The Sad Story of James Lundin Cooper: A Charlotte Chapel Biography

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The Charlotte Chapel Biographies is an occasional column dedicated to the subjects of my PhD, the 420 identifiable members of Charlotte Episcopal Chapel, 1794-1818, who subsequently built St John’s, Princes Street, Edinburgh.

In 1816, twenty-five-year-old James Lundin Cooper brought his bride Sarah Brown to Edinburgh to be married by Bishop Daniel Sandford in the stylish Charlotte Chapel. He was a writer in Kirkcaldy and she was the daughter of a local merchant. He appears a few years later practising his profession, administering the estate of a bankrupt businessman in Kirkcaldy.

Cooper was an ambitious man, and not content to remain merely a provincial lawyer he sought his fortune in business. By 1830 he was manager of the Kirkcaldy and London Shipping Company, which ran three ships and employed three Captains, rejoicing in the names of Moir, Morison and Mann. As the leading Manager (or vestryman) of the Episcopal Chapel in Kirkcaldy, he successfully charmed the energetic, young and dedicated priest Mr Marshall into replacing their decrepit old incumbent, even though the chapel could only offer a paltry £20 stipend. Meanwhile his family prospered: Sarah bore him three chidren, Elizabeth, Michael and Mary.

It quickly became clear to Rev Marshall, however, that Cooper and his fellow managers were running a racket, giving themselves huge discounts on seat-rents, keeping Marshall’s salary low, and ‘finding it convenient that the clause should fall into disuse’ which stipulated that the whole congregation should choose their managers annually, preferring instead to appoint themselves for life.

When the priest tried to rectify the situation, the managers went to the bishop, accusing Marshall of immorality, neglect of duty, and (when this didn’t work), insanity. This was a great mistake: Marshall was well-respected, and eloquent clergy weighed in to defend his character from this evident nonsense. Cooper, one of them reported, ‘had the modesty to offer evidence to Bishop Torry that Mr Marshall is (or was) insane, and in his hand writing came forth a document in which that gentleman was charged with going to a theatre and dining out.’ Cooper, who had been the man of education and status amongst the merchants and shoemakers on the vestry, was made to look very foolish by being represented in the lead actor in this farce.

Whereas other managers left the Episcopal Church altogether and began attending the Kirk — although they still made a point of turning up to collect the contents of the collection plate, and chattering and laughing in the porch during Mr Marshall’s service — James does appear to have put his head down and attempted to make amends with the priest.

But it was too late. Whether it was divine judgement, the discrediting of his character, bad luck or similarly bad judgement in his business dealings, Cooper went bankrupt  in 1836. In 1838 his daughters Elizabeth and Mary died, and the following year James himself went to his grave. His teenage son Michael only outlived him by two years. I don’t know what happened to Sarah. Perhaps she remarried.

One could take various morals from this story. I suppose the first might be, don’t accuse your priest of insanity if you meet him at the theatre.

Eleanor Harris.

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