Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Original Version of the Tyrone Sproules, Back on the Table!

The Sproules of the 1700s had a story about the origin of the family in Tyrone. It had nothing to do with the Robert Spreul who is buried in Castlederg. It was a very precise, and a very definite story, with a name, a place and a date. It was handed down by word-of-mouth in the first few generations of settlers and was, thankfully, recorded by John Inch in the 1820s. John Inch's mother was a Sproule, he was born in 1795 and he left Ireland in 1818. All of his information came directly from family members prior to the 1820s. His version was:

“In 1622 James Spreul (last of the Spreuls of Cowden) sold his estate to the father of the first Lord Cowden and Earl of Dundonald, went to Ireland and settled at Tullymoan, County Tyrone.” 1

Tullymoan, Home of the First Sproules?

The early Sproules believed that the first settler was James Spreul, a fiar from Cowden in Renfrewshire in Scotland, and that he settled in the townland of Tullymoan, Urney, County Tyrone in 1622. Tullymoan is the home of my line of Sproules, and this is the family I am researching. 

The Tullymoan story was still the popular version of the Sproule origin right through to the end of the 1800s. Jack Elder, who did amazing work recording the different branches of the Sproules, also believed this version and put it in the introduction of his Sproule family history of 1890:

“James Spreul [Sproule?] sold his estate of Cowdon in 1622, crossed over to Ireland and settled at Tullymoan, Co. Tyrone.  It was said that he was the ancestor of all the County Tyrone Sproules, good, bad and indifferent.” 

The Demise of the First Version

Renfrewshire in Scotland 1600s
How did this version get lost? As it happens, it was down to Jack Elder himself! Elder researched James Spreul of Cowden, and was initially happy that the story must be true. There was indeed a James Spreul of Cowden (or Coldoun) in Renfrewshire in Scotland. James Spreul had come from a long line of Spreuls going back to the thirteenth century. It is also true that James sold all of his leases and properties in 1622, the same year that was identified in the family story.  

However, Jack Elder later found evidence against the theory that James Spreul had come to Ireland and was the origin of the Tyrone Sproules. He had found a quotation in a book entitled "History of Renfrewshire" (1710) regarding James Spreul that said, "in his person this family failed."  Elder interpreted this to mean that James of Cowden had no children, and therefore the story that he was the father of all the Tyrone Sproules had to be untrue. 

Robert - The Alternative Version

The Tullymoan story then lost favour, and was replaced by the alternative version. This said that Robert Spreul came from Renfrewshire in the 1650s and that all Tryone Sproules came from him. This version has one major flaw, they spread too quickly! There were an awful lot of Sproules leasing an awful lot of land in very different parts of West Tyrone in the early 1700s. Robert would have to produced a multitude of very affluent sons who didn't want to live anywhere near each other!

Sproules in Tullymoan in the 1600s

There were two things that struck me when I first read the ‘James of Cowden coming to Tullymoan’ version. I am researching the Tullymoan Sproules, so of course this story was very exciting for me. True or not, I felt that the story had given me some good clues!  

Firstly, the Tullymoan Sproules must have been living there on the farm in the 1600s. They didn't appear on records that I have found so far, but they had to have been there. John Inch had this version of the story in 1818, and it was passed from his parents and grandparents. John Inch’s grandparents must have been certain that there were Sproules in Tullymoan in the 1600s in order to support the James Spreul family story. If the Sproules were more recent arrivals in Tullymoan, the local folk of the late 1700s would certainly have killed the story dead!

Equally, if the Tullymoan Sproules were just a branch of another Sproule family, the local folk would have been quick to identify them. Both John Inch and Jack Elder agreed that the Tullymoan Sproules did not fit with any other family.

Could there be truth in the James Spreul of Cowden story?

The Fact that Re-ingnites the Story

To re-open the original version and put it back on the table as a possible theory, we simply need to prove that James of Cowden had children. This is where another of my fellow Sproule family historians comes into the limelight!  

Scottish Lowland Farm 1690
Fred Sproule in the1900s made it his life’s work to find the origin of the Sproules.3 He actually believed the Robert version, and went to find Robert’s family in Renfrewshire.  Armed with the information from the gravestone in Castlederg, Robert’s death in 1869 and his wife Jean Denniston's in 1712, Fred ploughed through the documents in Scotland. Despite amazingly thorough research tracing the entire family of Spreuls in Cowden and others in Renfrewshire, Fred Sproule failed to find Robert’s origin. There was no family history into which this Robert Spreul nor his wife Jean Denniston could fit. I believe there is a very good reason for that! 

What Fred did find, however, was proof that James Spreul of Cowden definitely had at least one son! 

James Spreul son of James of Cowden

On the very day James Spreul signed away his Cowden estates, there were several other documents that were also signed. Each of these were to ensure that the sale would go through without objection. The heir, if there was one, would have definite grounds to object as his inheritance was being sold. Therefore, it was important to get the heir to sign his agreement to the sale, which he did!

“Ratification by James Spreule, son and apparent heir of James Spreule, fiar of Coldoune, of his father’s disposition and alienation of the said five pound land of Coldoune to Sir George Elphistoun; dated 2nd April 1622”.

James of Cowden had a son also called James. Fred Sproule states that this “should put to rest the claim of some secondary sources that James Spreule, Sr., was the last male of the Sproule family of Coldoun.”

There was one more important finding by Fred Sproule. Despite continuing to research the Spreul families of Renfrewshire into the 1800s, Fred could find no record of James of Cowden, nor of his son James, after the date of signing. They were gone.

This puts the Tullymoan version right back on the table!

For More Information:

  1. The Grave of Robert Spreull (1628 -1689)
  2. James Spreul of Cowden - Making Sense of the Sale
  3. James of Cowden - and Tullymoan?
  4. Three Scottish Brothers Moving East to Tyrone
  5. Sproules in the Hearth Money Rolls of 1665


1  The Inch family of Ulster, Ireland, and New Brunswick, Canada,  James Robert Inch, b. 1835, Family History Books on FamilySearch
2  Extract of Letter from Jack Elder, Ont., Canada to J.F. Caldwell, Belfast, Sunday, April 1, 1928; PRONI T1264/3; CMSIED 9804826 

3  “A Sproule Family of Ireland and Canada” unpublished book by Albert Frederick Sproule, thanks to Ryan Sproule for forwarding Fred’s great work.

4   Sproule Charters – Dundonald, p. 6, Section VII, Item 67.

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