Architecture: North Oxford, where the good life began: The ideal of 'the country in the town' came to fruition in this attractive suburb, writes Godfrey Hodgson

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The Independent Culture
Belbroughton Road is bonny, and pinkly bursts the spray,

Of prunus and forsythia across the public way.

IT WAS, characteristically, John Betjeman, prophet of the Victorian revival, who was the first of the Moderns to have the courage to admit to an affection for the brick villas and ogival windows of North Oxford.

For Nancy Mitford, Georgian Classicists and Modernists between the wars, North Oxford was the epitome of suburban philistinism. In the past 15 years, though, it has been rediscovered not just by romantics and aesthetes, but also by commuters and the estate agents who find them homes there.

Now Tanis Hinchcliffe has written the first systematic, historical and architectural study of what must be one of the most famous British suburbs of all, even if only because so many articulate people spent a certain amount of time there in their youth.

North Oxford has a remarkable homogeneity (even though from the start it has catered for a wide variety of incomes), because it was built on the estate of St John's College, which continued to own virtually all the property there until leasehold enfranchisement in the Sixties.

Using the college's archives, Ms Hinchcliffe has demolished some myths and shed new light on the relationship between landlords, speculators, tenants, architects and builders in Victorian England, and on the natural history of an original British contribution to civilisation that has been widely copied in North America and elsewhere: the 'villa estate', precursor of the garden suburb.

The myth has it that St John's leased out its North Oxford property because after the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act of 1877, colleges were allowed to change their statutes so that fellows could stay in Oxford and teach when they married, rather than being obliged to retire to a college 'living' in a distant parish.

Ms Hinchcliffe shows that more than a quarter of a century earlier St John's conceived the intention of profiting by a coherent development of its North Oxford estate. F J Morrell, a steward of the college's estates, had a vision of a garden suburb centering on the Neo-Gothic church of St Philip and St James (better known as 'Phil and Jim') designed by George Edmund Street, the obsessive Gothic Revivalist best known for the Law Courts in the Strand, London. North Oxford was not built because fellows could marry and keep their fellowships: they married and found North Oxford waiting for them.

The other surprise in Ms Hinchcliffe's research is that North Oxford was first settled by local tradesmen, not by dons. Among those who built the first palatial houses were two chemists, a corn chandler, a lawyer, a wine merchant and a photographer.

It was only after a series of commercial upheavals which included the depression of the 1870s and the bankrutpcy of Frederick Codd, architect of some of of the suburb's most elegant Gothic homes, that North Oxford became an academic suburb.

Ms Hinchcliffe shows that from the beginning a high proportion of tenants were women - a characteristic of middle-class Victorian neighbourhoods. Even then, the high Victorian afternoon was not quite so virtuous as portrayed; in 1889 the St John's bailiff absconded with pounds 3,000 - a huge sum then - and in 1896 the bursar ran off with another pounds 3,000.

Ms Hinchcliffe also shows that North Oxford was not aboriginally Gothic. She has unearthed a bird's-eye watercolour - probably by William Wilkinson, one of the principal architect-developers to work on the St John's estate - of the area known as Norham Manor, immediately north of the University Parks. It shows a mixture of Gothic and Italianate styles; in fact, the suburb today is a museum of English domestic architecture from the Italianate through Gothic to Queen Anne and Twenties Neo-Georgian.

Suburbs have often been seen as a faint-hearted compromise between town and country. The Victorians built them, however, at a time when neither town nor country seemed particularly attractive. The countryside was muddy,

tedious and remote, while even such a beautiful town as Oxford was cramped, smelly and rowdy.

The suburb was seen as a place where it was possible to live the Christian life or, for the increasing number of Victorians who were not Christians, the good life. Dickens tells in Great Expectations how Wemick, the lawyer's clerk, with his 'air of knowing something to everyone else's disadvantage', recovers his humanity when he leaves the grim neighbourhood of his Newgate office, with its prison, gallows and slaughterhouse, and takes Pip to meet his parents in 'the castle', a suburban home only a mile or so south of the river.

Ms Hinchcliffe shows how the financial interests of all those concerned, and especially the strategic need for a wealthy college to free itself from dependence on agricultural rents in a time of agrarian depression, combined to make possible the lastingly attractive ideal of rus in urbe - or North Oxford, one of Britain's most endearing suburbs . . . now that we are allowed to say we like it.

'North Oxford' by Tanis Hinchcliffe, Yale University Press, pounds 25.

(Photograph omitted)