Neither of the earlier histories of the school, written in 1897 and 1947, nor even the diary of the Founder and First Warden, Robert Singleton, written in 1847, mention so significant a detail as Capability Brown’s involvement in the landscape. This is almost unbelievable given that the house and grounds were chosen as the site for the school specifically because of their beauty. Because this information about the landscape is missing it has sometimes been suggested that the work was very minor or was never completed. This argument is supported by the relatively modest cost of the work: in 1770, £672 would set you back the equivalent of £110,880 in 2016. At that time Capability Brown charged £100 (equivalent to over £13,000) for a speculative site visit; his leading foreman was paid £400 pa. One of his greatest landscapes, Blenheim Palace just fifteen miles away from Radley and where work began six years before in 1764, eventually cost more than £21,000 (equivalent to £3,801,000 in 2016); while Nuneham Courtenay, the closest major Brownian landscape, facing Radley Hall across the River Thames, was completed in 1778 at unknown cost. However, study of Brown’s only surviving Accounts Book and his bank accounts show that there were at least fifteen landscape gardens who final cost was less than £1000, several of them less than £500. This implies that the work at Radley Hall, although modest, was within the standard scope of Brown’s work.
The Park at Radley: politics plays its part
From at least the 12th century the estate at Radley was owned by the Benedictines of Abingdon Abbey. The Abbey maintained the estate as a deer park which had a fence and gates to limit wood and deer poaching, and a succession of park keepers who lived on site. Remnants of strip farming revealed by aerial photos taken in 1952 indicate that there was also arable cultivation on what are now the pitches. Orchards were planted as part of a national project to improve the quality of fruit: ‘as late as 1537 the last Abbot of Abingdon Abbey was still attempting to ensure the improvement of land at Radley by imposing a condition that the tenant should plant two apple or two pear trees there every year.’
When the Abbey was dissolved in 1538, its came under the control of the Crown. The earliest survey of the estate was conducted by Roger Amyce, the King’s Surveyor, in 1547. His terrier of land use throughout the parish of Radley indicates that strip-farming by tenant farmers was still the norm outside of the Park itself, but it is possible that the former deer park was enclosed at this time for increased sheep-rearing.
In 1559, the Stonhouse family bought the estate of Radley Park. They were part of an emergent middle class, holding positions as local MPs and Justices of the Peace, of moderate wealth and income. Over the next 250 years, much of their focus was on improving the land, primarily for sheep-farming. Comparison of a land-use terrier drawn up in 1632/3 when Sir George Stonhouse inherited the estate, with records from 1676, indicates huge enclosure with the number of arable fields dropping from 970 to c.100. There were also reforms in tenancy agreements, which resulted in larger individual farms with new farmhouses: Park End and Sugworth farmhouses both date from the 1640s and were probably part of this. There was also a large house on the estate itself, which was listed as having 19 hearths in the Hearth Tax Returns. The Stonhouses were flourishing. However, they came close to financial ruin in 1643 when the victorious Parliament imposed heavy fines on landowners who had sided with the King in the Civil War. Sir George Stonhouse was fined £1,460, which was the highest amount levied in Berkshire. The Park may have suffered as part of raising funds to pay for this with much mature timber being felled as a cash crop:
abundance of woods have been destroyed hereabouts, particularly a great deal of the fine park of Radley, to which scholars of Oxford used so much to resort. Thomas Hearne
In 1701, Radley Hall was inherited by George’s son, Sir John Stonhouse. He was Tory MP for Abingdon from 1701 until his death in 1733. John had close links with the court of Queen Anne, being appointed Comptroller of the Household and a Privy Counsellor in 1713. But possible higher office was thwarted by the death of Anne in 1714: although his name was put forward for the Treasury Board his appointment was not supported by the new, Whig, Hanoverian regime of George I. In 1714, he retreated to work on improving his estate at Radley, and became infamous in Abingdon as the MP who never spoke in the House of Commons for the next 19 years. There was much to do at Radley Hall: on April 18th, 1714, Thomas Hearne paid a visit:
I went over this morning to Radley … [I] had time to walk about the Fields and consider the Bigness of the Park, which appears to me to have been large, tho’ the present Park be very small and mean.
Sir John Stonhouse’s lasting legacy at Radley was the building of a new house, now called the Mansion. In 1721/2, he employed an up-coming local builder, William Townesend from Oxford, who was beginning to practice as an architect as well as builder. Townesend’s work books show that he was working at for Vanbrugh at Blenheim and with Hawksmoor at All Souls’ College, Oxford, whilst working at Radley; towards end of the build at Radley he was builder/architect (possibly including a gothic rotunda in the gardens) at Shotover House. Sir John financed his new house by speculating in the South Sea Company in 1724, and by improved husbandry and more enclosure, reducing the number of tenant farmers. But relations between client and architect were not harmonious, resulting in a law suit. This may be why the house and grounds were still not finished when Thomas Hearne visited on June 1st, 1727:
I walked to Radley where Sir John Stonhouse hath built a new brick house, but tis nothing near so pleasant nor snug as the old large house which (they say) is to be pulled down. The inside and gardens &c are not quite finished.
Sir John died in 1733. Hearne wrote his obituary:
He was an honest man and improved his estate much by his skill in husbandry. The poor labourers will miss him much, he being a constant employer of such … He died in his new seat at Radley, being very lately removed into it, to’ the old one there be still standing. This new seat was built by Sir John at his own charges.
Sir John had been married twice and had made very good marriages for his daughters. His three sons each inherited Radley Hall in turn. His eldest son, another Sir John Stonhouse, concentrated on improving the estate. His accounts record purchases of surrounding farms to enlarge his holdings, continuing enclosures, and stock breeding, both sheep and cattle. The deer park still remained, however, supplying gifts for his sisters and employing a huntsman. He also had ornamental gardens, for which he bought specialist seeds, and employed a gardener who was one of his highest paid staff.
Two major innovations during Sir John’s ownership of Radley were the turnpiking of the Oxford to London road in 1755 and the publication of Rocque’s Map of Berkshire in 1761. The road passed to the west of the Park, crossing between farms owned by the Stonhouses and gave the opportunity to create a long, formal processional avenue (now Cheesers). The map gives us an accurate view of the House and Park before Capability Brown was employed, which allows us to reconstruct the landscape changes he might have made. >>>Rocque’s Map of Berkshire, 1761>>>
Sir John died in 1768. He was succeeded by his brother, Sir William Stonhouse. WilliamStonhouse inherited a prosperous estate with the latest agricultural innovations in farm tenancies and stock-breeding. The house his father built in 1721/2 was complete, but the formal designs of the grounds and garden were minimal. There was also a new, fashionable garden designer who had already worked on the estates of William’s cousin, Sir James Dashwood at Kirtlington, his sister, Catherine Lee, Countess of Lichfield at Ditchley and his niece, Penelope Pitt at Stratfield Saye. Read on >>> for Capability Brown’s Radley connection client network.
Sir William seems to have begun preparing the Park for Capability Brown to work on it as soon as he inherited. His accounts record large amounts raised from the sale of timber from 1768:
1768-1777 accounts of Sir William Stonhouse
1768 Feb 29 recd the wood account £115 10s 6d
Aug 23 recd of Mr Robarts for trees £7 6s 6d
1769 Jan 17 pd Mr Townsend’s bill £1 17s 7s
Jan 20 pd for postings and railings on account £10
Mar 30 for posting and railing £11
Oct 21 recd of Mr Bance for a lot of timber £710
Dec 4 pd Gardener’s bill £6 8s 1d
1770 Apr 9 pd Mr Brown £200
Nov 22 recd for underwood £61
1771 Mar 9 recd of Bance 1st payment for a lot of timber £210
Jun 2 pd Hanmore for [ honey?] bees £2 17s
Jun 2 pd Raisne(?) for a sun dial £3 4s 6d
Oct 10 recd of Bance for last lot of timber £210
(Source. Berkshire Record Office)
The figures raised from the sale of timber exceed the total amount paid to Capability Brown as recorded in his own accounts by several hundred pounds. The cost of the work was, therefore, well within budget.
Sir William did not enjoy his new garden for very long. He died in 1777 and was succeeded by his brother, Sir James Stonhouse. Sir James continued improving the Park and gardens, including the latest fashion statement: an ice house. This was close to the boundary ditch of the Park as shown on Rocque’s map, and is now part of the 6th green on the golf course. Sir James did not employ Capability Brown for any of this work, but in 1778, Brown was working on one of his greatest landscapes, Nuneham Courtnay. Nuneham Courtnay is directly across the River Thames in sight of Radley, and Brown may have used his earlier landscape garden as part of the wider vistas from the new commission.
Sir James Stonhouse died in 1792; the last of the Stonhouses to live at Radley. His niece, Penelope Pitt, Lady Rivers, inherited Radley for her life time. She was estranged from her husband by this date and probably lived in Italy. It is likely that she never came to Radley. Her cousin, Admiral Sir George Bowyer, inherited the estate in 1795. Admiral Bowyer’s contribution to the Radley landscape was an elm avenue running from Radley to Kennington which he planted in 1798 to celebrate Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile. The Admiral was succeeded by his son, Sir George Bowyer. Bowyer speculated disastrously in a fraudulent coal mine and the subsequent planned construction of a canal to transport the hoped-for coal from the quarry near Sunningwell to the River Thames. Financial disaster forced him to auction the contents of the House, put the house and some grounds up for rent, and move to Italy in 1815. >>>The Stonhouse & Bowyer families>>>
The first tenant of Radley Hall was a school for non-conformist boys run by Benjamin Kent. He leased the house and just 112 acres of the Park for Radley Hall School for £290 pa from 1819 to 1844. The rest of the Park was farmed, mostly for sheep and cattle. This separation of the house from the Park in 1819 is crucial to any reconstruction of the fate of Capability Brown’s landscape, as is the discontinuity of tradition and knowledge between owners and tenants from 1792.
A further break in tradition occurred in 1844 when the Didcot to Oxford railway opened, followed by the branch line from Abingdon to Radley in 1856. This was a much faster and safer route to London and Oxford than the old turnpike road: the mail coach had been held up in Bagley Wood as late as 1834. The railway and station are on eastern side of the Park, unlike the old road to the west, thus making the West Lodges and the processional carriageway along Cheesers redundant as a formal entrance
Radley Hall School closed in 1844. There were short-term tenants until 1846, but by March 1847, when four educational reformers met in Oxford to plan a new type of school, the lease was again available for rent. William Sewell and Robert Corbet Singleton visited a number of other properties before they arrived at Radley Hall in April 1847, but they were immediately convinced they had found the right place. The beauty of the landscape was a vital part of their decision, but no mention was made of the garden designer. By the 1840s, Capability Brown was so far out of fashion that his role in designing Radley’s landscape had long been forgotten or discounted. However, the grand clumps of trees dictated how the school used the land and laid out its buildings: Singleton particularly praised a grass sward in front of the house where the boys can play cricket, while The line of the Dormitories was marked out by Dr Sewell himself walking about with a measuring tape in hand, choosing the sites so as not to interfere with the big trees. Radley College finally bought the freehold of the Radley Hall estate in 1888.