  described in great detail what awaited the guests:  ‘On entering the Castle Green itself, the scene which burst on the eye was in the highest degree striking. The green forms a square and is surrounded by an elevated terrace walk. The centre of the northern side is occupied an extensive lodge, with two turrets facing the green. The eastern side is also divided by a smaller lodge, in front of which an extensive platform was erected for the occasion. Immediately fronting the latter edifice was a tastefully decorated marquee, in which was stationed the Marquess of Downshire’s band. The whole scene was enclosed by a background of magnificent forest trees, the autumnal tints of which brought into full relief by the brilliant October sun’.

John Johnston's illustration of the banquet at Hillsborough Fort. (ILC&M Collection).

The estimated 4000 guests who witnessed this spectacle were of ‘respectable and substantial farmers, tenants and sons of tenants’ drawn from throughout the Marquess’s estates.  They enjoyed a ‘sumptuous repast’, feasting alongside the Hill family and taking full advantage of the ‘due accompaniment of ale’ laid out before them.

The Archdeacon of Hillsborough, the Rev. Walter B. Mant, led the assembled guests in prayer before toasts were made in honour of those at the head table. The father of the groom then paid tribute to the couple before declaring ‘his sure and confident anticipations’ that those in attendance would find in his son a landlord ‘actuated by the same feelings, and guided by the same principles’ which he had also lived by. 

The Grand Fete and Dinner at Hillsborough Fort, by Marcus Patton. (ILC&M Collection).

Hosting a celebration of this size, while a daunting undertaking, was not an unusual occurrence for the Hill family. A number of similar sized gatherings were held over the years on the Hillsborough estate, including the 1833 coming of age celebrations for the future Fourth Marquess. Yet, it is the 1837 wedding which continues to fascinate. This is, of course, related to the supposed deaths of thirteen revellers who it is said met their demise from overindulgence and alcohol poisoning. 

Just how much truth is in this claim? Seemingly little. The wedding reception had attracted the attention of many local and national newspapers, none of which reported any fatalities among the guests. Historian and former Rector of Hillsborough, Canon John Barry was also unconvinced. He has suggested that people may have confused the wedding with the earlier coming of age gathering, which was a decidedly more boisterous affair. 

Even so, he casts doubts that this ‘coming of age’ event witnessed any fatalities either, claiming that ‘a bit of local embroidery was added to make the story more remarkable’. Given the numbers in attendance at both events at which the alcohol freely flowed, it is entirely plausible that many left in worse conditions than which they arrived. Nevertheless, tales of death by alcohol poisoning on the ‘Green of the Fort’ seem to be just that.

Further reading –

John Barry, Hillsborough – A Parish in the Ulster Plantation (1962).

Terence Reeves-Smyth – Hillsborough Castle Demesne (2015).

Scroll to Top