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 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 Admiral Sir George Bowyer of Denham, who was descended from the Stonhouse family through the female line. George Bowyer had been promoted rear-admiral on 1 February 1793 and took part in Lord Howe's victory at the battle of Ushant, in 1794, in his ship Barfleur but early on 1 June Bowyer lost a leg. He received a pension of £1000 p.a. for his wound, and the gold medal with chain for the victory, and on 16 August 1794 he was created a baronet, becoming the First Baronet Bowyer of Radley. Unable to serve again, Bowyer was promoted vice-admiral on 4 July 1794 and admiral on 14 February 1799. He succeeded his brother in the family baronetcy at Denham as fifth baronet in April 1799 and died at Radley on 9 December 1800; he was buried at Radley parish church on 16 December. Thereafter, his heirs continued numbering the baronetcy following the Denham line. At his house, now Radley College, the union flag is flown annually on 1 June in his memory.
His elder son, Sir George Bowyer, 6th Baronet, inherited the estate in 1800. The family’s fortune declined rapidly, exacerbated by 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. 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. The house was then rented for part of the summer of 1845 by Mr and Mrs Spiers. The house then stood unoccupied until Robert Corbet Singleton and William Sewell visited in 1847.
By 1847 Sir George Bowyer had taken up permanent residence 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 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 as 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.
Much of the material for this article is taken from The history of Radley by Patrick Drysdale, et. al, Radley History Club, 2002.
Last modified 30 January 2013