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The Story of Coombe Abbey - click for Contents Page

Chapter VI - The Wind of Change

After the death of the fourth Earl, the Craven family decided to dispose of Combe (or Coombe, as it was now spelled) Abbey and in 1922 they arranged to sell the entire estate of 6,952 acres to John Todd, a property developer.  The Countess moved most of the pictures to her other properties, but the remaining contents of the house had to be sold before the property could be handed over.  A sale, held on Wednesday the 4th of July 1923 and the seven following days, was handled by Messrs. George Lovett and Sons of Coventry and disposed of the contents of the house in 2277 lots.   These consisted mainly of furniture, but also included most of the books from the library, and a few pictures, including one Rubens.

from the 1923 sales catalogue

Mr Todd was then able to capitalise on his newly acquired assets.  On the 17th and 24th of August 1923 a sale was held by Messrs. Winterton and Sons of Lichfield of  The Residential, Agricultural and Sporting Property known as the Coombe Abbey Estate embracing an area of about 6,952 Acres including the Historical Mansion of Coombe Abbey with beautiful grounds and Gardens, standing in a well-timbered deer park, partly bounded by a magnificent lake of 90 acres with charming old world Terrace and Water Gardens, Modern Stabling, Garages, Workshops etc., 29 First-Class Dairy and Stock Farms, small holdings, River Meadows, Building Sites, Accommodation Meadow, Turf and Arable Land, Four Private Residences; Fully Licensed Inn, known as "The Craven-Arms," Binley, Village Smithy, Post Office, Allotment Gardens and about 70 cottages.  The estate was split into 166 lots and it is interesting to see in the catalogue the names of many of the lands which had been given to the Monks of Combe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and which had remained as part of the estate since that time.  Lot 126, which contained Coombe Abbey, the Gardens, Grounds and Home Park - about 180 Acres, did not reach its reserve price but after the sale it was bought by John George Gray, a Coventry Builder.

Mr Gray had moved from Lincolnshire to Coventry during the boom in the bicycle industry and had entered the building trade.  He was a very hard working and shrewd business man and he soon became known as the best builder in Coventry.  The quality of his work won him his first big contract - the building of the Courtauld factory.  Mr Gray's success continued and he soon began buying building land in Coventry, which was to provide him with a considerable income in the years to come.

When Coombe Abbey came up for sale in 1923, Mr Gray bought it not only because he wanted to live there, but also because he believed that if he did not buy it, it might be totally demolished - a fate met by many historic buildings during the twentieth century.  He soon realised the inconvenience of the old buildings, however, and decided to modernise them, creating a much smaller though elegant home for his family.  In March 1925 he held a sale, which included such items as staircases, panelled rooms, plaster ceilings, over-mantels and chimney pieces, floors, roofing and windows.  All these were still part of the house, and it was up to the buyers to remove them.  Many items went to the United States of America, but others remained in England.  A staircase is understood to have gone to Solihull, Birmingham, while at least one fireplace went to a country house in Yorkshire.

After the sale, Mr Gray set about making Coombe Abbey habitable.  He demolished most of Nesfield's buildings, which were considered at that time to be in poor taste, and also some of the older parts, including Winde's library, and he modernised the remainder, finishing up with a house which, though still vast, was certainly more convenient than the old one.  The stone from the demolished buildings was stacked in the Eastern Garden which, in the 1960s, still served as a stone-yard.  Mr Gray was known throughout the country as an authority on paintings, silverware, porcelain and antiques in general, and during his residence there Coombe was almost as well stocked with art treasures as it had been in the days of the Cravens.  He used the abbey land for cattle breeding and his Abbeycoombe stock of Red Poll cattle was much sought after.

During the Second World War the grounds and farm area to the north-east of the abbey were occupied by the Royal Artillery.  With the exception of dances and similar functions held in the North Parlour, the military were excluded from the house and west gardens, which remained the private domain of the Gray family.  In 1960 a large steel plate, believed to have been the base of a sentry box or guard post from this period, survived in the ground just outside the moat bridge.  Following the devastating night air raids on the city of Coventry in November 1940 and April 1941, it was suggested that enemy aircraft might have been directed towards their target by reflections in the water of Coombe Pool.  The sluices were therefore opened and the pool was drained until the threat of raids had subsided.

The Gray family continued to live at Coombe until 1952 when Mr Gray retired to a smaller house near Warwick.  Towards the end of 1952 he leased the house and ornamental gardens to the General Electric Company Ltd., of England for a period of seven years, for use as a residential hostel for its technician, student and graduate apprentices. Mr Gray died towards the end of 1958, but the property remained in the family and the lease was extended for a further period of seven years, with an option on yet another. 


In 1961 there were seventy apprentices resident at Coombe Abbey, most of them staying there for only one year.  They were supervised by a Warden who lived with his family in a self contained flat, and there were also several resident domestic staff.  The house was run by a House Committee which was elected from the residents twice yearly, and was under the chairmanship of the Warden.  The committee organised social functions within the House and was responsible for the organisation and running of the House.  It also administered a House Fund, to which all residents contributed a small sum each week and which was used to provide amenities not provided by the G.E.C.  Another committee, the Bar Committee, ran a licenced club whose profits also went to the House Fund.  A "do it yourself" attitude was encouraged in the House, and almost all the apprentices spent much of their free time labouring on various projects associated with improving the amenities of the House.

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