For a short period in the 1970s Adderbury played a role in international affairs. Government drivers delivered ministerial red boxes requiring decisions on topics such as the terms of an International Monetary Fund loan to the UK, yet another attempt to find a solution to the Rhodesia problem, the Cod War and the UK presidency of what was then known as the EEC.
All this because Anthony Crosland and his wife Susan had bought the mill on Mill Lane in Adderbury as their “country cottage”. And for part of their time together in Adderbury, Crosland, a senior Labour politician, was Foreign Secretary.
The Croslands had had the idea of a “country retreat” in mind for some years. What attracted them to Adderbury in the first place is unknown; although North Oxfordshire as an area to search may have suggested itself because of the presence at Prescote Manor near Cropredy of Labour backbench stalwart Richard Crossman. Certainly the Croslands stayed with the Crossmans when they first came to see the Mill. Susan Crosland said they just followed up an estate agent’s advertisement. At all events, it seems to have been love at first sight: according to Susan Crosland in her 1982 biography of her husband, Crosland said later the first evening: “As soon as I saw it, my heart turned over”. The Croslands failed to secure the mill on this occasion, but were successful when it came onto the market again two years later, in 1975.
What the Croslands were looking for was somewhere they could be alone together as much as possible in their busy lives. He was in demand as the author of The Future of Socialism (1956), which has been described as “the most important theoretical treatise to be written from the moderate left of British politics in the first twenty-five post-war years” (Roy Jenkins), as a government minister and as a constituency MP (for Grimsby) and during times when attendance at House of Commons votes was an additional necessity. She was equally busy as a successful journalist who came to specialise in celebrity interviews for the national press, writing under the pen name “Susan Barnes”. Her profiles included ones of Barbara Cartland, Margot Fonteyn, Kenneth Tynan, Kingsley Amis and Jack Jones. Anthony Crosland and Susan Catling (as she then was) had met in 1956 and married in 1964. It was a second marriage for both, and Susan had two daughters from her previous marriage.
Adderbury came to symbolise their marriage to quite a surprising extent. This is clear from the following passage describing one visit to Adderbury in 1976 taken from Susan Crosland’s biography of her husband:
“From the sitting-room we could see the brook, brown and swollen, rushing self-importantly past the bottom of the garden, spilling over into the garden. ‘Think I like Adderbury best of all in winter,’ [Tony] said. ‘Gives an even greater sense of being alone together.’”
In the short period they had owned it, their house in Adderbury had seen both disaster and subsequent triumph in Anthony Crosland’s political life. When they bought the mill, in 1975, Anthony Crosland was Secretary of State for the Environment, but in 1976 came the Labour Party leadership election which followed Harold Wilson’s resignation. Although his friends and supporters advised him against it, Crosland decided to put himself forward as a candidate, suggesting that he would “draw support from the common ground which unites Left and Right”, although with little hope of success. Interestingly, he said that he felt “I could get through the public humiliation because I have a happy marriage and we have just bought a country cottage”.
In the event, Crosland came bottom of the poll and was eliminated on the first round. Yet within weeks he was appointed Foreign Secretary by the incoming Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, and the press was suggesting that this was just a prelude to the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer which had always attracted him and which, in turn, could lead to even higher things.
Susan Crosland came into her own as she accompanied her husband abroad (paying her own way in economy with Crosland popping through bearing glasses of champagne). One of the few concessions she made to being a minister’s wife was that she stopped dyeing her hair pink. The highlight for her of Crosland’s nine months as Foreign Secretary was the Queen’s Bicentennial visit to the United States. The Croslands went over on the Royal yacht Britannia, with the Queen showing her how to stand for hours without tiring. At the embassy dinner in Washington for President Ford, she fell and broke her jaw – which was set by presidential surgeons.
During Crosland’s time as Foreign Secretary, it wasn’t just red boxes that came to Adderbury. Dignitaries visited as well, none more exalted than Dr Henry Kissinger, the US Secretary of State. After initial awkwardness, Crosland and Kissinger came to have quite a close relationship. Two stories are told in the village about Dr Kissinger. The first concerns food: Kissinger was apparently very fond of onion soup made from especially sweet onions grown in the Croslands’ Adderbury garden, as well as of dishes made from their rhubarb (known thereafter as “Kissinger’s Rhubarb”). The other story concerns the Adderbury Scout troop, who on one occasion had their night exercises rudely interrupted by the armed security men who were guarding Kissinger.
The Crosland’s life together in their Adderbury weekend retreat was not to last for long. On Saturday, 12th February 1977, the day after their thirteenth wedding anniversary, Anthony Crosland suffered a major stroke. Susan Crosland’s account of events is as follows:
“When [Tony] returned from his morning walk it was long past noon. I was in the courtyard when he came striding down the lane, swinging his arms …. “Adderbury is an absolutely ravishing village. This is an ‘ultimate’ weekend,” he said.
Twenty minutes later we were having a belated mid-morning coffee, he working on Rhodesia papers. He had to refill his pen from the bottle in my desk, always grumbled about this task. “Are you sure pens used to run out this soon?” he said, returning to his chair. I was at the table in the window and had just started a letter to Sheila. “Something has happened,” he said.
Because he often mimed to entertain me, spoke in a solemn voice about things trivial, as I turned in my chair I imagined ink from the newly-filled pen had leaked onto something quite unimportant. [His secretary] said later how strange it was to see on the Rhodesia papers where the pen had stopped in mid-letter. “I can’t feel my right side,’ Tony said.””
Five days later Anthony Crosland died in the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. His ashes were later scattered by Susan Crosland in the sea off Grimsby, where Crosland had been the popular and successful MP. As David Owen, then a Junior Minister at the Foreign Office, said at the time: “His lifestyle, the long hours, good food, little exercise, alcohol and cigars could not have helped.”
Susan Crosland continued to visit Adderbury at weekends for just over twenty years after her husband’s death, receiving help from villagers with the garden and with the management of the sluice gate at the Old Mill. In 1982 she published her biography of Crosland, with the Preface written from Adderbury. This has been described as the outstanding inside portrait of what it was to be a leading politician in the second half of the twentieth century and of what it was to be his devoted supporter, wife, and lover. Thereafter, according to a friend, “though Susan Crosland lived for thirty-four years after Tony died, her grief never left her. Consequently her career did not hit its former heights”. Neither collections of her celebrity interviews, nor a series of what were known at the time as “airport novels” were particularly successful. She also suffered from ill health. She sold the mill in 1998, and on 26 February 2011 she died of pneumonia at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital after a short illness. She was survived by her first husband and the two daughters from her first marriage.
Jack Donaldson, (later to become Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge), who was Minister of Arts in the Wilson and Callaghan governments, and hence a cabinet colleague of Anthony Crosland,, said the following about the marriage of Anthony and Susan Crosland at the Service of Thanksgiving for Anthony Crosland, held at Westminster Abbey on 7th March 1977:
“… the thing which perhaps no one understood or allowed for was his capacity to love. Those of us who knew him well were not surprised when he found someone with whom he could settle down and mature … No, what surprised us was the ease and simplicity with which he slipped into the roles of husband, of step-father, and of head of the family. If he had not met Susan Barnes all this might never have been revealed and he might never have fulfilled his potential. But it was a marriage of two equals and he gave to it as much as he received.”
Crosland, S. (1982): Tony Crosland. Coronet Books.
Jeffreys, K. (1999): Anthony Crosland, A New Biography. Richard Cohen Books
I am grateful to the following for providing additional material: Robert Cooke, Nicola Wilson and Tim Woodall.
Note: I haven’t been able to find any images of the Croslands or their life in Adderbury that are not subject to copyright. However, you may want to follow up one particular image, which shows them seated on a bench at the Old Mill. The address of the image is: https://media.gettyimages.com/photos/british-labour-politician-anthony-crosland-secretary-of-state-for-the-picture-id940078672?s=612×612. If you copy this address into your browser you should be able to inspect the image.