Norham Gardens is a broad, pleasant road in North Oxford dating from Victorian times. North Oxford, defined as the area "from St Giles's Church in the south almost to Summertown in the north" (Hinchcliffe 1), was originally farmland belonging to St John's College, Oxford, and the housing development here is of special interest. It was carried out by some important architects, including Charles Buckeridge, who had studied under George Gilbert Scott, and John Gibbs, who had designed the famous Banbury Cross. In some ways this housing is representative of the kind of provision being made for the growing middle classes in the second half of the nineteenth century; but it is not completely typical. It is well laid out, having been "conceived and developed as a picturesque villa estate" (Hinchcliffe 90), and much thought went into the design of houses built for individual clients. Fortunately, it has not lost its character over the years. Being very close to the town centre rather than on its outskirts, and bounded by the River Cherwell to the east and the Oxford Canal to the west, it has neither sprawled nor become prey to large-scale redevelopment.
The house featured here is a substantial semi-detached family house at the east end of Norham Gardens. The architect was a local man by the name of George Shirley, working for the secretary and surveyor of the Oxford Building and Investment Company, John Galpin. The same partnership accounted for several houses on this north side of the street, all of which were built by a contractor called John Dover. It may not be one of the more architecturally distinctive residences, but it has its own interest, since it was intended to meet the general residential requirements of the time. The warm yellow-brick frontage with gables, out-bracketed oriel, and two lower bay windows, is only mildly Gothic in appearance, without fussy detailing either in the brickwork or stonework over the windows. The steps on the unattached side lead up to an entrance porch adjoining the main building, and pleasantly breaking up its line. The vestibule opens out into a large entrance hall. The room straight ahead of this would then have been the dining room — "the most public room in the house" (Flanders 217). Off the hall also are the drawing room and another reception room, perhaps originally the morning room, where the business of the household would have been conducted. To the right of the hall is the stairwell, with stairs down to the basement, where the generously-sized kitchen and utility spaces are located. These would have been the realm of the household staff. Upstairs are three more floors with further living rooms, including a large lounge, a study or library (a particular requisite in the Oxford area), and the bedrooms and nursery. The house has high ceilings and is amply proportioned by today's standards; most such houses are now split into flats. With their expectations of live-in domestic servants, generally including a cook and a parlourmaid, and all their living space, well-off middle-class Victorians could live in a style to which only the wealthy can now aspire.
But how many such comfortably middle-class Victorians were there at this point? In the period 1873-76 the builder John Dover himself appears as first leaseholder of four of the other properties for which he was responsible, indicating either that the building work was still in process then, or, more likely perhaps, that the leases had not yet been sold on. After all, in 1876, the leases on houses like this went for something over £1000 (Hinchcliffe 55), and Judith Flanders estimates that the "prosperous middle classes" only had an income of £200-£300 per annum (309). So although here, as elsewhere, such buyers were "courted by speculative builders who built suburban homes on the fringes of most cities" (Crowley 109), the take-up was limited. Galpin's joint-stock company was soon in trouble. In the end, early in 1883, there was a run on it, and at one point an effigy of Galpin was carried through the streets by investors who had lost their savings (Hinchcliffe 63). The company had to be wound up. This illustrates the dangers of speculation in this era. Oxford, with its generally ill-paid dons (as Jenny Wolfe has discovered, Lewis Carroll was often in the red), not to mention its tradition of celibacy for its fellows, may have been especially risky. Once the celibacy requirement was lifted, a gradual process which took place during the 70s and 80s, more academics did marry and move out of college accommodation into North Oxford. More prospective residents also came into the area as the business side of college life expanded, in the field of publishing, for example.
Nowadays, Oxford colleges with premises already in the area, and private teaching enterprises such as English language schools, have created another kind of market for some of the bigger houses here (see Hinchcliffe 211), whether for student residences or teaching purposes. Property in North Oxford is also much sought after by affluent London commuters.
Who lived in this house when it was first built?
Crowley, David. Introduction to Victorian Style. Royston: Eagle Editions, 1998.
Flanders, Judith. The Victorian House. London: HarperCollins, 2003.
Hinchcliffe, Tanis. North Oxford. London & New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
Last modified 7 January 2007