800 Years of Development

The Abbey’s name is a little misleading, encouraging visitors to imagine it must have functioned as an Abbey, at some point in its long history, but this is not so. In 1280 The Abbey at Abingdon, commissioned the building, which began life as a rector’s house, it is believed to have been during the Victorian era, as a possible nod to its romantic heritage, that the building acquired the name ‘The Abbey’.

The two-storey building is constructed from stone and timber with clay roof tiles, though originally the roof would have been a thatched. Four ranges (or wings) are arranged around a central courtyard, making The Abbey a ‘textbook’ example of the English medieval Manor House, and awarding it a Grade 1 listed building status. 

The oldest part of the building was originally built in timber frame, and consisted of the north and west ranges, the library and Great Hall, in the late 13th century they were encased in stone to stabilise the structure. The prominent King-strut trusses in the Great Hall are an exciting and unusual feature, in that they were never hidden by a ceiling.

The library and dining room in the north range, feature two fourteenth century windows and evidence of a third. This space was intended as a Great Chamber to partner the Great Hall. It had the same open roof structure as the Hall until the 19th century, when the space was divided into two separate rooms, the dining room and library. During this time the north range was extended, to incorporate Solar and the kitchen, and partitioned to form a chapel (Branch guest room), a sign of status.
The main entrance to The Abbey, was through the rear door of the cross passage, which served to separate The Great Hall, from the service wing, today housing the meditation room and accommodation. 

Much of The Abbey’s appeal comes from its unusual evolution; the east range, which today holds the entrance archway was constructed around 1500, with a timber frame upper on existing stone walls. The south range, extending the service wing, where the meeting room Hearth sits, was added later during the 16th century. Finally in the 17th century the south east corner was filled, completing the plan to create a courtyard. The two storey structure open to the eaves, once served as a kitchen however is now used as The Abbey’s administration office.

With much detective work still to do, we are grateful to all those who have helped us understand its development thus far.
With thanks to Nick Wright, Christopher Curry and Richard Oxley.

Looking Back to Look Forward

Turning 40 has inspired us to make The Abbey’s fascinating history visible to a wider audience. Looking back to our roots and the foundation of the building and looking forward and renewing the vision of The Abbey’s role in today’s society.

In 1495 Henry 7th awarded the rectorial estate to St George’s College Windsor. By 1664 the Justice Family leased the house until in 1877 when a relative, Theobald Theobald, bought the freehold. His widow stayed in the house until 1902 when Colonel Good, a nephew, became the owner.

Colonel Henry Norton Goode of the 6th Royal Fusiliers served in the Boer War filled the Great Hall with his hunting trophies in these wonderful photographs by Henry Taunt from 1906.

20th Century transformations – notable owners and visitors

A big gap in our knowledge of The Abbey is what happened after Colonel Goode died. Who lived here during World War 1 and in the 1920’s and 30’s? We do know that in 1941 Eve Fleming, mother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, moved in and lived here till 1958.

In 1906 Eve had married Valentine Fleming. After her husband’s death in action in the Great War in May 1917, she inherited his large estate in trust, making her very wealthy. However, the conditions of the money in trust transferred it to others should she ever re-marry, so she became the mistress of painter Augustus John, with whom she had a daughter, the cellist Amaryllis Fleming.

The Abbey as Refuge

In 1958, David Astor, owner of the manor in Sutton Courtenay, editor of the Observer between 1948 and 1975 and one of the founders of Amnesty International bought The Abbey.

From November 1960 until 1970 the house was leased at a peppercorn rent to the Ockenden Venture, a post war charity, founded in 1951 and dedicated to offering sanctuary to refugees and re-homing displaced children.

Here are the wonderful women who founded the Ockenden Venture at Buckingham Palace in 1964 – from left to right Ruth Hicks, Joyce Peace, MBE, and Margaret Dixon. It was Joyce, who first opened her own home, Ockenden, to refugee children which gave the charity it’s name. The first Ockenden houseparents at The Abbey were Dane and Joan Leadlay. Initially, it housed Polish girls, followed by South African, Tibetan and Rumanian students.

These are Kaugers twins, Norbert and Karl from Germany c 1966

Nambia Centre

For a period during the early 70s David Astor made The Abbey available to Bishop Colin Winter, the former Anglican Bishop of Damaraland in South-West Africa, He was deported in 1972 for his opposition to South Africa’s policy of racial separation known as apartheid. He remained “bishop-in-exile” after his expulsion and continued to write and speak on behalf of Namibian independence.
In the UK, he also became noted for his anti-establishment comments, including a 1978 attack on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, then leader of the opposition, as ”the iron lady of right-wing aggression.” (93)

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, seated on a ceremonial throne in the medieval hall of the abbey at Sutton Courtenay, one of the Ockenden Venture centres in the UK, 22nd October 1973. (Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1973, the Dalai Lama visited The Abbey during his first visit to the West and held an audience in the Great Hall with exiled Tibetan countrymen who had sought refuge in the UK after the Chinese invasion. The Buddhist leader said he wanted to meet people on his trip who were “thinking deeply about the problems of mankind” and said his message to British Buddhists was that “they must develop compassion”