Croome through the ages
The Coventry family is most probably descended from John of Coventry, a mercer, who was executor to the legendary Dick Whittington and who became Lord Mayor of London himself in 1425.
The family then disappears from the record until the mid-1500s, when they emerged in Bewdley, Worcestershire.
Thomas Coventry (born 1547) became a lawyer and a Justice in the Court of Common Pleas during the reign of King James I and was knighted in 1606. He purchased Croome D'Abitôt in 1592, having married Margaret Jeffery whose family owned the neighbouring Earls Croome.
Croome Court and its parkland has been in the Coventry family since 1592 but it wasn’t until the 6th Earl inherited the estate that Croome was developed into the house and parkland that you can see today.
In 1751, George Coventry, the 6th Earl, inherited the estate, along with the existing Jacobean house and he commissioned Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, probably in discussion with Sanderson Miller, to redesign the house and its parkland.
Croome was Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s first large-scale commission and is often described as his 'first and favourite child'.
By 1759 the outer fabric and most of the late Rococo style parts of the interior (Saloon, Drawing Room, Dining Room and Entrance Hall) were finished and Brown moved on to concentrate on the landscape park, perhaps because in 1760 Robert Adam, full of ‘modern’ Classical ideas, had now come on the scene.
The estate developed and rivalled Kew Gardens for its variety of plants, many of which were cultivated in a beautiful flower garden and walled kitchen garden before being planted around the grounds. The walled garden was a model of self-sufficiency, feeding the family and their household.
William Dean arrived at Croome in about 1796 and was Head Gardener to the 6th and 7th Earls of Coventry for nearly 40 years until his death in 1831. He is buried in the churchyard behind the Church of St Mary Magdalene on the estate. Dean was also the author of the ‘Hortus Croomensis and Observations on the Propagation of Exotics’. Published in 1824 this book explains in some detail the history of Croome and the Coventry Family; details of Croome Court (including descriptions of many of the rooms) and a detailed description of the gardens and grounds. The final two sections comprise an extensive log of all the flowers, plants, shrubs and trees, giving us an invaluable insight into the botanical make-up of Croome in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
During the 19th century the 9th Earl of Coventry (born 1838), throughout his 88 year tenure, was so proud of Croome that he didn’t change any aspect of it.
The First World War deeply affected Croome, with many local casualties, although the house was not requisitioned for the war effort. This is possibly because it was the home of the Lord Lieutenant of the County, who needed a residence for his many official engagements.
In 1921 the Croome Estate Trust was established by the 9th Earl of Coventry and the entire estate placed in the hands of the Trust. This arrangement remains in place almost 100 years later.
During the Second World War, Croome Court was requisitioned by the Ministry of Works and leased for a year to the Dutch Government as a possible refuge for Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands to escape the Nazi occupation of her country. Part of the Croome estate was also requisitioned and developed into RAF Defford.
In May 1942, the Telecommunications Flying Unit, later named the Radar Research Flying Unit, which operated flight trials on behalf of the Telecommunications Research Establishment, transferred its aircraft to RAF Defford and by 1945 there were approximately 2,500 personnel and 100 aircraft on the station. The current Croome Visitor Centre and restaurant is housed in the Second World War hospital.
In 1948 the Croome Estate Trust sold the Court along with 38 acres of land to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham. The mansion became St Joseph's School for boys which was run by nuns from 1950 until 1979.
The house was listed on 11 August 1952, it is currently Grade I listed.
In 1979 the mansion was taken over by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishna movement), who used it as their UK headquarters until 1984. During their tenure they repainted the Dining Room which is still decorated as it was by them.
From 1984 onwards various owners tried to use the property as a training centre; apartments; a restaurant and conference centre; and a hotel and golf course.
In 1996, the National Trust acquired and commenced restoration of the landscape park and opened it to the public. The Trust also preserved and refurbished some of the surviving RAF buildings.
In 1999 Lawrence Bilton bought Croome Court and it once more became a private family home.
In October 2007, the house was purchased by the Croome Heritage Trust, a registered charity, and the property is now leased to the National Trust for 999 years.
The court opened in September 2009, at which point six of the rooms had been conserved. That conservation continues to this day.
2016 saw the restoration of the Ambulance Garage, once part of the secret airbase of RAF Defford. A historic Canberra aircraft nose section is inside with displays telling the story of airborne radar research at Pershore after Defford closed for flying in 1957.
In 2016, historical objects from the 6th Earl of Coventry’s collection will also be returning with some key pieces, absent from the house for over 70 years, being presented in unique ways in the house.