We first came across ‘Baron and Marquis James Canby Cyprian DeBiddle Cope’ in a post about the St Francis Hotel, that he developed in 1906 on West Cordova at Seymour. We’ve expanded the biography here, because the Marquis had an interesting story, and owned significant property holdings in the city.
Before the Italian titles and additional names, James Biddle Cope was born in Philadelphia. He was given his mother’s name, Biddle, as his middle name. The Biddle family traced their roots back to the earliest pioneer settlements in the 17th Century.
Canby was another family name, (his grandmother’s) that he added in 1876. (He later added the ‘De’ as well). His Cope family line stretched back in Pennsylvania to 1691, when his great great grandfather was born there to Rebecca Harland and Oliver Cope, who had been born in Avebury, Wiltshire, and travelled to join William Penn in the new colony in 1683, (possibly because they were Quakers).
Alfred, James’s father, was the wealthy owner of a Liverpool shipping line, and had three children by his first wife, who died following the birth of one of the last of their children. James was the only child of his marriage to his second wife, Rebecca Biddle. Strangely, although there are many images of James’s older half-brother, the paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, we haven’t found any of James.
James was 20 when he married Mary Louise Saunders (who was also 20, from New Jersey) in Flushing, Queens, New York, in June 1873. They had six children over the next 16 years. He obtained a degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and was called to the bar of the State that same year.
The family travelled to England soon after their marriage. Their daughter Marie Louise was born in Oxford in 1875, Frances in Oxfordshire in 1877, Alfred Cope Biddle Cope in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire in 1879, and John in Gloucestershire in 1881. James attended Worcester College, Oxford, earning a B.A. in 1878 and an M.A. in 1881. A family biography says, “he had planned studies at Oxford with the idea of entering the priesthood of the Church of England. Upon the completion of these studies, he also for a time became an officer of militia at Aldershot, and it was thought he might find promotion in the Army. This service, however, was not for long, and he soon took up the life of an English country gentleman, first in the beautiful “Cotswold House,” in the Cotswold Hills.”
The 1881 census confirms that James was living on his 200 acre estate in Gloucestershire, bought in 1879. There were a dozen servants and estate workers in the household. His son, Alfred, died in 1883, and James sold the estate in 1885. Gladys was born in Bournemouth in Hampshire in 1886, and the impressively named Anthony Prosper Cyprian Mary Biddle Cope was born in London in 1889.
James still had property in Philadelphia as well, but his adoption of an Italian title was not well received in his home city in 1886.
In 1888 the Lyttleton Times had an advertisement by Simpson & Williams, booksellers, for ‘Mad’ by the Marquis Biddle Cope. A contemporary review in ‘The Tablet’ said the book was “not suited for indiscriminate circulation” adding “it deals with things that should not be named – or even known”. He wrote at least two other novels, including Grey of Greybury in 1884, (still available today in re-print, but described as ‘undistinguished’).
A 1920s biography said “his interest had turned to the Roman Catholic Church and to Italy, and he and his family were baptized in that church. He gave large sums to the cause of Catholic education in Rome, and naturally was regarded as a distinguished convert.” The pope named him a Marquis of the Holy See in 1883 and the king of Italy named him a Baron in the kingdom of Italy in 1886 (presumably for his pro-Catholic views). He immediately added the titles on his books and other transactions (when he was allowed to). He was given the spiritual name of Cyprian Cope, which he adopted until he fell out with the Catholic Church some years later.
In 1888 the family were at a home in Bournmouth; the ‘Marchesa Biddle-Cope’ advertised for ‘a strong active Girl for the kitchen’ and an under-nurse, who had to be a good needlewoman, for their home Mentana, Manor Road, Bournemouth.
He acquired another estate in Shropshire in England, Knill Court, where he was living in 1891 where he was listed as “Giacomo Canby Ciprious De Biddle Cope” and his son John was shown as ‘Giovanni’. In 1892 the family visited Rhyl, with the newspaper listing the visitors as “The Marquis de Biddle Cope, The Marchioness de Biddle Cope, family & maid, Aston-on-le-Clun”. He moved on to Broadward Hall in the same Welsh border area. In 1895 Kelly’s Directory of Shropshire said the house was owned by Cyprian Cope esq., (and he already had a house in Verona in Italy at the time). In 1896 his daughter Frances wrote a long letter from the Hall extoling the benefits of wearing ‘knickers’ (the English description of knickerbocker trousers), for ladies when cycling. James sold the estate in 1900, the year his daughter Gladys died.
He acquired a great deal of property in Vancouver, and the earliest reference we have here is from an 1896 Court of Appeal judgement (that he won). “The appellant, who resides in England, owns real estate in Vancouver which returns a gross rent of $3,400“. The court case established that is the net profit was under $1,500 then no income tax had to be paid. In 1896 the Marquis was only seeing a profit of $1,100, so he didn’t pay income tax in Canada.
In 1900 he won a court case against James Summers, and had a piece of land on Nelson Street in the West End auctioned off. An earlier 1896 court case was reported in Victoria. His son had arrived there in 1895, and may have lived there, although he is never identifiable as a resident in street directories. It’s possible that John was the reason for this notice which appeared in a Victoria newspaper in 1899.
At some point in 1905 he was supposedly living in Verona, and his son, John, was living in Vancouver. The Province reported in September 1905 ‘Marquis de Biddle Cope Hurrying to Son’s Bedside’. ‘Mr. J. Cope, who is In the hospital being treated for the effects of a gasoline explosion In his residence at 518 Alexander street, is making very satisfactory progress. Mr. Cope, who is a steamboatman, had only been married a few weeks before the accident occurred. His father, the Marquis de Biddle Cope, who is one of the largest foreign property-owners in Vancouver, is now hurrying to the city. He had intended to be here shortly anyhow, but is accelerating his trip on account of his son’s accident.’
In 1905 John Cope had been a deckhand living in the rear house at 224 Prior Street. A 1908 publication, ‘The Prominent Families of the United States of America’ says John Cope married Elizabeth (‘Bessie’) Moore in 1905, and they had two children, Alfred in 1907 and Gladys in 1906. (They had two more, in 1909 and 1911). His accident nearly cost him his life, and made the lead story in the Daily World. Apparently pouring gasoline from a half-gallon can onto a reluctant woodstove isn’t the best way to get dinner prepared.
In April 1906 James was in the city again: “The Marquis de Biddlecope, one of the heavy owners of Vancouver real estate, arrived In the city last night from England to look after his interests here. He will likely remain on the coast for some time.”
We know the marquis, a he styled himself at the time, developed the St Francis Hotel across from the CPR train station in 1906.
He also developed the Atlantic Rooms, a two-storey building on Cordova Street on a site that he may have acquired as early as 1890.
He may have developed other buildings, as he’s described as a major investor in the city (and apparently had almost unlimited funds), but building permits have been lost for some of the early 1900s.
In 1908 James had been living in Reno, Nevada. In 1909 he also owned the Yale Hotel, on Granville, commissioning the $20,000 eastern annex.
His son, Anthony Biddle-Cope was killed in action in 1915. While we haven’t found an image of his father, there was a newspaper article at the time of his death that included a picture of Anthony. He died while saving the life of a friend at Ypres in April 1915. Anthony was educated at the Barnabite College, in Florence, Italy; and was afterwards a Cadet on H.M.S. Conway, where he received the King’s gold medal. He was in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, from 1910, and went to the Front with them on the outbreak of war as a 2nd Lieutenant.
A 1920s biography describes the Marquis’s later years: “Domestic difficulties, in which his friends could not at all sympathize with him, led to a somewhat wandering life on his part. He stayed for a time in Australia roughing it on remote ranches. He even acquired property in the Fiji Islands which he visited. More recently he had a beautiful home at Goritzia, near the Alps of the Austrian-Italian frontier. But the Great War swept over this territory and his home was almost totally destroyed. Meanwhile he had returned to America and lived for a time at Asheville, N. C. He also took a long voyage to the Fiji Islands, but has now (1924) returned to Europe.”
His son John, who would eventually receive the title of Baron, stayed near Vancouver. He entered Eastman’s Naval Academy in England at the age of nine. At the age of twelve he passed all the examinations for the Naval Training Ship “Britannia,” but poor eyesight disqualified him. He wanted to be a civil engineer, but his father wanted him to attend Oxford, so he somehow ran away to Victoria, in British Columbia. He worked for a time on a farm, and put himself through the Marine School at Vancouver. He was for several years captain of boats on the Gulf of Georgia and is said to have gained the reputation of being a skilled navigator.
On his death in Shaughnessy Hospital in 1955, John’s obituary noted that he had joined the Boer War from Victoria (where he had arrived as a seaman in 1895, when he was 14), one of around 7,000 volunteers who fought from 1900 to 1902 under British command. He applied for a land grant, which may have been his home in Wilson Creek on the Sunshine Coast. Although the BC Directory doesn’t identify the family, or their address in the early years they were there, the Sechelt Museum has a photograph of the modest home that the family occupied. The four children attended the school in Porpoise Bay where they came by horse and wagon. The horse spent the day in a shed behind the school.
In 1914 John volunteered again, joining the Royal Canadian Navy. This was natural as he had progressed from a deckhand to master mariner. His wartime experience caused a threat to his eyesight, but he worked as fourth officer on the CPR’s Empress of Asia before losing the sight in one eye, and reduced in the other. He apparently retired to Wilson Creek in 1925.
Mary, The Marquis’s first wife, died in 1924. A Philadelphia newspaper said she had been visiting her parents there when she died. The reference to ‘domestic difficulties’ probably referenced his leaving his wife and children for a significantly younger woman, in Italy. Mary moved to Farnham, in Hampshire. Whether the couple ever divorced is unclear.
In 1926 James published ‘Recollections of a non-conventional, changeful life’.
Despite his Roman Catholic title, the Baron had a second family, and an Italian wife. Initially we understood his five sons were all from his time living in Italy. His obituary in a US newspaper identified two sons, James in Washington and Thomas, a reporter on the Philadelphia Inquirer. We found records for both of them: in 1924 James Owen Cope was married in South Carolina, “son of Baron and Baroness James Canby Biddle Cope di Valromita of Rome”. In 1927 Selim Thomas De Hausted Cope married in Philadelphia. He was born in 1903 in Italy, and his parents were recorded as James Cope and Emelia Polesini.
We were surprised when we found the 1917 birth record for Rodolfo Maria Alfredo Palesini Cope, in the United States. His father was listed as Giacoeus Canby-Biddle Cope, aged 64, of Asheville, North Carolina. He claimed that he had been married to Donna Emelia for 15 years, and Rodolfo was their fifth child. Amelia Stefania Polesini, Rodolpho’s mother, was shown as aged 37, from Salerno.
When he died in 1929, the Baron was living in Rome and using his Italian title. The New York times reporting “James Canby Biddle Cope, Baron Di Valromita, died on Tuesday at his home in Rome”.