Coney = rabbit; coneygree = the rabbit warren, once the ‘ancient warren of the Lords of Campden’.
The name is derived from ‘Conyger’ and was an area set aside for raising of rabbits. The OED says that a number of later place names retain the ‘g’ from this – eg Conygarth but other names include conygers, coninger, coneygarth, coneries, from Old French coninière.
Purpose of the Coneygree
Like the medieval fishponds and dovecotes, the purpose of the rabbit warren was to provide a manorial or monastic estate with a regular and fresh supply of meat. Rabbits were reared as a delicacy and their fur used for lining garments. The rabbit is not native to Britain, but introduced by the Normans towards the end of the 12th century. Originally the rabbits were not used to the English climate and were thought to be incapable of burrowing so pillow mounds (artificial burrows) were constructed to aid breeding; these are sometimes visible on maps. They were caught using ferrets and nets.
In August 2007 a geophysical survey of part of the Coneygree searched for the medieval man-made rabbit warren. The result was indeterminate without an excavation to confirm, but it seems very likely that it was close to the lower churchyard wall where there is raised ground. There is evidence of medieval ridge & furrow on part of the Coneygree on the far side from the probable location of the medieval-built warren.
Only the owner of the land was allowed to kill rabbits on it until the Ground Game Act of 1880; until then even a tenant was breaking the law – poaching – by taking one. In medieval times almost all land technically belonged to the King, but he would include ‘Free Warren’ amongst the rights he gave with land to his lords; eg Atkyns records that in 1246/7 and 1272/3 Roger de Somery who held Campden and Segleigh had a Grant of Free Warren and Markets.
It is uncertain when the lord of the manor first built his manor house here, but it seems highly likely that it would have been very soon after the laying out of the ‘New Town’ in the late 12th Century. The Coneygree would have been part of the demesne lands from this or even earlier times. In the mid or later 14th century after the Black Death reduced the population, much land including the Coneygree was converted to pasture.
Next it appears that William Harrison, the steward of Baptist Hicks’s daughter and heir, Lady Juliana Noel, was in the habit of using a footpath across the Coneygree on his journeys to collect rents. After his disappearance on 16th August 1660, John Perry alleged that it was there that he was murdered.
On 14th February 1856 6,000 sq. feet of the Coneygree was acquired from the Earl of Gainsborough for an extension to St James’s graveyard. A boundary wall was built and the ground consecrated at a cost of £19.18sh 6d. In 1886 another extension was needed and a further 3,000 sq. feet was bought on the eastern boundary.
Largely through the efforts of Frederick Landseer Griggs, the Coneygree was bought by the National Trust for £1,500 in May 1934. It now has three national way-marked walking routes crossing it – the Donnington Way, the Heart of England Way and the Monarch’s Way.