Links with Nuneham House

A brief history of Nuneham House

From our collection, this coloured print of Nuneham House was taken from the book by Francis Orpen Morris A Series of Picturesque Views of Seats of the Noblemen & Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland. The original illustrations by Alexander Francis Lydon were printed using the coloured woodblock process known as Baxter Printing, by Benjamin Fawcett of Driffield, and the book was published by William Mackenzie of Ludgate Hill in 1860.

Nuneham House is a Grade II* listed building like the Old Ticket Office. Being originally built for Simon Harcourt, 1st Earl Harcourt in 1756 it is currently owned by Oxford University. Simon Harcourt famously had an entire village demolished in 1761 and relocated to create an open aspect for the parkland around his new villa. The 2nd Lord Harcourt, George Simon Harcourt, who succeeded in 1777 commissioned Lancelot "Capability" Brown to re-design the landscaped grounds. These were started in 1779 with alterations to the house following in 1781. Several further alterations and additions to the house followed, noteably in 1832 and 1904. As far as we can ascertain, but this may be open to correction, ownership of the house and estate was passed on through inheritance as follows. First to William Harcourt, the 3rd (and last) Earl Harcourt, then by marriage to Edward Vernon Harcourt, Archbishop of York, who took the name Harcourt upon inheriting the estate from his cousin in 1830. Then followed his elder son George Granville Vernon Harcourt and upon his death leaving no heir, by George's younger brother William Vernon Harcourt in 1861. From here the estate passed in turn to his son Edward William Vernon Harcourt and then his son Edward Aubery Harcourt who died in March of 1904. His uncle, Sir William Vernon Harcourt, inherited the estate but died himself suddenly in September of the same year. He was the first member of the family to be hit by Death Duties which he himself had introduced as Chancellor of the Exchequer a number of years previously.

Nuneham House front circa 1907
Undated postcard published by Taunt's Photographs
Author's collection

Following the death of Sir William in 1904, Nuneham House passed to his newly married son the 1st Viscount Harcourt, Lewis Vernon Harcourt and finally to his son William Edward Harcourt, the 2nd Viscount Harcourt. Whilst under the ownership of William Harcourt, Nuneham House was requisitioned by the RAF in 1942 for use as a P.R.I.U. (Photographic reconnaissance interpretation unit) being known as RAF Nuneham Park. This continued until 1957 when all the buildings and roadways that had been added during that time were removed and the estate handed back to the Harcourt family. It was then sold to the University of Oxford who leased the house to a number of different tenants. One of whom, Rothmans International, undertook a programme of complete restoration and renovation during 1978/9, with a start also being made to return the gardens to their former glory. The whole estate was eventually put up for sale in September 2016. The Harcourt Arboretum, part of the tree and plant collection of the University of Oxford Botanic Garden, occupies part of what were the grounds of Nuneham House and remains in University ownership.

Whilst almost fifty years have elapsed between the publication of the coloured print above and this postcard, believed to have been photographed in 1907, very little seems to have changed. Even the trees to either side look remarkably similar but the one behind the main house has disappeared. Could it have been added by the artist to form a more pleasing composition or did something happen to it, we will never know.

In June of 1841 Queen Victoria joined Prince Albert for the first of several visits to Nuneham House, and wrote whilst there to her uncle the King of Belgium that ...This is a most lovely place; pleasure grounds in the style of Claremont, only much larger, and with the Thames winding along beneath them, and Oxford in the distance; a beautiful flower garden and kitchen garden, and all kept up in perfect order... Prince Albert was visiting Oxford for the award of an honorary degree which was conferred by the Duke of Wellington who was chancellor of the university.

Busy river traffic at Lock Cottage
Postcard published by Savage, Carfax Oxford
Author's collection

Lock Cottage and bridge

Whilst Nuneham Park was not generally open to the public, this part of the grounds on the bank of the river was a favourite place for picnics and river jaunts, with parties being allowed to land on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the season. Salter's steamers ran scheduled services from Oxford at the time. This undated postcard shows a very busy scene with pleasure boats large and small congregating near Lock Cottage which served teas to the visitors. The ornate bridge links Nuneham Park with a small island.

Siting of the station

When Culham station was opened in 1844 it was originally called 'Abingdon Road'. This makes sense as it was at the place where the GWR branch line from Didcot to Oxford intersected the main road to Abingdon and so was the closest it could get to serve the town at the time. It is however about three miles from Abingdon and lies between the villages of Culham and Clifton Hampden with nothing other than a few cottages and farms nearby. The Railway Hotel (as it was first called) followed just a couple of years later. The station was the closest convenient point on the railway network to Nuneham House, and as such would be ideal for travelling to and from London, however, things could have been very different for the station.

Just South of the station the railway crosses over the Thames which makes a big loop West through Abingdon. It crosses once more as the river turns back East before turning North again towards Oxford. Other than where it crosses the Abingdon road and the narrow Thame Lane, which it does in a deep cutting, the railway passes through open countryside. A mile or so away to the North East of the station lies Nuneham House and Park.

Members of the Harcourt family served in Government variously as MPs (both Liberal and Conservative), Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and a Secretary of State, and featured prominently in other walks of life too. It is not known whether Brunel was a guest at Nuneham House on other occasions, but during a visit in the August of 1843 the subject of the siting of the station was raised by Archbishop Harcourt. The outcome was that he, and his family, expressed a preference for the station to be sited where the railway crossed Thame Lane, close to the Abingdon Lodge rather than on the more distant Abingdon to Dorchester turnpike. Brunel expressed indifference to either siting, and in a letter to the Company solicitor he wrote ... Can you advise the Company that they are under no obligation to any body which can prevent them placing the Culham Station on the Nuneham road instead of the Dorchester Road ... but, for whatever reason, the station was built on the turnpike road. It is possible that the level site was deemed more suitable. It is also interesting to note that, with the exception of road bridges, the buildings at this station were the only brick structures on the line when it opened. Both Oxford and Didcot, together with the very short lived station at Appleford, were all timber built. This may be conjecture, but accounts do suggest at least that the brickwork and original green paint scheme of the station buildings was subject to external influence. Certainly the Harcourts were very influential in the area at the time and, whilst the railway doesn't actually enter the Park, the family may well have regarded it as being 'their' station.

Alice in Wonderland

Nuneham Park served as the setting for several chapters of Through The Looking Glass by Revd. Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll. Alice Liddell (the real Alice) recalled in 1932, at the age of 80, that one of her ...favourite whole-day excursions was to row down to Nuneham, and picnic in the woods there where Carroll would sometimes tell stories after luncheon that transported us into Fairyland.

One such excursion to Nuneham, on June 25th 1863, which ended up at Abingdon Road station (as it was then) was recorded by Dodgson. About 10 o'clock Alice and Edith came over to my rooms to fetch me over to arrange about an expedition to Nuneham. It ended in our going down at 3, a party of ten. We had our tea under the trees at Nuneham, after which the rest drove home in the carriage - while Ina, Alice, Edith and I (mirabile dictu!) [literally 'wonderful to relate' a phrase he apparently used often] walked down to Abingdon-road station, and so home by railway: a pleasant expedition, with a very pleasant conclusion. Rather than row back, as they normally did, Carroll was permitted for the first and only time to travel back on the train alone with the three girls. Alice's mother, however, was far from happy, and his company was not encouraged for almost six months. That excursion turned out to be the last that he ever took with the girls. Strangely, the pages for the next day or two were removed from his diary. There can be no doubt, however, that over the eight summers from 1856 to 1863 their river trips to Nuneham and Godstow provided the inspiration for many of Carroll’s stories.