Radley village and park was the property of Abingdon Abbey from before the Norman Conquest until the Dissolution of the Abbey in 1544. The manor of Radley then came into the possession of the crown until it was bought in 1569 by George Stonhouse, one of the Clerks of the Green Cloth of Elizabeth I. Radley remained the residence of the Stonhouse family until the eighteenth century.
Sir John Stonhouse, 3rd Baronet of Radley, began the construction of a new, grand house in Radley Park, built and designed by the Oxford masons William Townsend and Bartholomew Peisley, in 1721. The work was finally completed in 1727, at a cost of over £1200. This is the house which is now known as the Mansion. Between 1770 and 1773, Capability Brown was employed to draw up landscape designs for Radley Park.
When Sir John Stonhouse died he was succeeded in turn by each of his three unmarried sons, then in 1792 by a niece, Penelope, Lady Rivers, and finally in 1794 by his daughter Anne’s younger son, Rear-Admiral George Bowyer.
Bowyer was a career naval officer, who had first gone to sea at the age of eleven, in 1751. After a long and highly-regarded service, he was promoted to Rear-Admiral in February 1793. He took up a command in the Channel Fleet that July, aboard HMS Prince, and in January 1794 transferred his flag to HMS Barfleur. Barfleur fought heavily at the Third Battle of Ushant, the first major naval engagement of the French Revolutionary Wars, and on the “Glorious First of June“, Bowyer was seriously injured, and lost a leg.
Unable to serve again, he was awarded a pension of £1,000 per year for his wound, and awarded a gold medal for the victory; in August, he was created the Baronet of Radley. By seniority, he was promoted to Vice-Admiral in July 1794, then Admiral in February 1799. That April, he succeeded his elder brother as the fifth Baronet of Denham Court, merging his baronetcy with the family title, and died on 9th December 1800. The Union Flag is flown each 1st June at Radley in his memory.
His titles, and the land, were inherited by his eldest son George, the sixth Baronet (b. 1783); however, the family fortunes went into sharp decline over the following years, with money spent on speculative ventures such as the attempted quarrying of a coal mine on the estate at Bayworth with an accompanying canal to convey the coal to the Thames in 1812/13. By 1815 the family had sold the majority of the paintings and furniture from the house, and in 1819 Sir George Bowyer leased the property to Benjamin Kent of Abingdon, to house a Nonconformist School which Kent had founded earlier.
“Radley Hall School” failed in 1844, however, and after being briefly rented in 1845 the house had been empty until Sewell and Singleton visted it in 1847.
In 1847 Sir George Bowyer was living in Italy, although he still retained an interest in the estate and the parish, for example bestowing stained glass windows by Willement on the parish church of St James in 1840. The negotiations with Singleton and Sewell were conducted on his behalf by his sons George – the “Mr. Sewell” with whom they negotiated – and William, later to become the 7th and 8th baronets respectively. Both the Bowyer brothers were practising lawyers based in London.
The elder brother, George Bowyer, succeeded his father as the 7th Baronet in 1860. He was an eminent writer on jurisprudence, and became MP for Dundalk, Ireland, in 1852. He was a passionate supporter of Irish Home Rule. The most significant aspect of his life was his conversion in 1850 to Catholicism. He became the most eminent supporter and leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England. The controversy surrounding this, and the implied connection with the Oxford Movement-inspired founders of Radley College, led to much local suspicion of the new school, and opposition to it from the Rectors of Radley and Abingdon. Sewell and Singleton were very keen to distance themselves from any such connection. Sir George Bowyer died in his law chambers in the Temple, London, in 1883. His funeral service took place at the Catholic church he had founded in Great Ormond St.; the estates and titles were inherited by his brother William. There has long been a tradition that he was buried secretly and without rites at the parish church of St James, Radley.
Admiral Sir George Bowyer (1740-1800) has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; his grandson has entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Catholic Encyclopaedia. Much of the remaining material for this article is taken from The history of Radley by Patrick Drysdale et al, Radley History Club, 2002.