History of Croome
Croome Court, situated at Croome D’Abitot near Pershore in the heart of Worcestershire, has been the seat of the Coventry family for six hundred years. While the heart of the mansion dates from the 1640s, the house seen today was down to George William, 6th Earl of Coventry. When he inherited the estate in 1751, following the death of his older brother Thomas, he set out to create a ‘place of beauty and artistry’.
|The 6th Earl of Coventry by Allan Ramsay Photo © Heather King|
In 1752, he married the celebrated Maria Gunning, elder of the two famous actress sisters who took fashionable London by storm because of their incredible beauty, and in spite of coming from Dublin and being dreadfully poor. Maria was so popular, she was mobbed whenever she appeared in public. Tragically, she died when only 28, poisoned by the lead in the make-up she used.*
(*19.5.20 Edited to add that it is now thought she actually died from Tuberculosis.)
|Maria Gunning married the 6th Earl of Coventry|
However, the history of Croome starts long before the eighteenth century. The Domesday Book records that the manorial rights and much of the land at Croome belonged to the Bishop of Worcester. According to this entry, Croome consisted of one hide of land, three carucates (both measures being equal to about one hundred acres, though accounts differ on this) and Oderic, who held the land for the Bishop, also possessed three villans or slaves for working the land and five bordars, upper domestic servants who waited at their master’s board in addition to other ‘less ignoble offices’. There were also ‘twenty-four acres of meadow and three quarantines [roods] of woodland’. The value was estimated at forty shillings.
I wonder how many thousands of pounds it is worth now!
Following the Norman invasion, the estate passed to Urso D’Abitot, after whom the village was named. William the Conqueror granted Urso forty hides – about four thousand acres – in Worcestershire, besides other manors elsewhere. He was also appointed hereditary sheriff and constable of the royal castles in this beautiful county. Cursed by the Bishop of York (who had previously lost his right to Worcester), for various incursions against the monks of that city, Urso died not long after the building of his castle, his only son following him soon after. Croome therefore passed into the hands of the Earls of Warwick via the marriage of Urso’s daughter, Emma to Walter de Beauchamp.
Held by one Osbern D’Abitot in 1283, the estate then passed through various owners until it came into the possession, via marriage again, of Simon Clare of Kidderminster. It was from Sir Ralph Clare Bart. that Sir Thomas Coventry purchased the property and thus the association of the Coventry family with Croome began.
To return, then, to the 6th Earl’s vision for Croome, George commissioned Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, not only to landscape the parkland, the capacity for which he was known, but also as architect for the house. Sanderson Miller, responsible for Hagley Hall and possibly also involved at Croome, given the similarity between the two, introduced Brown to the Earl. Later – after 1760 – the young Robert Adam was employed in the design of interiors and furnishings.
Successive holders of the title were all named George William and from the 7th Earl onwards also held the title of Viscount Deerhurst. However, crippling taxes forced the 9th Earl, who wished to keep the estate intact and not sell part to reduce the burden, to pass the estate into the management of the Croome Estate Trust – which he inaugurated – in 1921. All records prior to this date are held at the Worcestershire Records Office. The 9th Earl (born 1838) was so proud of Croome he did not alter any part of it, although he did keep a stable of sixty horses. He also bred them and won the Grand National in successive years, with full sisters Emblem in 1863 and Emblematic in 1864. George William, son of the 9th Earl, died in 1927 and did not inherit the title, which passed to his son, the 9th Earl’s grandson, also George William. The 10th Earl died during the Second World War, at the Battle of Givenchy in 1940, and was buried there. In effect, his death spelled the end of the Coventry family’s association with Croome, for the Court was requisitioned by the Ministry of Works and leased to the Dutch Government for a year – a possible for refuge from the Nazis for Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands – and part of the estate was developed into RAF Defford. The estate was then sold in 1948.
Along with 38 acres, Croome was sold to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham and was turned into St. Joseph’s Special School for boys. In 1979, it was taken over by the Hare Krishna movement and it was during their occupation that the Dining Room was repainted. They left the house in 1984, when various owners with various schemes – golf course, hotel, restaurant, conference centre etcetera – took on custodianship. In 1996, the National Trust took over the landscape park and set about the arduous task of restoration. With this aim, the park was opened to the public.
Then, in 1999, the house returned to being a private family home again when bought by Lawrence Bilton.
Finally – and the old house must have breathed a huge sigh of relief – the Croome Heritage Trust bought the mansion in October 2007. It is leased to the National Trust for 999 years and an extensive programme of restoration has begun. Six rooms, including the Saloon, had been restored, at a hefty cost of £400,000 when Croome Court opened to the public in September 2009. The attached service wing, built of red brick and with the upper floor converted into a private suite of apartments for Lord Coventry in 1799 (by James Wyatt), was then empty and in desperate need of refurbishment and repair. The ‘Red Wing’ is now weather-proof and structurally sound, but still requires a great deal of work to restore it to practical use. Hopefully, one day it will once more be used as a service wing to the main house as originally envisaged by Capability Brown.
In the next post(s), I will look at the house and park. Croome is a wonderful place to visit and all the staff friendly and helpful.
Unless otherwise stated, all photos © Heather King