A brief history of the home of ABDO College
The earliest part of the building that houses ABDO College was built in 1732 by Thomas May Knight, a descendant of the Brodnax family who had owned the manor since 1590. He built the house on the site of an earlier Elizabethan building and turned the 600 acres surrounding the new building into parkland. The middle part of the house is still the original construction and the flanking pavilions were added around 1780.
When Thomas May Knight died in 1781 his son, also named Thomas, inherited the estate. He and his wife, having no children, made a cousin Edward Austen the heir to Godmersham and to the Chawton estates in Hampshire. A few years after Thomas May Knight II’s death, his widow retired to Canterbury and in 1797 Edward Austen came to live in Godmersham. Fifteen years later, on Mrs Knight’s death, Edward changed his name to Knight as a fond tribute to his benefactors.
Edward’s younger sister, Jane Austen, was a frequent visitor to Godmersham, often spending weeks at a time with her brother Edward, his wife Elizabeth and their children, for whom she was a much loved aunt. Godmersham is believed by many to be the inspiration for her novel Mansfield Park (1814). In 1813 Jane, referring to the house, wrote: “In this house there is a constant succession of small events, somebody is always going or coming…” – those who have visited ABDO College will know that it’s still like that today!
Edward (Austen) Knight outlived his sister Jane (who died 18 July 1817) and his son duly succeeded him in 1852. Edward the younger had established his home at Chawton House and had no wish to move his family to Kent. He made considerable additions to Godmersham, before putting the whole estate up for sale in 1874.
John Cunliffe Lister Kay bought Godmersham and was eventually succeeded by his brother Eliis, who became the 1st Lord Masham. In 1921 the 3rd Lord Masham sold the estate to the Earl of Dartmouth. For a time Lord Dartmouth, his brother and their respective families, occupied Godmersham until, in the mid 1930’s, it was purchased by Mr and Mrs Robert Tritton. Godmersham had suffered during so many changes of ownership but, under Mr and Mrs Tritton’s direction, the house enjoyed a renaissance. Elsie Tritton was the widow of Sir Louis Baron, of Black Cat cigarette fame, and Robert Tritton a respected art dealer. Their joint fortunes enabled them to re-model the House. Mrs Tritton survived her husband by 26 years and after her death in 1983 the estate was bought by the Sunley family, who undertook a major repair programme.
On 26 March 2001 the historic house opened its doors to the first group of ABDO College students. In addition to ABDO College students the house is frequently visited by interested groups, including The Jane Austen Society and continues to attract visitors both locally and from all over the world.