Ashburnham Retreat, SE10

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Elizabeth Ashburnham (1727 – February 5, 1781) nee Crowley, was a wealthy heiress who inherited land known as the Ditches, on the west side of today’s Greenwich South Street. Her grandfather, Sir Ambrose Crowley, was originally from Newcastle, and had grown wealthy making anchors for the navy. By the time he died in 1713 the Crowley Iron Works in Durham were probably the biggest in the country. These were left to his son John Crowley who died when Elizabeth was just one year old. The works and family fortune was then passed to both the infant and her mother Theodosia described as “arguably the most remarkable businesswoman of the mid-eighteenth century, who, for the nearly three decades since her husband’s death, had been overseeing the family business”. This made Elizabeth very wealthy and exceptionally desirable as a wife. In 1756, she married John Ashburnham, the 2nd Earl of Ashburnham and became Lady Ashburnham. She brought with her a dowry of £200,000 and a considerable amount of property, including Barking Hall in Suffolk. The match was noted with some wry, if rather cruel, amusement by Lord Chesterfield, who writing from Bath that year said: “Lord Ashburnham is very soon to be married to the youngest Miss Crowley. At an average of fat and lean they will make only embonpoint together.” He was wrong, however, the couple went on to have six children. The Earldom was created in 1730 for her husband’s father, also called John, though the family name is much older and can be traced back to the Middle Ages when the family emerged as small landowners in the parish of Ashburnham in Sussex, known as Esseborne in 1086. In 1194, a Reginald de Esburneham, evidently a man of some substance, gave land to the monks of Battle and Robertsbridge abbeys. The name itself, comes from the Old English words æsc meaning ash trees, burn referring to a brook or stream, and ham deriving from hamm, a piece of land in the bow of a river. By Elizabethan times, the family enjoyed some distinction, developing its close ties with royalty. Sir John Ashburnham served as King Charles I’s Groom of the Bedchamber and reportedly organised the king’s flight across the country to the Isle of Wight in an attempt to escape the Parliamentarian forces. The 2nd earl held a number of official positions such as Lord of the Bedchamber, Lord Lieutenant of Sussex, Keeper of Hyde and St James’s Parks, Privy Councillor, Master of the Great Wardrobe, and First Lord of the Bedchamber and Groom of the Stole. The Ditches were developed in the 19thCentury, this street appearing on a map dating to 1869.

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