This particular house in Norham Gardens was first leased in 1873 by Arthur Johnson, the chaplain of All Souls College, and a tutor of history — remembered now as one of the "Oxford tutors to whom students felt the greatest debts from the 1870s until the 1920s" (Aston et al. 374). He got married in 1873, and it is very likely that the young couple had parental help when setting up home together. They were a worthy pair. Bertha was to prove even more influential than her husband, becoming a prime mover in the establishment both of Lady Margaret Hall and of St Anne's College, Oxford. She was one of the first few women to receive a degree from Oxford herself, and the first woman to hold a senior appointment there.
Yet they were not an exceptional couple in the North Oxford of that era. Several other distinguished academics lived in the same road. These included fellows, professors, a tutor, and the bursar of Keble College, the Hon. W. Sackville-West. The residents were by no means all academics, though. Alongside them lived a solicitor, an auctioneer, a hatter, a commercial traveller, and others whose occupations are recorded at the end of Tanis Hinchcliffe's book as "gentleman," "widow" and "spinster."
The mix of people in the neighbourhood is further exemplified in the childhood memories of Ethel Hatch, one of the Rev. Charles Dodgson's young friends, who lived in an 1867-built house on Banbury Road, which runs past the very end of Norham Gardens. Ethel's father, Henry Hatch, is listed as the leaseholder of a very fine and much more obviously Gothic-style house than the Johnsons'. It has arched windows, a tower, and a turret complete with a statue niche towards the top. Hatch's occupation is given as a draper; evidently a local independent tradesman, he is also described by Hinchcliffe as a bootmaker and theatre proprietor (211, 104). The Hatches mingled with the some of the most illustrious names of the day. The Humphry Wards, for example, lived in Bradmore Road, the first turning off Norham Gardens after Banbury Road, and Ethel remembered Mrs Humphry Ward's sisters, Julia and Ethel, coming over in the Christmas holidays to tell her mother "about the visit they had just paid to Uncle Mat, who seemed to be an amusing old gentleman who had played pranks with them." Uncle Mat was their father Tom's brother Matthew Arnold, whom Ethel would later meet at Julia's wedding, when he sat next to Thomas Huxley, the groom's father. Ethel also recalled the Liddells from Christ Church passing by in a "high wagonette," from which "Alice [the original of Dodgson's Alice] and her sisters would wave to us." Then there was Walter Pater, "wearing a black tail coat and a peacock blue tie through a gold ring" who came over to ask after her brother, after he had had an operation. At the first house on one side of Norham Gardens (number 2), Ethel remembered, lived the Professor of Politics and Economics, Bonamy Price, who had once been Thomas Arnold's favourite pupil at Rugby. Amongst others who visited her house were Mark Pattison, Benjamin Jowett, and Dr Spooner. North Oxford is still a lovely place to live, but those early years must have had a special magic about them.
To complete the picture of Norham Gardens: right at the east end of the road lies Lady Margaret Hall, the pioneering Oxford women's college promoted by Bertha Johnson, which admitted its first seven students in 1879 and was listed that year as the leaseholder of number 21 (Hinchcliffe 232-33; Lady Margaret Hall, "History").
Note: it may be significant that Bertha Johnson's father, Robert Bentley Todd, himself an important educational reformer in the field of medicine, had been a Professor of Physiology at King's College London. This was very active in promoting higher education for women. See "The University of London and Women Students."
Aston, Trevor Henry et al. The History of Oxford University. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Hinchcliffe, Tanis. North Oxford. London & New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
"Miss Ethel Hatch." Third Programme BBC Radio Broadcast, Easter Sunday 1967. Archival transcription from the McGowin Library, Pembroke College, Oxford.
Last modified 7 November 2013