It’s surprising that so few people have heard of John Wilson Croker, secretary to the Admiralty, privy Councillor and MP. For he was the most brilliant Parliamentarian of his day, decimating his opponents with a mastery of facts, accuracy of statement and incisiveness of wit that are all too lacking in the House today.
He was also an influential writer. Indeed, it was in one of his many features for the Quarterly Review that he suggested his party should adopt the new name “Conservative” because it was so opposed to drastic reforms. This was in 1830, when the party had always been been known as “Tories.” Their opponents, bore the label of “Whigs.”
When you consider that the word “tory” originally meant an Irish cut-throat, while “whig” was an insulting term for a Scottish horse-drover, you realise that party politics has never been a mealy-mouthed affair. You also see why the Whigs were not sorry to change into Liberals after the Reform Act of 1832. (The Labour party wasn’t born until 1900, so is some 260 years younger than the other two). Several rich Parliamentary plums were offered to him, but he refused them all. “I could not take an active share in a system which must, in my judgment, subvert the Church, the peerage and the Throne – in one word, the constitution of England,” he said.
So, until his death 25 years later, he spent most of his time at his home in West Molesey. Here he continued to write, and to entertain the most famous men of the day, including the Prince of Wales, Duke of Wellington, Lord Palmerston and Sir Robert Peel. He chose West Molesey because it was a peaceful spot, within easy reach of London.
His house, Molesey Grove, was a neglected cottage with 15 acres when he bought it in 1828. But architect Decimus Burton turned it into his dream home. “I wish you could see my library here,” he wrote to Sir Robert Peel. “Everyone who has seen it or sat down in it is delighted. John Croker’s private life was as remarkable as his public one. In 1806 he married a Miss Pennell. Four years later their only child died at the age of three, and the couple were so grieved they adopted Mrs Pennell’s baby sister, Rosamund, to fill the void. She was six weeks old, and her parents’ 2lst child. Croker was devoted to the baby. He called her Nony, and she grew into one of the greatest beauties of her day. George IV was enchanted by her.
He invited her to all the children’s parties at Buckingham Palace, and always singled her out for praise and attention. His successor William IV was equally dazzled by her. When she was presented at court, soon after his accession in 1830, he immediately styled her “the English beauty” and kissed her twice – once as the King and once, as he explained, “merely as a man”. Nony’s fame had been established three years earlier when her portrait was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence and shown at the Royal Academy. It was a sensation.
In the words of an art critic of the time, “the fame of the artist and the loveliness of the sitter united to exalt it above all rivalry”. Most girls would have revelled in the attention. Nony had countless suitors. Her choice was Sir George Barrow who, it was said, “incurred the envy of half the bachelors of London” when he married her.
Croker and Nony remained close until his death in 1857. He was buried in West Molesey churchyard, and there is memorial to him inside the church he was chiefly responsible for getting rebuilt in 1843. Nony, widowed in 1869, succeeded her sister as Lady of the Manor of West Molesey and patron of the church there. She was hugely generous, and her innumerable good works included founding Molesey Cottage Hospital. The Beautiful Miss Croker, as she was nationally known for years, died at her home in Kent Road, East Molesey in 1906. She was 96.